William Greaves’ “conspiracy of images” continues to confound and exhilarate on Criterion Blu
“It’s a movie–so who’s moving whom?”
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes are a one-two punch of cinematic magic tricks–both of which endlessly blur the line between narrative fiction, constructed documentary reality, and the chaotic reality outside film itself in a spontaneous whirlwind of collaborative creative furor.
Shot over multiple weekends in Summer 1968, completed in 1971, yet didn’t receive any sort of proper theatrical release, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One follows documentarian William Greaves’ attempts to experiment with and perfect shooting a scene between two actors in Central Park. The scene itself is a blustering piece of melodrama, as a housewife accuses her husband of being closeted and having affairs–but Greaves’ crew themselves are being shot by a behind-the-scenes crew, with a third crew shooting the documentary crew shooting the people shooting the movie. While we’re given the delineation between the three crews early on, those lines become a long afterthought–much like Greaves’ production itself. Without letting his crew in on the metatextual nature of the project itself, Greaves’ caricature of himself causes the production to quickly go haywire with vague directorial choices and endless asides, stoking frustration and rebellion by his crew at all levels. Eventually, the crew rebels–spiriting off with the equipment to film their own lengthy argumentative debates as to the merits and nature of Greaves and his process–wondering whether or not they’ve inadvertently become a part of a project they can’t escape or consent to.
Originally conceived as 5 projects assembled from the same collection of footage, Take 2½ follows up with Greaves and his crew 35 years later–freshly funded by Steven Soderbergh and Steve Buscemi. Here, they return to Central Park to film a new scene involving an iteration of the characters reuniting to confront the gulf of time separating their troubled past, their anger-driven present, and uncertain future. The same blend of reality and fiction is ever present as the surviving characters and behind-the-camera creatives disappear into their roles, whatever they may be–including the ever-present recognition of making a sequel to a reality-bending film that was never properly released in the first place.
Drawing inspiration from everything from Miles Davis’ experimental jazz, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and a social science theory involving the creation and synthesis of reality founded in the random interactions between other people, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is perhaps the most fun you’ll have watching a movie being made about itself. It’s a marvel how the audience experience is so attuned to the frustration of the crew onscreen–and how such confusion gives way to a hilarious sense of clarity as the action shifts from bumbling to contemplative to its own chaotic type of creative magic. While aspects of the film may seem more provincial than provocative by modern standards — that conversation becomes excruciating to listen to, potentially its own point to make among many in the film — there’s still a wonderful balance of formal control and outright spontaneity throughout Take One. It’s a balance that feels difficult to achieve by today’s standards–as film and TV productions are endlessly scrutinized and documented by pop culture reporters and fans at nearly every stage up until release.
That melancholy feeling hangs over Take 2½, which reckons as much with its own existence as the characters and creatives reckon with the project at hand. It’s a film where the dubious attempt to replicate that spontaneity is itself a plot point, as recognized figures like Soderbergh and Buscemi use their influence to get a long-dormant project off the ground, and production is at one point interrupted by a shirtless Buscemi fan. By the end, though, that sense of magic feels like it’s closer than ever as the actors finally disappear back into the roles they haven’t revisited for nearly four decades–in a flurry of method-driven anger that’s often uncomfortable to watch. Even if they’re being stalked at every step by a hawkish psychodramatist to get them deeper into character, it’s wondrous to watch these actors and their director capture a moment that feels wholly real in spite of its artifice–a moment of singularity that unites two once-in-a-lifetime productions across decades of obscurity.
Originally released together on DVD by Criterion in 2006, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes has debuted on Blu-ray in what can almost be called an anti-restoration of both films. While both films are presented in 1080p HD with original monaural tracks, attempts at traditional video and audio restoration were kept to a minimum. As Criterion’s transfer notes explain, the presence of “mistakes” — whether conscious inclusions or not by the filmmakers — only adds to the heightening of the audience’s experience when watching both films, and further involves them in the filmmaking process. Comparatively, Take One’s 35mm-sourced presentation and audio does have a richer, deeper quality–especially in moments when the film is in focus and captures fine details on the bemused crew’s faces. Take 2½, which blends 35mm, 16mm, and digital sources for its presentation, has a wide-ranging amount of picture and audio quality–from fine, yet scratched deep-focus shots on film to a slightly-telecined thatched look to its modern digital elements. Such qualities add to the experience of Take 2½–highlighting the visual and temporal gulf between project iterations in tandem.
- Discovering William Greaves: A near-feature-length documentary about Greaves’ film and television career, including interviews with Greaves, his wife and co-producer Louise Archambault Greaves, Ruby Dee, filmmaker St. Clair Bourne, and film scholar Scott Macdonald. Extensive access includes Greaves’ work both in front of and behind the camera, from his early TV work, his work at the National Film Board in Canada, and his litany of documentary work–all providing a glimpse into Greaves’ unique creative process blending fictional narrative and documentary aesthetics.
- Steve Buscemi: A 2006 interview with the actor and Take 2½ executive producer, featured on Symbiopsychotaxiplasm’s previous release. Here, Buscemi reflects on his experience first watching Take One at the Sundance Film Festival where he’d premiere Reservoir Dogs, his dedicated continued involvement in Greaves’ career, and his experiences in shooting Take 2½.
- Trailer for Janus Film’s 2005 theatrical release of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One.
- Booklet including an essay by ArtForum and Sight & Sound contributing editor Amy Taubin and production notes by Greaves during Take One’s conception, production, and editing processes.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes is now available on Blu-ray and streaming on The Criterion Channel courtesy of The Criterion Collection.