The new documentary: ‘Utopia’ climbs off the screen, into the theater

Sam Green performs his film. ()
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In his 1516 book Utopia, Sir Thomas More described the approach to the mythic island of Utopia as being "occasioned by rocks on the one hand, and shallows on the other… The channel is known only to the natives, so that if any stranger should enter into the bay, without one of their pilots, he would run great danger of shipwreck."

Contemporary attempts to find utopia are just as difficult to judge from Utopia in Four Movements, a hybrid of documentary and live performance that comes to The Kitchen for a three night run starting tonight. Directed by Sam Green, co-director of The Weather Underground, a 2004 Academy Award nominated documentary, and with music by Dave Cerf, Utopia offers four seemingly disparate takes on the same theme, while finding surprising points of connection among them.

Green cites Errol Morris' 1997 tetraptych Fast, Cheap & Out of Control, as well as Guy Maddin's 2006 experiment, Brand Upon the Brain!, which featured a live narrator, orchestra and foley artists, among his influences, but a less artful childhood experience also inspired him. "When I was a kid, I lived in Michigan, in a college town, and my grandmother used to bring me to these things called travelogs, which were maybe big in the '50s, '60s, '70s," Green recalled on a rainy morning earlier this week at Le Pain Quotidien in Noho.

"There were professional travelog presenters, and they'd go to Europe or somewhere and show movies and talk about them," he said.

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The communal table, the café chain's own version of a utopian experiment, was noticeably empty as Green spoke about his project's origins and its New York run, which will feature Brendan Canty, drummer of iconic '80s and '90s D.C. rock outfit Fugazi, joining the Quavers, the Utopia house band.

Shot all over the world, the film includes segments that take place in Cuba, Japan, New York, Bosnia, and Dongguan, China, home of the New South China Mall, the world's largest and possibly least successful shopping center. What ties these segments together, according to the director, is a concept that was on many people's mind in 2008, but feels very distant in the second year of a recession, the ninth year of combat in Afghanistan, and with another ugly, contentious election season upon us: Hope.

"To me, 'utopia' is a slippery word," Green said. "What I like about it isn't utopian communities, but more, it's a shorthand for imagination and hope for the future."

Based in San Francisco, the 44-year-director said he's been spending more time in New York lately, but it's fitting that his movie was born in the Bay Area, home to many attempts at utopia, whether in the Gold Rush, the Summer of Love, or the Silicon Valley tech boom.

Then again, the Bay Area has also been the repeated site of utopia's dark twin, dystopia: 3,000 people killed in the Great Earthquake of 1906; the Rolling Stones' ill-fated concert at Altamont Raceway (originally planned for Golden Gate Park); the headquarters of Facebook, less than an hour east in Palo Alto.

Even though he's currently residing in Manhattan, Green spoke with great fondness of his adopted hometown. "It was the end of the line, a place to go reinvent yourself," Green said. "The [California] state motto is my favorite state motto. Saatchi & Saatchi couldn't come up with anything better: 'Eureka!'—I've found it. If a person is looking for something, it's there. That spirit still infuses the place."

The film grew out of a short he made about the history of Esperanto, the supposedly "neutral" language created in the late 1800s to bring about world peace. Green screened that film with live narration at the second installment of Pop-Up Magazine, a live magazine performance series started in San Francisco in April 2009.

Since then, Green and his collaborator, Cerf, have taken the full four-part version of Utopia out on the road, playing to crowds of as many as 750 people at the San Francisco International Film Festival and as few as 25 in a community center in Yellowknife, Canada, with stops at the Sundance Film Festival along the way. (Green joked that he and Cerf have a contract rider prohibiting venues from billing them as Sam & Dave.)

Each screening is slightly different, with Green and Cerf tweaking the narration and music, allowing for ad-libs and unexpected moments. At one Sundance screening, an audience member asked Green a question in the middle of his spiel. At several screenings, Esperanto speakers have heckled William Shatner's bad pronunciation in a clip from Incubus, an Esperanto-language film (really) from 1966.

They've also jettisoned some experimental elements, like having a live performer prance around dressed as a Teletubby during the China segment. "It was a terrible idea," Green said with a laugh. "We thought they'd be charmed, but they were just disturbed," Green said of his audience.

Onstage Green doesn't have the benefit of hiding behind a Teletubby costume as he delivers the movie's narration from memory. He claims to have had no designs on being a performer before this project, and experiences terror before each show. "Just nervous, nervous, nervous," was how he described his pre-show jitters. "But it's funny, 'cause once it starts, I'm fine." (He also called himself "on some level a secret ham.")

Catching his performance at Sundance, The Hollywood Reporter's Kirk Honeycutt blogged that, "Bringing together movies and still images with a live narrator and music rather than disembodied voices and instruments is exciting. It makes the whole movie experience more communal than ever." Variety's Robert Koehler was less generous, writing that Utopia "falls several degrees short of the profound, potentially life-altering experience that was clearly intended."

It was unclear whether Green intended to alter lives this week at the Kitchen, but after a while, he found himself musing that with or without his film, the idea of utopia was once again in the air.

"There was a moment two years ago with the election when there was this kind of outpouring of exuberant hope. And that burned off pretty quick. But what I take from that is that people want to be hopeful, that they need to be hopeful these days."

"The world is tough," he continued. "I like the idea of utopia."