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William Greaves's Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (1968) is one of those experimental films that covers a few bases on the playing field of its time, yet ends up more intriguing in theory than in practice. As its title implies, it sprawls off in several directions, less concerned with coherence than with process. Product of the ferment-filled '60s, with the era's outward-spiraling energies, its triple-barreled verite style is set up as a documentary about a documentary about a documentary. One film crew focuses on the dynamics of actors auditioning for the roles of a couple whose relationship is at the breaking point. Another crew focuses on the filming of their scene. The third crew focuses on filming the second crew, plus anything else in the film's Central Park locale - a woman on horseback, a panhandler. Before long, a big rock that has been sitting inert for millennia seems one of the dramatis personae, too.
With triply-split screens often reminding us of its tri-level delivery system, it opens with a quarrel between the couple, with the woman questioning the man's sexuality, then just keeps opening and opening, as the camera filming them itself becomes the subject of the third camera. Before long, chaos ensues from the deliberate directionlessness, and catalyzes the actors and crew. Floundering amid the absence of esthetic and artistic imperatives, disoriented by the vagueness of what's being delivered and how, discussions arise about what the film should be and how it should proceed. Could it be a sly comment on its times that artistic bafflement soon gives way to political action? Or on the limitations of the collective esthetic so ascendant at the time? Or perhaps a comment on the concept of fabrication via a sort of cubist view of the object being fabricated?
When the frustrated members of the company decide to take the film away from Greaves (who seems more amused than disturbed by the prospect), another question is added to the mix. Who owns the film, in terms of authorship - assuming the word applies in an enterprise that increasingly seems a very slow race to entropy? The takeover attempt seems the most staged element of all and the journey to (and from) it seems very Cassavetes, very Godard, very Robert Frank as the '60s ethic kicks in.
Not that the action does much to free Symbiopsychotaxiplasm from its own inertia, its own sense of orbiting its own navel in ever-decreasing circles. Throughout, there's no sign of Greaves defeating the film's unswerving open-endedness by attempting to grab the reins. In fact, one increasingly suspects that his intention was to refuse to grab them, to just step back and see where the absence of the usual esthetic imperative would lead the actors and crew, filming them all the while, hoping that some spark would be struck. Not many are. If anything, the film, which anticipates a lot of other navel-contemplating fiction and painting of the Vietnam era and beyond, seems an object lesson in the limits of self-reflexiveness.
The only thing that saves Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One from a total implosion into nothingness is the emergence, like daisies through rubble, of a certain tongue-in-cheek humor, not the least of which is a certain impish vibe emanating from the otherwise enigmatic Greaves, answering questions with other questions, ever the obfuscator, as if he's not about to lift the company from its rudderlessness by issuing anything like a direction. In his net shirt and different-drummer aura, he suggests a cross between Yoda in Central Park and a sort of film school Wizard of Oz.
As Greaves - a born New Yorker who worked in Canada, then returned to go on to a long career making documentaries and establishing himself as a pioneer of African-American themes -- seems to enjoy his own overthrow here, we're reminded that '60s anarchy had its playful and compensatingly joyous side, even if it seems to amount to pre-schoolers seizing a playground sandbox. The problem in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One isn't that risks aren't being taken; it's that the bets seem so small. It certainly couldn't be described as a love-in, with its will to contentiousness. Nor, considering the vacuum upon vacuum it strings together, a be-in or even a happening. Maybe it illustrates the hazards of deconstructing something before you've constructed it. Greaves conceived it as a cycle of four or five films. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the film is that it did yield a sequel, consisting of unused 1968 footage and follow-up bits added in 2005. One detects in its title the same likable mischievous impulse of the first time around. It's called Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1/2 (2005), echoing The Naked Gun 2 (1991).
Producer: William Greaves
Director: William Greaves
Screenplay: William Greaves
Cinematography: Stevan Larner, Terry Filgate
Film Editing: William Greaves
Cast: Patricia Ree Gilbert (Herself/Alice), Don Fellows (Himself/Freddie), Bob Rosen, Susan Anspach (Herself/Alice), Jonathan Gordon, William Greaves, Bob Rosen, Miles Davis (uncredited), Audrey Heningham (Black Lady clapping her Hands, uncredited)
BW & C-70m.
by Jay Carr