6/15/12

"Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One" dir. William Greaves, 1968


As a young man, William Greaves went from being curious about science to being drawn to dance.  Symbiospychotaxiplasm: Take One is a film Greaves orchestrated in the Spring of 1968, and although it may be a radical shift away from the type of film he was commonly recognized for in his long career documenting the Civil Rights era and the icons of African-American culture, the film marks the completion of a through-line from those two early loves of a young intellectual from Harlem.

William Greaves in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One
1968 was the same year that the experimental tendencies of the French New Wave were colliding with the social unrest in the States over Viet Nam, sparking a new breed of American film that combined the spontaneity of Allen Kaprow's "Happenings," and a cinema verite sensibility that was beginning to blur the distinction between fiction and documentary.  One of the triumphs of this collision of influences is Haskell Wexler's Medium Cool, a film that echoes Greaves' film in a few significant ways.  Wexler was documenting the tumultuous protest that took place during the '68 Democratic National convention in Chicago, and sending his actors into the very real melee as a way to channel the energy and threat of the protests into his Godard-meets-McLuhan filmic essay.

Robert Forster in Medium Cool
Meanwhile, Greaves was creating a bit of controlled chaos in New York's Central Park, as he began an experiment inspired by the Heisenberg Principle, augmented from Arthur Bentley's idea of "Symbiotaxiplasm" from a book called Inquiries Into Inquiry: Essays in Social Theory, and centered around the practice of Stanislavski, as applied to some rather cheap and provocative dialogue.  The layers go pretty deep, for sure.   But, as with the best experiments, the joy of viewing Symbiospychotaxiplasm: Take One is not just hinged to ones knowledge of those disparate academic references.  Rather, what Greaves accomplishes is a film that is a free-flowing and mesmerizing improvised dance sparked by a precision catalyst:  Greaves himself.


The basic idea:  shoot a single scene of dialogue between two actors.  Every couple of days or so, replace the old actors with new actors.  Camera 1 is dedicated to capturing the actors work (or their "screen test," as Greaves sometimes calls it), which revolves around a scripted conflict that involves a married couple and their increasing lack of sex, frustration over the woman's multiple abortions, and the man's probable homosexuality.  If that dramatic conflict sounds a bit stale, it's important to note that it's not the real central drama of the film, and that everyone involved, including Greaves, seems to find the dialogue repetitive, banal, and just plain terrible.


Camera 2 has a different agenda:  to shoot the actors and Greaves.  Having been a star in the black cinema of the 40's and 50's, and having studied with Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner in the famed Actor's Studio in New York, Greaves knows a thing or two about acting.  What's interesting about his "performance" in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is the way in which he "plays" at being a director, often to the crews dismay.  The crew eventually begin to recognize that once the camera rolls Greaves seems to take on the "character" of a director who, when asked questions about the direction of the film, offers cryptic answers that leave them wishing they had never bothered to ask.  Ultimately, part of what is so fascinating about Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is the question of Greaves performance, which may be one of the few examples of "performative directing" taken to this extent (at least since Dziga Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera).  Or, is it?  Taken by itself, the film isn't interested in definitively answering that question, and Greaves' portrayal of himself from an editing perspective is certainly not self-agrandizing, but rather follows the rhythms established by the multiple strands of action in a way that leaves the question of his ultimate control open.  The real dramatic center of Take One has little to do with the script, but with the question of Greaves himself.


Camera 3:  capture the entire movement of the crew--including Greaves, the actors, the camera men, sound technicians, etc.--as well as any other interesting or stimulating movement that happens to go down in Central Park, particularly if it relates to sexuality in any way.  Woman with large tits on a horse:  shoot it.  Shirtless guy rowing a boat:  shoot it.  A couple gently passing their baby between one another:  shoot it.

