Director: William Greaves
Screenplay: William Greaves
Starring: Patricia Ree Gilbert, Don Fellows, Jonathan Gordon, Bob Rosen, William Greaves, Audrey Heningham, Shannon Baker, Marcia Karp, Ndeye Ade Sokhna, Steve Buscemi
Running Time: 75 / 99 min
Year: 1968 / 2005
William Greaves initially studied science and dance before someone suggested he go for a part in a production by the American Negro Theatre. He did and received great critical praise for his work. The ANT was where greats like Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte started out too and the experience set Greaves onto a promising career as an actor. He later went on to join the Actors Studio, where more luminaries were being born. After appearing in a few films he grew interested in making them himself though, particularly documentaries, so decided to turn his hand to directing instead.
This was a surprise to many as he’d received a certain level of acclaim and fame as an actor but decided to become a documentarian, which at the time wasn’t lucrative or prestigious. Greaves wasn’t happy with the sort of roles around for black actors at the time though and was more interested in activism and social issues. He tried to get a scholarship to study at the National Film Board of Canada to learn the art of filmmaking but was turned down. Undeterred, he moved to Canada anyway and took on odd jobs to pay his way to do the course.
Greaves found life freer in Canada so stayed for a while and produced a number of films there, but came back after 11 years when he saw things were changing in America with the civil rights movement. With the experience he gained over the border, he got hired by both the United Nations and the film division of the United States Information Agency (USIA) to make documentaries and went on from there, later moving on to producing the influential ‘Black Journal’ TV series, which helped launch the career of some great filmmakers.
During this time, Greaves was asked by a student of his what his dream project would be and Greaves described his idea for Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. Greaves lamented that he’d never have the money to make it but the student said he’d be happy to fund anything the director made. So, Greaves disappeared from his job making Black Journal for a short while and returned with Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. Unfortunately, the unusual experimental film proved too puzzling for distributors at the time and it never got picked up for a release or even hit festivals during the period. So Greaves put the film on the shelf and carried on with his documentary career as normal.
However, in 1991 Dara Meyers-Kingsley curated a retrospective of Greaves’ work and came across the title Symbiopsychotaxiplasm during her research. She asked Greaves about it, who said it’s an unusual film that no one seems to like, so is probably best ignored. Meyers-Kingsley insisted though and Greaves screened it for her. She was blown away and decided to use it to open the retrospective.
This retrospective screening helped Greaves and others re-evaluate the film too and word spread after it was shown, attracting the attention of Steven Soderbergh and Steve Buscemi. They helped the film finally get distributed and also found funding for a follow-up, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1/2, released in 2005.
The Criterion Collection are releasing both films together, in a set called Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes by William Greaves. Curious, I picked up a copy and my thoughts on both films follow. I figured I’d review them together as they fit so closely and even overlap in the first portion of the sequel.
For Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, Greaves assembled a crew and a small handful of actors and had them shoot the same scene various times, changing the actors occasionally (though for the most part, it focuses on Don Fellows and Patricia Ree Gilbert), as well as the style and setting. The crew had three cameras running at the same time, with one focusing largely on the actors, the other on the crew and the other on everyone.
So far, so ‘behind the scenes’, but Greaves and his crew add interesting layers. For one, whether intentionally or not, on set Greaves doesn’t seem to know what sort of film he’s trying to make, so his direction can be confusing, scattershot or uncertain. This causes the crew to sneak into an edit suite in the evenings with a couple of cameras, supposedly without Greaves’ knowledge, and shoot a discussion about the film, what they believe its purpose is and what the generally respected director is thinking.
It’s a fascinating experiment that seems, on paper, like a mess that couldn’t possibly sustain your interest, but ends up being really quite enjoyable. It’s occasionally very funny even, with the bickering that is captured between cast and crew, as well as in Greaves’ bewildering nature and in some of the characters that drift into the film that aren’t involved in the production.
Much needed conflict, to inject drama into the film, comes from various sources. For one, there’s Greaves’ seemingly poor direction riling up the crew. Then there’s the scene itself, which is being continually acted out. It’s purposely controversial, being an argument bringing up homosexuality and abortion, and is pretty trashily written, once again causing the crew to wonder why Greaves chose to repeat this scene over and over.
