Great Expectations

My friend Charlie tells me that the secret to a happy life is not to let your expectations grow beyond reason. If you have high expectations, you are doomed to disappointment. If you don’t, you will often be pleasantly surprised.

I’m not sure I buy this as a philosophy of life, but thought about yesterday.

The annual Silverdocs festival of documentary films is ending today at the American Film Institute Theater in Silver Spring. Although dozens of new films are shown, we only got to one, a film created by Sam Green, the son of a friend of my wife’s. The film (if indeed it is a film, but more about that below) is titled “Utopia in Four Movements”. Green’s previous documentary on the 60’s radical group, the Weathermen, was nominated for an Academy Award. My expectations were high.

First, “Utopia” is not really a film – it is a presentation of stills and very short archival videos, with live narrative by Green, three live musicians playing original works by David Cerf, and a recorded sound mix. So, it is more of a lecture on Utopias than a movie about Utopias, a lecture with accompanying visuals. And, as a lecture, it is not particularly enlightening.

Green suggests that the turn of the 20th century saw the development of utopian movements on a greater scale than earlier, and he focuses on the invention of Esperanto as a universal language, the creation of the shopping center as an answer to (not a contribution to) suburban sprawl, the long life of Cuba as a failed (for the most part) utopian society, and a foreshortened piece about mass burials and the attempt to give victims individual re-burial by a group called forensic anthropologists.

The pieces are fairly uneven. The best is the piece on Esperanto, as a movement to end dissension by ending linguistic differentiation, although as an influential movement, it is and has been quite limited. The shopping center segment, concentrating on architect and planner Victor Gruen, who at the end of his life recanted his sins and accused the developer world of holding on only to the harmful aspects of his shopping center/community center concept, provides some interesting footage (particularly of the new and very unsuccessful Guangzhou center, the largest in the world), but is generally unsatisfying as an overview of the subject. The Cuban segment focuses on an American woman, who fled the American judicial system almost 30 years ago – what is the potential Utopia being discussed? Is it Cuba, or this particular American lady? As to the final segment, on digging up unknown victims, the only connection seems to be that the perpetrators of these killings (largely unnamed) each had in their minds reaching their own definition of Utopia.

While the mixed media aspect of “Utopia” is put forth as innovative, I don’t think that it really is. This was a lecture with visuals, as I have said. And these have been around for more than a century, and with more professional and interesting lectures. Pick, for example, any of the many lectures sponsored by the Smithsonian Resident Associates program in Washington, and you will see what I mean.

From Silver Spring, we went to Northeast Washington to have supper at a new Ethiopian restaurant, Ethiopic, at 4th and H Street, NE. A very airy and attractive restaurant, it has received very strong reviews, so again my expectations were quite high.

We are no stranger to Ethiopian food, and have eaten (many times) at a significant number of the many, many Ethiopian restaurants in Washington. When we were served some delicious whole grain bread and olive oil at Ethiopic (itself, rare in Ethiopian restaurants) and our delicious cold spicy lentil salad as an appetizer, we thought we had found quite a place. But our shared vegetarian platter, with seven different warm vegetarian dishes plus a chopped tomato salad, was a disappointment. We have had this dish (of course, with individual variations as to the particular recipes) at each of the restaurants we have patronized, and Ethiopic’s version was nowhere near the best – the textures were a little too mushy on the whole (overcooking?), and the flavors too understated (the dish did not have the usual balance of mild and spicy flavors). I don’t think we will return.

So, having been disappointed twice in one day (and thinking about Charlie), we went to see the Theatre Alliance production of “Gretty Good Time” by the late John Belluso, the story of a 30 year old polio victim living in a nursing home without hope for a future, her real life relationship with her doctor, and her imaginary relationship with one of the Hiroshima Maidens, one of the 25 women injured in the atomic blast who were eventually brought to the United States for medical treatment.

The play, written by a now deceased disabled playwright, was extremely well performed and brought up important questions of medical ethics, health care policy, and most importantly the psychology of persons facing years and years of disability and limitation. Not a perfect play, to be sure, but one worth seeing, and thinking about. It more than met my less than high expectations.

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