 


In order to contain all of this, Greaves sometimes splits the screen into two simultaneous takes, sometimes three, and ultimately has little regard for linearity.  The "story" at the center is hardly the point of the film, but rather the processing of a drama observed...and the observation of that drama being observed.  In a couple of instances in the film, Greaves is asked what the name of the film is, to which he replies "Over the Cliff," though he gives no assurance that the title will be the same once its completed.  I have to think, given Greaves background in the theater, that "Over the Cliff" is possibly a sly reference to "Mixing It Up," the title of the non-existent play at the center of Luigi Pirandello's seminal work of meta-theater, Six Characters in Search of an Author.  In Pirandello's play, there is a similar "3 level" structure to the piece, but where Six Characters is a fully scripted work, what Greaves is aiming to capture is what arises naturally, possibly from the scripted center, but also potentially from any other part of the process, or the ceaseless Reichian energy of Central Park.  In a few glimpsed moments, it seems clear that Greaves is not really sure whether or not the experiment is working, but given the profound nature of the final product it's hard to imagine that he was anything other than consistently three steps ahead of everyone involved.  Even when sound technician Jonathan Gordon cops to Greaves that he didn't read the synopsis of the film provided for everyone, it seems that Greaves expected as much (and was maybe even counting on it?)  Ultimately, it took many years for Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One to emerge as a significant part of Greaves' filmography, and the enthusiasm of Steven Soderbergh to get the film released properly.  Once the film was screened in a Greaves retrospective, the response to the film was so overwhelming that it spawned Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 + 1/2 in 2005 (available in tandem with the original via Criterion), which included some of the same actors who appeared in the first film, as well as Steve Buscemi as part of the camera crew.  Although Greaves had intended for the first film to be the beginning of a series of "Takes," Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One seems to survive best on its own.  Take 2 + 1/2 will prove interesting for those taken with Take One, but is unfortunately a weaker and somewhat unnecessary film, not nearly as expressive of the time in which it was created, and a reminder that Take One was perhaps the sort of "trick" you can't really play twice.

Buscemi and Greaves - Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 + 1/2 
Take One inspires that unique sense of awe, that ecstatic energy that doesn't come along often in film, particularly for something that might easily be shrugged off as an experimental gimmick (as Greaves seemed to consider it after its completion).  This is partly due to the fact that the experiment works, and in ways that Greaves himself could have never foretold.  For instance, one of the most exciting and unexpected moments in Take One (and I guess this is where a "Spoiler Alert" would be placed for what is, essentially, a plot-less film) is when the crew of the film "hijacks" the picture a few days into the shoot, meeting covertly in an attempt to unpack just what the hell is going on.  The discussion takes place, so they tell us, without Greaves' knowledge, and is mostly led by the films producer, Robert Rosen, and Jonathan Gordon.

Robert Rosen
Jonathan Gordon
Although Rosen and Gordon acknowledge the fact that we, the audience, have no idea whether or not this "hijacking" is real, it is surely genuine.  Also, its rife with the spirit of inquiry and mutiny associated with the late 60's in a way that, in comparison, make other efforts from that era that tried to capture the same essence seem false (the musical Hair, for example; but even Easy Rider in the way it became a sort of fixed, iconic representation in the decades that followed).  So, on one level, the thrill of actually witnessing the democratic uprising of the masses (the crew) against their oppressor (Greaves, and, to a certain extent, the actors), is not only captivating in its spontaneity, but also elevates the film to another level of insight and allegory, and Greaves himself to a level of genius, as the "actors" within his film speculate that the intent all along might have been for them to steal the movie away.  Others want to simply vent--"He doesn't know how to direct"--but Gordon keeps pushing at the idea that they are perhaps what this film is really about.  It's difficult to tell who's convinced by the theory, and eventually Rosen caps one of the meetings with the perfect compliment to Greaves:  "Nobody would come up with such a crazy idea for a film!"  


