|Directed by||William Greaves|
|Produced by||William Greaves
|Written by||William Greaves|
|Starring||Patricia Ree Gilbert
|Music by||Miles Davis|
|Edited by||William Greaves|
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is a 1968 experimental docu-drama film written, directed, and conceived by African-American film director and documentarian William Greaves. The film, which is shot and presented in the style of a cinéma vérité documentary, attempts to capture and examine pure reality unhindered by the presence of the cameras all around. It is perhaps most memorable for the layers of metatextual storytelling inherent in the concept of the story: that of a documentary inside a documentary inside a documentary.
Concept and development
Greaves originally conceived of the concept for the film by applying the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to a project Greaves had come up with several years earlier, in which he would follow and document a group of actors undergoing the audition process for an acting job. Finding himself dissatisfied with "Hollywood acting", which he found stiff and forced rather than loose and spontaneous as life tended to be, Greaves attempted to find new and different ways to bring out "reality" as it really was, one in which would not "act to the camera".
The film was independently financed by one of Greaves's old students from his teaching days at the National Film Board of Canada and The Actors Studio. The title came from Greaves's own fascination with scientific concepts. The concept of "Symbiotaxiplasm" originated from Arthur F. Bentley in his book Inquiry Into Inquiries: Essays in Social Theory, which Greaves described as "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". By adding the root "-psycho-" into the mix, turning an already-complex topic into a more complex one, Greave emphasizes the mental state affected by those events. Therefore, the title is, in Greaves's mind, very attractive.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One
Greaves shot Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One (then called simply Symbiopsychotaxiplasm) in 1968 and takes place in Central Park in New York City. For the cast of actors, Greaves brought in actors he knew from his work at The Actors Studio and hired three different film crews to document the proceedings. Greaves himself appears as the director of the fictional actor-documentary "Over the Cliff" and utilizes the three different film crews to cover a different aspect of the overall picture going on with this situation. Greaves instructs the first to film just the actors in an effort to document the audition process. He tells the second film crew to document the first film crew. He tells the third to document anything that fits into the documentary's overarching theme, including the actors, the other two film crews, and any other passers-by or spectators who happen to fit into "Over the Cliff's" overarching theme of "sexuality".
To make matters more interesting, Greaves takes the opportunity to play the fool, performing a part rather than "playing himself". Because Greaves's director character is sexist, unfocused, unprofessional, and seemingly inept, the film crews start to sow dissent amongst their ranks, all of which is caught on camera because of the constant filming on set. This footage, of course, ends up in the final cut of the film and only helps to render the film more complex.
This complexity is enhanced by Greaves's editing techniques, including split screens displaying two or even all three perspectives at once, but in simultaneous split screens, to further the use of simultaneous footage about the same sequence but from three different perspectives.
Through all of this, Greaves creates a circular meta-documentary about a documentary, a documentary about a documentary, and a documentary documenting a documentary about a documentary. All of this is Greaves's attempt to capture reality on film, using cameras in the right places at inopportune moments to discourage any short improvisations or unnatural events that might take place.
Following the film's completion in 1971, Greaves attempted to find mainstream support, seeking a theatrical release. Unfortunately, distribution channels proved reluctant to back his work, especially because no one seemed willing to back it due to its experimental nature and bizarre content. Undeterred, Greaves held onto the negatives. This put a crimp on Greaves's further plans to create four sequels to his work which would fill out the five-film arc he had planned.
With no other options, the film fell into obscurity. Greaves held onto the original print negatives and toured the film as much as he was able, showing off his work at film festivals and museums.
Gaining a cult status from those individuals who were able to view it, the film eventually caught the attention of actor and filmmaker Steve Buscemi, who caught a screening of the docu-drama at the Sundance Film Festival in 1993. Seeing the film's potential, Buscemi worked to secure financing for a sequel and the wide-release of the original film. Eventually, Buscemi and Greaves were joined by the adventurous Hollywood director Steven Soderbergh. Together, the three managed to secure both distribution channels for the film as well as financing for one of Greaves's sequels.
In 2001, after thirty five years of post-development limbo, the film, re-christened Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, saw a wide release in theatres and a DVD released in 2006 alongside its new sequel: Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 21⁄2, which focused on two of the actors from the original and picks up the narrative of the original film some thirty five years later.
Over its history, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm has garnered numerous positive reviews amongst critics. Praised for its innovation, the film scored an 88% "fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes with an average score of 7.9 out of 10 across eight reviews. The film scored a 7.7 out of 10 based on three hundred and three votes at The Internet Movie Database  while scoring 71 out of 100 at Metacritic, a site that assigns average ratings based on the reviews of mainstream critics.
New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis called the film "highly entertaining and, at moments, revelatory about filmmaking as a site of creative tension between individual vision and collective endeavor", and Jeffery Anderson from CombustibleCelluloid.com described the film as "a puzzle without an answer; and the most fascinating element of all is Greaves himself. On camera, he doesn't really appear to know what he's doing. But perhaps he does?". On the other hand, Christopher Null, a critic at FilmCritic.com commented negatively on the film's presentation on DVD, saying "It's too bad that the film's production values scrape rock bottom -- even by low budget standards. Much of the movie is inaudible, and the scratched up film stock gives you a headache from the get-go"
Steven Soderbergh, a long time proponent of the film, reflected on his impressions of the film, saying:
As you can imagine, I just thought it was one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen. I couldn't believe it. I couldn't believe how great it was and that it wasn't famous, I mean really famous. Even then, almost ten years ago, I felt maybe it's still, even now, too far ahead of its time.
It's the ultimate "reality" piece.
The difference being, in ths case, that nobody was in on the joke. And that's what makes it so brilliant. When you do a reality show on TV today, you know you're part of a show and that they're going to start creating obstacles for you or trying to complicate the situation purposefully and consciously. Here, you're just watching a situation where people are absolutely convinced that Bill is out of control, doesn't know what he's doing, and you're a fly on the wall. And then the ultimate mutiny takes place. It's really incredible.
I think when he was presented with that material, he must have felt like the cinema gods were smiling on him.
- "An Interview about the film with William Greaves and Stephen Soderbergh"
- "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Still No Answers". Accessed 2/11/11.
- "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm" on Rotten Tomatoes; accessed 2/11/2011.
- "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm" at IMDB. Accessed 2/11/2011.
- "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm" at Metacritic.com. Accessed 2/11/2011.
- "Combustible Celluloid review of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm" accessed 2/11/2011.
- Filmcritic Movie Review. Accessed 2/11/2011.
- Further reading
- Boyd, Todd. African Americans and Popular Culture. Vol. 1-3. Westport (Conn.): Praeger, 2008. Print.
- Dixon, Wheeler W. The Exploding Eye: A Re-Visionary History of 1960s American Experimental Cinema. Albany: State University of New York, 1997. Print.
- Martin, Michael T. Cinemas of the Black Diaspora: Diversity, Dependence, and Oppositionality. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1995. Print.
- William Greaves' website
- Criterion Collection essay by Amy Taubin
- Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One at the Internet Movie Database
- Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One at the TCM Movie Database
- Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 21⁄2 at the Internet Movie Database
- Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 21⁄2 at the TCM Movie Database
- Symbiopsychotaxiplasm at AllMovie