SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM TAKE ONE

Just what the heck is Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One? Is it a documentary or is it fiction? Or maybe it’s a pretentious mess masquerading as art or possibly the most unique experimental film of the late sixties. We’re talking about William Greaves’s rarely seen 1968 work which will air on TCM Underground on Friday, July 29 at 2 am ET and is currently available from the symbioCriterion Collection, thanks to the efforts of filmmakers Steven Soderbergh and Steve Buscemi who were so impressed with this one-of-a-kind collaboration that they helped Greaves’s produce his long-in-the-works sequel to it - Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2 1/2 - in 2005 (and which is also included on the Criterion disc).         

Until recently you would have had trouble finding a film buff who was familiar with William Greaves or his contributions to the cinema and only a few would have heard of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One simply because outside of a few select screenings in 1968 it was never distributed theatrically nor made available for the non-theatrical market (museums, universities or film societies). Yet Greaves is probably the least heralded African-American filmmaker still working today despite a long and impressive list of documentaries, beginning with his work for the National Film Board of Canada in the early fifties on up to his executive producer stint on PBS’s “Black Journal.” Among his more notable films are “Still a Brother: Inside the Negro Middle Class,” “Emergency Ward,” “Ali: The Fighter,” and “Ralph Bunce: An American Odyssey” which won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2001.

But even before he became a filmmaker he was an actor on the stage and later in independent films made specifically for black audiences such as “Sepia Cinderella,” “Miracle in Harlem,” and “Souls of Sin.” “Lost Boundaries,” a 1949 true-life drama based on a black family that passed for white in New Hampshire, is probably his best known film role as an actor and co-stars Mel Ferrer and Carleton Carpenter. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One, however, is an anomaly in his career and a fascinating one.

According to Greaves, he was given money by a producer who was impressed with his work and told to make anything he wanted. The result was a complete departure from his documentary work while still incorporating aspects of it including some stunning cinema verite moments before it became a fixture in the work of the Maysles Brothers (“Salesman” [1969]).

But what is it all about? Well, on the surface, it’s about a film crew shooting a fiction film about a bickering couple at a crisis point in their relationship. The anger and resentment between the two stems from a frustrated sexual relationship and real or imagined betrayals. The dialogue between them is harsh and ugly; it’s also banal at the most basic soap opera level, like a hack version of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.” It soon becomes apparent though that Greaves is well aware of the inferior nature of the script and is possibly using it to provoke his actors and crew to react to it in some way that will actually improve the work. Unbeknownst to Greaves during the filming, the crew were meeting secretly without him and recording their bitch sessions where they argued over the direction of the film and their responsibility for it – several of them were afraid Greaves had no clear idea of what he was doing and felt they needed to intervene. This, of course, was exactly what Greaves had hoped would happen and he was delighted when the crew presented him with this clandestine footage at the end of the shoot. He later admitted that Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One probably wouldn’t have worked without it.

But that’s just one aspect of the film. There is also the fact that three different pairs of actors appear as Alice and Freddie, one of whom is an interracial couple (played by Audrey Henningham and Shannon Baker) whose story is continued 35 years later with the same actors in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2 1/2. There is also a “musical” version of the same scenario – this is typical of Greaves’s anything-goes experimental technique – in which a young Susan Anspach (“Five Easy Pieces,” “Montenegro“) appears, singing Alice’s dialogue. The fine line between the “acting” scenes and the crew reacting to each other and the director – all of it shot in New York’s Central Park – is further blurred by yet another type of performance – the unplanned appearance of a homeless alcoholic in the park who wanders into the rehearsal, providing the perfect final curtain for Greaves’ project. greaves

The true meaning of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One remains a subject of debate but whether Greaves was just having a private joke at the expense of his crew and the audience I tend to agree with his own public statement about the film: “It is a free fall in space. We simply don’t know where we will land with this creative undertaking. It is a study of the creative process in action. Also, the film is Jazz! It is improvisation. It is an exploration into the future of cinema art.”

For me, it was an exhilarating experience that made me realize how rarely filmmakers experiment like this with the medium anymore and how audiences are so used to formulaic movies they would probably find Greaves’s non-linear narrative maddening, boring or just art house drivel. But Steven Soderbergh and Steve Buscemi were inspired by it and so was the audience that saw a rare screening of it at Sundance in 2001. And if you see it with an open mind, it might just inspire you too.

6 Responses SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM TAKE ONE
Posted By Matt : January 27, 2007 11:51 am

It gets better on a second viewing, especially trying to figure out if William Greaves is acting a part or being himself. At first he seems to be a hang loose kind of guy advocating do-your-own-thing to the cast and crew but in other scenes he seems to be cleverly manipulating everyone in a subtle passive aggressive way.

Posted By Matt : January 27, 2007 11:51 am

It gets better on a second viewing, especially trying to figure out if William Greaves is acting a part or being himself. At first he seems to be a hang loose kind of guy advocating do-your-own-thing to the cast and crew but in other scenes he seems to be cleverly manipulating everyone in a subtle passive aggressive way.

Posted By Millie V. : June 16, 2007 12:33 pm

I took a chance on this from Netflix and found it fascinating. I couldn't recommend it to friends of mine though who have much more conservative tastes in movies than me. I mean, if I can't describe the plot or what it's about in a sentence or two, you can see their eyes glaze over. Anyway, I love the concept behind this film and didn't find it pretentious at all.

Posted By Millie V. : June 16, 2007 12:33 pm

I took a chance on this from Netflix and found it fascinating. I couldn't recommend it to friends of mine though who have much more conservative tastes in movies than me. I mean, if I can't describe the plot or what it's about in a sentence or two, you can see their eyes glaze over. Anyway, I love the concept behind this film and didn't find it pretentious at all.

Posted By suzidoll : June 8, 2011 11:19 am

We showed this during the first session of Night School, our midnight movie series. It went over very well, and the person who introduced, Amy Boyd, did a great job setting it up for the audience. It made a great midnight movie.

Posted By suzidoll : June 8, 2011 11:19 am

We showed this during the first session of Night School, our midnight movie series. It went over very well, and the person who introduced, Amy Boyd, did a great job setting it up for the audience. It made a great midnight movie.

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

Streamline is the official blog of FilmStruck, a new subscription service that offers film aficionados a comprehensive library of films including an eclectic mix of contemporary and classic art house, indie, foreign and cult films.