Not long after this, Greaves addresses the possibility of creative mutiny as he and Gordon discuss among the other participants that anyone is free at any time to take the reigns of the film and turn it into whatever they want.  It's this sequence that struck me the most this time around, particularly in the way it reveals the climate of the sexual revolution, and the suppression of language unique to that time.  Gordon's emphatic rant about the lame dialogue between the couple ("Freddy" and "Alice," most likely a take on Albee's "George" and "Martha" in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolfe?) represents another small revolt, as he shouts:  "Enough with the euphemisms!"  Gordon's insistence that the rawness of words is essential in the expression of the scene is then echoed in a naturally occurring scene that is the coda of the film, an encounter with a homeless man named Victor who lives in the park.  But, what's most interesting about the encounter with Victor is that the film seems to finally reach an organic moment of synthesis, as the film makers settle long enough to allow Victor to become the center of the film.  The film is once again charged with spontaneity here, as the actors are re-positioned to the "second level" of the film, and concede to the dominant personality of the moment.  In one of my favorite moments, the actor who has been playing "Alice" reacts to Victor's rant in a way that is more honest and expressive than any moment she's had all day as an actor at the center of the action.  Once again, the dramatic conflict does not reside in the script itself, but in the symbiotic shift of this moving, thinking, reacting organism that Greaves has set into motion. 



Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One sits alongside some of the great experimental jewels of the late 60's/early 70's, like Robert Downey's Putney Swope, Milton Moses Ginsberg's Coming Apart, Peter Watkins' Punishment Park, and Wexler's Medium Cool.  To return to Medium Cool, there's a scene where TV cameraman John Casselis (Robert Forster) is paged to go on an assignment in a predominantly black neighborhood in Chicago to cover a story about a cab driver who found a large sum of money and returned it to the police.  In that scene, Casselis is confronted by the family of the man who found the wallet, and interrogated about the lack of representation of blacks in the media.  At one point, Wexler allows the camera to shift into a direct address mode, allows the black actors in the film to speak directly to the audience, abandoning the conflict between Forster and the characters and re-establishing it as a conflict between the black community and the audience. To this day, the scene is arresting, and unfortunately still conveys a pretty righteous truth.   But, in contrast, its interesting to me that Wexler (a white director) was channeling the rage of the black community through the overtly confrontational tactics of cinema verite, yet Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One seems even a touch more revolutionary in its decidedly laid back approach to subverting the cultural norms of the time, particularly in regards to race.  In other words, Greaves is aware of his "role" on yet another level:  that of a black film maker in the late sixties.  Though it may be easy for younger viewers to lose sight of today, Greaves presence at the helm of Take One is a unique revolution in its own right, powerfully subversive, especially since the expectation of black film makers at that time tended to segregate their focus (and it should be noted that Greaves historical documentary work focusing on influential African-American figures, which comprises the majority of his directorial work, pre-dates what has become known as a the "Ken Burns" style of historical film making).


Symbiospychotaxiplasm: Take One is not only an unprecedented work in the cannon of African-American film, but an essential part of the experimental film cannon, as well; two worlds that don't often overlap.  In Greaves worldview, there are invisible lines of inter-connectedness that bind the consequences of our actions, or lack of action, to one another.  One of those lines leads straight through Chicago, from D.W. Griffith to Haskell Wexler to the inauguration of Barack Obama.  Criss-crossing that line is one that leads from Oscar Mischeaux to Greaves himself, and on to the film maker who has perhaps most adamantly taken up the conversation that Greaves began with Take One, Spike Lee.  Though Lee hasn't yet made anything as purely experimental as Take One, his commentary on the prejudices of the film business echo the move Greaves made with Take One.  Actually, given Lee's occasional shortcomings with story, it may be the right time for him to attempt an experimental feature.  But, as much as I'd love to see that film, just having Take One out in the world is reassurance enough that someone will take up the thread of Greaves subtle revolution.    
  
















