William Greaves: Pushing Boundaries

What the heck is Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One? Is it a documentary or is it fiction? 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 was released on DVD in December 2006 by the Criterion 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).  

Director William Greaves in Central Park filming Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (1968) with two of his actors.

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 of the 20th century 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. Greaves’s last completed work as a director was Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½. He died in August 2014.

William Greaves (left) appeared in the 1949 drama Souls of Sin, directed by Powell Lindsay.

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. Alfred L. Werker’s 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.

William Greaves (center) listens to his actors rehearse for a set in the 1968 experimental film, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 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]).

A bickering married couple played by different actors in several variations of the same scene is just one of the offbeat aspects of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (1968), directed by William Greaves.

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?.

The loose cinema verite nature of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (1968) is evident in this sequence where a New York cop questions a film crew member about their movie.

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.

William Greaves (second from right) observes his actors while a light meter reading is taken in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (1968).

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.

Audrey Henningham and Shannon Baker play one version of an unhappily married couple airing their complaints in Central Park in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (1968), directed by William Greaves.

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.

A young Susan Anspach plays a dissatisfied married woman who sings her complains in a variation of a scenario featuring different actors playing the same couple in Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (1968).

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.

Director William Greaves (left) returns to New York’s Central Park for a sequel to his 1968 avant-garde experiment Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One.

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.”

Director Bill Greaves (right) on set near Strawberry Fields in Central Park with Steve Buscemi for the film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2 1/2 (2005). Photo by Susan Stava.

For me, it was an exhilarating experiment that made me realize how rarely filmmakers push the boundaries of the medium anymore. Steven Soderbergh and Steve Buscemi were certainly excited by it and so was the audience that saw a rare screening of it at Sundance in 2001. If you’re looking for something decidedly different from the typical formulaic product from Hollywood, this just might rock your boat.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One and the 2005 sequel, Take 2 ½ are still available as a single DVD disc from The Criterion Collection. It is quite possible that Criterion will release the films on blu-ray at some point in the future.

* This is a revised and updated version of a blog that originally appeared on Movie Morlocks (later renamed Streamline), the official blog for Turner Classic Movies.

Other websites of interest:

http://www.williamgreaves.com/biography.htm

https://hyperallergic.com/427776/william-greaves-symbiopsychotaxiplasm-take-one

http://bathrobeblog.blogspot.com/2014/08/william-greaves-pioneer-of-modern-black.html

https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3001-man-with-a-plan-william-greaves-in-symbiopsychotaxiplasm-take-one

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/richard-brody/daring-original-overlooked-symbiopsychotaxiplasm-take-one

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V9_rgiYBIwc

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GlFGf6FVKOw

 

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