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.    
  
















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