The open-ended, enigmatic nature of it all really keeps your brain ticking over too. There are so many different ways you can view the film. It can be enjoyed simply as a study in directing actors and how different approaches and casting can alter a scene/film dramatically. It could also be viewed as an examination of what is reality and what is performance. Greaves himself even states (in the sequel) that it was a metaphor for the Vietnam war. Overall then, it seems to be an attempt to explore various philosophies in one film. Greaves didn’t have the answers to the questions he wanted to pose though. He wanted the process to help answer them, or at least provoke further debate.
It truly is a one-of-a-kind film (well, other than the sequel perhaps). There were other experimental films made back in the 60s, but this is one of the few titles that’s still a lot of fun to watch and hasn’t dated at all.
The sequel, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1/2, is a curious twist in the tale. The first 35 minutes are made up of footage shot back in 1968 during the Take One production but not included in that film. It’s in a similar vein, showing Greaves and his crew shoot the same old scene, but the focus is on the actors Audrey Heningham and Shannon Baker, who only appear briefly in the first ‘Take’.
However, after this first 35 minutes, we break out into a screening of Take One, where Greaves and one of the original crew members give a Q&A to the audience. Following this, a new crew is assembled (including Steve Buscemi on one of the cameras) and they repeatedly shoot a new generic scene, featuring the now elderly Heningham and Baker. We also occasionally cut to the crew discussing the production, though this time around they’ve been asked to do so by Greaves. He still isn’t there though.
At first, once the crew started this new production, I felt it was an unnecessary attempt at recreating the magic of the previous film. However, as it moved on, it did bring on a personality of its own. The general ‘vibe’ is very different and this comes from the reason that everyone involved is aware of the past and what was created before, so the nature of the production is less puzzling. At first, I thought it neutered the film entirely but, actually, it causes some different debates and comments on the importance of context and history on watching and making films.
The scope in the second film did feel a little less wide to me though. It becomes more focussed on the art of performance than on the crew and production as a whole. In the final act, a psychodramatist (Marcia Karp) is brought on board to work with the cast and performs a bizarre workshop on the pair of actors, mirroring one of their performances whilst the other tries to act with both of them. It causes the emotions to really burst out in the performances and put the actors in a more intense frame of mind. It’s most exhilarating and again fascinating to watch.
So, though the sequel doesn’t seem as radical and playful as the first and can seem a little pointless at times when it explores similar avenues to its predecessor, it still provides an interesting examination of the craft of performance and the relationship between past and present.
Taken together then, the films are a unique treat. What they’re all about may not be clear but trying to figure this out is what keeps them so engaging. I thoroughly recommend anyone with an open mind to check the set out.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes by William Greaves is out on 14th December on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by The Criterion Collection. The picture quality is hard to rate as the first film was shot on 16mm in a ‘warts-and-all’ fashion and the second is shot on early digital technology in an equally rough style, so neither is going to test the limits of your home entertainment setup. The first looks pleasingly natural though and audio is as clear as it can be, given the nature of the recordings.
Special features include:
– High-definition digital transfers of both films, approved by director William Greaves, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray
– SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM TAKE ONE (1968 • 75 minutes • Color • Monaural • 1.33:1 aspect ratio)
– SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM TAKE 2½ (2005 • 99 minutes • Color • Monaural • 1.78:1 aspect ratio)
– Discovering William Greaves (2006), a documentary on the director’s career, featuring Greaves, his wife and co-producer Louise Archambault Greaves, actor Ruby Dee, filmmaker St. Clair Bourne, and film scholar Scott MacDonald
– Interview from 2006 with actor Steve Buscemi
– English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
– PLUS: An essay by critic Amy Taubin and production notes by William Greaves for Take One
It’s not a great deal of extra material on paper, but ‘Discovering William Greaves’ is just over an hour long so is fairly extensive and covers both Greaves’ career as a whole as well as focussing on the Symbiopsychotaxiplasm films for a good portion of the running time.
The Steve Buscemi interview is fairly interesting but not as essential as the other piece.
I wasn’t provided with a copy of the booklet to comment on that, unfortunately.