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SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE (director/writer: William Greaves; cinematographers: Terry Filgate/Stevan Lamer; editor: William Greaves; music: Miles Davis; cast: Patricia Ree Gilbert (Alice), Don Fellows (Freddie), Jonathan Gordon (Crew), Bob Rosen (Crew), William Greaves (Director); Runtime: 75; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William Greaves; The Criterion Collection; 1968)
It was shot as cinema verite in the rebellious spring of 1968, where those under thirty were challenging the authority figures of the Establishment.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Pioneering black acting teacher, executive producer of the Black Journal on NET (National Education Television), and documentary filmmaker William Greaves (“That’s Black Entertainment”), who directed over 200 documentaries,in May of 1968, in his debut as director, filmed a loosely scripted mostly improv turgid conversation in New York’s Central Park for a low-budget feature that was in the interim titled Over the Cliff. It was filmed in both rehearsal and performance, that had a quarrelsome suburbanite white married couple, Alice and Freddie (Patricia Ree Gilbert and Don Fellows, the actors were enrolled in the Actors Studio), on the verge of breaking-up and saying nasty things to each other while the filmmaker simultaneously filmed himself shooting the screen test (at times both actions were presented together on a split screen). There were also other rehearsals with different actors playing Alice and Freddie–a then unknown Susan Anspach was singing the part like in The Umrellas of Cherbourg and an interracial couple was getting ready to rehearse just as the film ended.

While filming, on-lookers were allowed in the frames and some became an active part of the film (an alcoholic homeless artist, living in the park, was given a chance to talk some drivel). The couple’s conversation included such hot-button sociopolitical issues as her many abortions and his alleged homosexuality. To add to the gimmickry, the pushy young crew filmed themselves arguing if Greaves’s fiction ‘hybrid’ documentary had any merit. All in all, there were three film crews: one camera crew manning the screen test (which led to no film, but became an end in itself), a second camera crew documenting it from behind the scenes and focused on the genial Greaves, and a third camera crew documenting both the film and the film within the film.

What comes across is how pleasing (in a voyeuristic way) this limited and hebetudinous idea could be, though what it all means I do not know (it was shot as cinema verite in the rebellious spring of 1968, where those under thirty were challenging the authority figures of the Establishment). Some actors and critics were impressed, believing it was a groundbreaking actors pic that showed where the boundary lies between acting and reality. Others thought it was a film about free association, breaking the rules and self-expression. While Grieves maintained the film was about sexuality and would explain itself.

The catchy title originated from the book Inquiry Into Inquiries: Essays in Social Theory by Arthur Bentley. Greaves described symbiopsychotaxiplasm as meaning “those events that transpire in the course of anyone’s life that have an impact on the consciousness and the psyche of the average human being, and how that human being also controls or effects changes or has an impact on the environment.”

The unwieldy pic is hampered by the shrill acting, its futile storytelling ability that gives rise to flaunting a homophobia and the terrible stagy screenplay. It was enhanced by the marvelous Miles Davis’ polyrhythmic score.

The self-indulgent experimental film was never released in theaters, playing only occasionally in museums and at festivals. But the forgotten film drew interest at a Greaves retrospective at the Brooklyn Museumin the early ’90s. It greatly impressed Steve Buscemi (he saw it at Sundance in 1992). Buscemi and Steven Soderbergh (financed a restoration of Take One), co-financed a sequel, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1/2 (which is included on the second disc of Criterion’s DVD set).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”