6/7/12

"Wings" dir. William A. Wellman, 1927

William A. Wellman's romantic WWI epic Wings is most frequently noted for being the first Academy Award winner for "Best Picture, Production" as well as one of the great final films of the silent era.  The new DVD released on the 100th anniversary of Paramount studios presents the film in a newly mastered transfer that looks superb, and also includes a newly recorded score and sound effects track, as well as a brief documentary on the making and legacy of the film.  Looking back at the film now, it's clear that although its accomplishments as a technical feat are astonishing, it fails to inspire the repeatability of the visionary work that came out of that same period, especially in the same year that gave us two masterpieces by German directors, Fritz Lang's Metropolis and F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.  Admittedly, I bring this assessment to the film as someone who has never been crazy about war epics, and is more likely to get excited by brief experimentation than long form narrative.  But, what interests me most about Wings is how it's exemplary of an American combination of storytelling and flag waving that is still with us today, particularly in a year that has already given us the release of recruitment-as-entertainment films like Act of Valor, Red Tails, and Battleship.  While Wings is certainly not the beginning of using the cinema as a place to condition young audience members toward enlistment and amplify nationalistic fervor in audiences of all ages, it certainly falls into the cannon of that cinema, and serves as a reflection of what an indelible mark its template has left on modern movies.

Wings (1927)
Battleship (2012)
William "Wild Bill" Wellman was a director who came right out of the Army Air Corps, and by all accounts had served in the French Foreign Legion and lived the life of a daredevil pilot by the time he directed Wings.  He then proceeded to make films in a number of different genres for decades, working with everyone from James Cagney to John Wayne. His films have a far reaching influence, reflected most directly in recent works such as Steven Spielberg's Warhorse (2011) and Martin Scorsese's The Aviator (2004), with the later chronicling Howard Hughes' production of Hell's Angels (1930), a film that began production with the aim to top what Wellman had done in terms of airborne cinematography with Wings.  And, it does, which is no surprise since, as we now know, to call Hughes driven and well funded is a bit of an understatement.  But, unlike Wellman, Hell's Angels is nearly unbearable in its grounded, dramatic segments (for a closer examination and appreciation of Hell's Angels, read Marilyn Ferdinand here);  still, the German Zeppelin scene alone is well worth the price of admission, and still delivers a chill as the soldiers jettison themselves into the dark opening of the Zeppelin floor one by one to lighten the load.

Hell's Angels
Wings is also packing some terrific and tense action, with the final chase sequence providing an undeniably engaging bit of drama, as our hero Jack (Charles "Buddy" Rogers) unknowingly pursues his friend and fellow soldier David (Richard Arlen) who has stolen a German plane as a means of escape.  The drama on the ground in Wings is also benefited by the presence of girl next door Mary Preston ("IT" Girl Clara Bow), who of course joins the Army because, as the title card tells us, "Youth answered the call!"...but, mostly because she will stop at nothing to someday win Jack's affections.  Jack, of course, is in love with David's girl Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), which provides the central romantic entanglement of Wings (though a few moments between Jack and David have inspired readings that place the real romantic tension elsewhere).  All of this holds together as well as can be expected, but leads to a pretty predictable resolution.  Though Jack ultimately experiences a horrific turn of events due to the war that would most likely leave some psychological scars in reality, its all shrugged off with a kiss, and bolstered by an appearance earlier in the film by a young Gary Cooper as a seasoned fighter pilot whose shockingly brief character arc serves as a lesson of how fleeting life is during wartime.

Richard Arlen and Gary Cooper in Wings
The character relationships and depiction of war in Wings are surely informed by a film maker who was reaching the end of a prolific career in the late 20's, D.W. Griffith.  The influence of the Biograph one-reelers that Griffith had been making unceasingly since the mid-Aughts, and then the explosion of his war epic The Birth of a Nation in 1915 are difficult to ignore when talking about the films of this period, particularly war films.  Griffith's films are an essential and ethically complex part of film history, and the traces of their influence seem to recur with great frequency, not only in relation to silent cinema, but to American movies in general.  When I began studying films, and saw some of my first Griffith/Biograph pictures, along with a number of other silent era staples, I now realize that I developed a way to read those films that set them apart from the "modern" movies I was experiencing at that time, and held them to a somewhat different standard.  After teaching Griffith (always to at least a handful of students who seemed immediately anesthetized), I now find it impossible to set those works apart from the cinema of today (even though, in some cases, I probably like watching Griffith less than some of those students).  The Birth of a Nation and Wings are two huge roots in a very old tree, and carry a similar historical weight, though in comparison to the overt racism of Birth (adapted from a book titled The Clansman), Wings could be seen as progressive in some of its choices and characterizations of the war, as in the "furlough from Death" Parisian nightclub sequence, where those with quick eyes might glimpse a romantic touch between a lesbian couple in one of the films more artful tracking shots.

