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  Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One Guess Why I'm Upset
Year: 1968
Director: William Greaves
Stars: Patricia Ree Gilbert, Don Fellows, Jonathan Gordon, Robert Rosen, William Greaves, Susan Anspach
Genre: DocumentaryBuy from Amazon
Rating:  7 (from 1 vote)
Review: William Greaves is a documentary maker who has decided to branch out into fiction, and with that goal in mind has assembled a crew for a feature named Off the Cliff, which has the theme of sexuality at its core. He has decided to gather his workers in Central Park, New York City, and have them capture some screen tests with prospective cast members, seeing if he can experiment with the format of drama, initially by having the actors speak in as frank a manner as possible. But his plans do not go as well as he would like, as the production falls into confusion and a lack of, well, direction...

With its overly elaborate name, and reputation as one of the key experimental movies of the late sixties at a time when Andy Warhol was reigning supreme as the master of the art, not to mention John Cassavetes cornering the market in talk-stuffed character drama of the kind Greaves seems to want to create, it may be daunting to sit down with Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One and try to take it all in. This was especially true of a film that apparently circumvents any attempts to analyse it, thoroughly or casually, thanks to the film itself analysing what was going up on the screen as it happened.

There were at least three things going on at once here. First, the drama, as seen in the screen tests, where a husband and wife have fallen out because she wants a baby and he is a closet homosexual: enough material for a sketch, but on this evidence arguable whether it would have stretched to a feature length yarn. Second, the camera crew following Greaves around to get all aspects of this preparation on film, footage which has a candid air - you're never in any doubt that this was staged in some way, but how? - as the participants thrash out the problems of the premise and the director's attitudes to it.

Third, there was the analysis the crew were offering, filmed shortly after, with them all in a room without Greaves debating whether any of what they were working on was actually coming together in any reasonable fashion, or whether he had no idea what he was doing and the pursuit of his project was a waste of their precious time. For a little background, he started in entertainment as a dancer and actor, then graduated to direction and editing of documentaries, initially with Canada's National Film Board, so it's not as if he was a complete novice or amateur, yet he saw fit to include a clip of himself insisting a buxom horse rider was on film because he liked the look of her.

Was this because sexuality was a major theme of his movie, or was it because he liked to look at bouncing breasts? How sure were we supposed to be of his intentions? That was not the only bizarre choice he made, as if the act of shooting his test footage had become an end in itself, and that created a documentary that was more important than the fiction he was drawing up. It should be noted that there was plenty of frank language here of a style that would not go down well decades later, all very casually thrown in but potentially a deal breaker for a modern audience more used to interactions that were more respectful of other's feelings, in the entertainment media at least.

But even this could be called into question. Indicative of the attitudes is the crewmember who does not believe Greaves' sex talk goes far enough and doesn't sound authentic - then rattles off a number of filthy phrases to demonstrate how he thinks real people talk. It did not even have a proper ending, as the production is distracted by a homeless man who may be mentally ill, saying he lives under a bush in the park now. Quite what to make of this dedication to the meta in documentaries was always going to be a personal response: some would find it tedious, others fascinating, but it had something, a restless strangeness that would likely keep you watching even as it talked itself into oblivion and the film within the film floundered utterly, possibly on purpose. Music by Miles Davis (actually a clip of one of his tracks, In a Silent Way, used over and over).

[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with its 2005 sequel. These are the features:

High-definition digital transfers of both films, approved by director William Greaves, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks on the Blu-ray
SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM TAKE ONE (1968 - 75 minutes - Color - Monaural - 1.33:1 aspect ratio)
SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM TAKE 2½ (2005 - 99 minutes - Color - Monaural - 1.78:1 aspect ratio)
Discovering William Greaves (2006), a documentary on the director's career, featuring Greaves, his wife and coproducer Louise Archambault Greaves, actor Ruby Dee, filmmaker St. Clair Bourne, and film scholar Scott MacDonald
Interview from 2006 with actor Steve Buscemi
English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing
PLUS: An essay by critic Amy Taubin and production notes by William Greaves for Take One.]
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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