Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2½
Audrey Heningham, Shannon Baker, Marcia Karp, Ndeye Ade Sokhna, Jonathan Gordon, Terence Macartney-Filgate, Phil Parmet, Stevan Larner, William Greaves, Steve Buscemi
| 6 (from 1 vote)
In 1968, writer and director William Greaves made a movie that was experimental in nature called Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, a word he devised from a psychological term, subtitled Take One as he fully expected to be able to make a follow-up hot on its heels. It detailed the shooting of screen tests in Central Park, New York City, where he assembled various actors and had them perform a scene about a marriage in trouble because the husband is gay and will not admit it to his wife, but nobody can quite nail it, not the actors, not Greaves, and not his crew, who grow ever more agitated. There are also interruptions from members of the public who are attracted by the cameras and the thought of being immortalised with them. So what would happen in a sequel?
Wonder no more, as Greaves, assisted by celebrity fans Steve Buscemi (who appeared and held a camera) and Steven Sodebergh (who stayed behind the scenes) was able to make an extension to what he had completed back in the late sixties for a film that was only seen intermittently at occasional festivals, but mostly stayed in his cupboard at home. Nevertheless, at a 1992 screening at Sundance, interest began to be generated by this effort and his canon in general, as a pioneer of African American filmmaking, not that his race was mentioned in either the original of this or its second incarnation. There's no doubt watching this that he was an intriguing guy, and the extent of just how much he was messing with those around him, never mind the audience, was unclear.
This sequel began with a fairly substantial series of 1968 footage, as a different couple to the first film's focus acted out that vignette, the wife (Audrey Heningham) noticeably getting a better handle on the material than the actress who ended up in Take One. Perhaps this was why she and her acting partner Shannon Baker were invited back to reprise their roles in a similarly unconvincing (though less deliberately offensive) piece, also in the park (while the marathon is held nearby, another example of wondering whether Greaves is throwing in random features to confuse us and his team). The trouble was, while this was a nice idea, and had a pleasing quality that the director was able to go back and finish what he started before he retired (he died in 2014), really all the mystery and richness in the concept had been sufficiently explored in the initial excursion, and this felt somewhat unnecessary.
Nevertheless, there were compensations, especially for those who like to muse over the mechanisms of acting and directing where at times we cannot tell if Heningham and Baker are really performing or if they are being truthful in their emotions - Baker gets very angry at one stage, convincingly so, and it's unsettling. Greaves brought back a character from a scene that didn't make it into Take One, played by Marcia Karp, who is now, apparently, a "psychodramatist" meaning she gets her patients to act out their issues in roleplay and encourages the two stars to do the same, but whether she merely adds aggravation to their stylings when they were doing fine without her is debatable. Yet really, there was too much of this, and what was playful and trickster-ish in the source becomes laboured in this instalment, with Greaves explaining his method too far: it was better when we could not tell if this was some overinvolved prank or not, and there's a sense this project's moment has passed. That said, it was cheering he was able to make something at all, as his later filmography was patchy at best, which says a lot about the industry.
[The Criterion Collection release this on Blu-ray with the 1968 original. These are the features:
High-definition digital transfers of both films, approved by director William Greaves, with uncompressed monaural soundtracks
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.]