D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation
Griffith also seems relevant here in the precedence he established for mass distribution of films, and the political sentiments that came with them.  Once The Birth of a Nation hits theaters like the Biograph in Chicago, spooling out again and again to controversial screenings that were sometimes shut down by police officials for the potential to incite racial tensions, the long arc of the potential for movies to bear the weight of history and influence public sentiment begins.  This arc continues through the pictures of Wellman, Howard Hawks, John Ford, Sam Fuller, Stanley Kubrick, Clint Eastwood, Oliver Stone and Steven Speilberg, to name but a few.  With varying degrees of cultural sensitivity and controversy, these directors crafted a conversation of American militancy that continues to shape our national identity.  Though Wings is not without its recognition of the horrors of war, it is a far cry from the way in which WWII vet Sam Fuller would bear the realities of racial tension and treatment of POW's in 1951's The Steel Helmet, or Stanley Kubrick's anti-war sentiment in 1957's Paths of Glory.  The war film re-emerges post-Viet Nam with Coppola's Apocalyspe Now in 1979, Brando's Colonel Kurtz perhaps completing the narrative begun by Cooper's Cadet White in Wings, having been stripped of his illusions about war, pessimistically dismissing Arlen's lucky bear charm as useless superstition.

Kirk Douglas in Paths of Glory
Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now
But the "Film School Generation" not only produces Coppola's legendary production, but also the less critical and more classroom friendly variations of war in the works of Steven Speilberg, which spans the cartoonish Nazi depictions in the "Indiana Jones" series to the critically untouchable sappiness of Schindler's List.  In the age of Speilberg, the historical war film enters the classroom, although in my experience it was never accompanied by any discussion of media literacy, but mostly simplistic commentary on what was depicted truthfully and what wasn't, as if movies like Glory (1989), Amistad (1997), or Saving Private Ryan (1998) were just attempts to visually replace history books.  In fact, when I think of Truffaut's famous claim that "There is no such thing as an anti-war film," it's Saving Private Ryan that is evoked most immediately.  At the time of its release, the popular buzz about the film seemed mostly reduced to comments about the intensity of its opening depiction of the D-Day invasion.  The film inspired multiple news stories of combat veterans being simultaneously honored and traumatized by the films technical achievement, and the conversation that arose around the film always seemed less like a thoughtful reflection on the horrors of war, and more like the reaction to having just played an intense combat video game, the likes of which would experience enormous and widespread popularity after the release of the film through the mass marketing of games like Halo and Call of Duty.  Spielberg's films have always struck me as "pro-war" films, very much in the tradition of Wellman.  Anyone who has seen the D-Day scene in Saving Private Ryan would most likely call it horrific, but maybe not to the extent that they wouldn't pay to take the ride again.  This is where the war film tradition of Wellman and Spielberg differs from the likes of Kubrick's Paths of Glory, and to a greater extent, Terrance Malick's The Thin Red Line.  Where Spielberg's action is air tight and relentless like that of a first person shooter game, The Thin Red Line is undulating, reflective, and truly horrific.

Saving Private Ryan
The Thin Red Line
Although I will always champion cinema that refuses to glorify war, I am not so naive as to ignore the fact that the history of war films is an essential component of how we understand our history and how we continue to shape our attitudes toward war.  And, as with most things in life, it's dangerous to think of those cultural artifacts as falling neatly into Red and Blue baskets, and to allow ones viewing habits to follow suit.  In fact, I will readily admit to enjoying some of the most propagandizing of war films (especially when they are as beautifully batshit crazy as the final sequence in Battleship!).  For instance, if you dismiss Rambo III entirely you might miss the story of the sculptor, which may not necessarily be tied to a great movie, but does reveal an interesting philosophical question about our natural inclination toward militarism that sticks with me more, for some reason, than a good number of more didactic anti-war films I've seen.  In other words, war films are rarely as "pro" or "anti" as essays in a freshman English course, and it's a mistake to approach them as if we could easily, conclusively assess their content in terms of the effect they have on a diverse audience.

Rambo III (1988)
Getting back to Truffaut's claim, though I believe it to be true in general, the digital age of documentary film making has certainly put his statement about the impossibility of an "anti-war" film to the test.  The era of the Bush wars and Fox News instigated some incredible films that excelled purely as anti-war statements, and advanced film making in one of its most crucial capacities (and one that seems to have dropped off a bit in the last few years): to tell stories and provide images that fall outside of the script of corporate news sources.  Films like James Longley's Iraq in Fragments (2006) and Patricia Foulkrod's The Ground Truth (2006), which specifically exposes the ethical gap between military recruitment tactics and reality, both represent an exceptional new breed of journalistic film making that flip the script of the war film and the mainstream media to much needed effect.  Meanwhile, the fiction film front gave rise to such revelations as Michael Winterbottom's The Road to Guantanamo (2006) and Paul Haggis's overlooked In the Valley of Elah (2007).  Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight (2004) seems also to be worthy of note here as it forms an essential thread in the long arc of the war film, creating a direct line from the mythologizing of the WWII war hero to the more media exposed quality of our current military conflicts through appropriating the propaganda films of maybe the most all-American of directors, Frank Capra.

Frank Capra's Why We Fight
Eugene Jarecki's Why We Fight
As for modern propaganda, it may be that the success of a film like James Cameron's Avatar is the modern antidote to the jingoistic war films of the past. It seems a lot of adult audiences and critics took joy in mocking the films sci-fi take on a corporate military mining expedition in search of "Unobtanium" as juvenile, and while Avatar is perhaps not that sophisticated in its allegorical tactics, it seems clear that Cameron was speaking to a younger demographic.  Seen as a film for children, Avatar may be one of the most effective and subversive films to come out ina while (especially if the marketing arc proves to be anything like that of The Lord of the RingsStar Wars, or The Beatles).  And, frankly, even though I would never need or want to see Avatar again, I kind of want the next generation to be one that favors the big blue hippies over the corporate soldiers.

Avatar (2009)
When Avatar was playing in theaters, experiencing a success comparable to the Lindbergh era-fueled popularity of Wings' theatrical release, I attended a screening with a close friends two sons, 11 and 12, both first time actors in a theater production I was directing at the time, and both master Halo players.  As usual, an endless barrage of advertising played at full volume prior to the film, mostly consisting of ads we were familiar with from television, except for one.  As the first 30 seconds or so of this particular ad ran, the younger boys eyes widened.  He looked at me to see if I recognized, as he had, what film we were finally seeing a trailer for.  Then he leaned up and whispered in my ear:  "I think it's the Halo movie!"  This seemed reasonable to me, especially since the video game-to-movie transfer was becoming a pretty common practice by that time.  I feigned a bit of surprise.  Then, after a few more seconds of the "trailer," my eyes began to widen.  The "trailer" in question was actually a very expensive Army recruitment ad, carefully designed to pull in the viewer with all the mechanisms of the finest Hollywood hype-craft.  And, even though the realization that this was not, in fact, the trailer for a movie version of Halo was a let down to my fellow movie goer, I had already witnessed how skillfully they had hit their target.  If the cinema recruitment tactics of the late 20's are a WWI biplane, then the advertising of today is a smart bomb.