A jazzy Miles Davis score rolls out over Central Park, where a husband chases after a wife. When they meet, they continue an argument they were already having: she accuses him of not loving her, of forcing her to have many abortions, of being gay. The exact location, as well and the man and woman, change as we see this same fight play out again and again. Different places, different people, different camera angles, same argument. This is “Over the Cliff,” the film within a film within Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, a truly bizarre and exciting cinematic experiment from William Greaves.
I’ll try to explain this as best I can. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm was shot by three camera crews, each representing a different level of self-awareness. Greaves leads the first crew, as the director shooting “Over the Cliff.” The second crew is documenting the making of “Over the Cliff,” so they follow the director and actors all the time, even between takes. Then the third crew is documenting the documentary crew, stepping from the second crew’s reality into a sort of meta-reality. As Greaves explains, “You and I are going to be filming the actors. The two of us, see, are going to be filming the actors – continuously – and you will be filming me and the actors. I’m going to be filming the actors and Terry is going to be in charge of filming the whole thing. You see?”
To help us orient ourselves with this bonkers concept, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm often steps back and shows footage from all three cameras simultaneously, in split screen. So on the left of the screen you’ll see the actors playing the scene, in the middle you’ll see the actors as well as Greaves and maybe a soundperson, and on the right you’ll see a bunch of people running around trying to make a movie. And that’s when it’s all going relatively smoothly, it gets even harder to explain when, say, a police car drives onto set or a homeless veteran decides he wants to have a conversation.
But some of the most fun parts of the movie are shot at “rap sessions” the crews have at the end of shooting days without Greaves. These are partly normal conversations any film crew might have about how the day went and what is and isn’t working about the movie, but they’re fun glimpses into these people growing increasingly suspicious that they’re they real subjects of the movie. They start to notice that Greaves seems to be “acting” when he’s directing and realize he’s going to have such an abundance of footage that they can’t really predict what the movie is. And they slowly realize that any potential audience seeing them talk also won’t be able to tell if they’re acting too, or if these conversations are actually authentic.
The scene from “Over the Cliff” that Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is built around is tough to watch. For one, it throws around both f-words pretty heavily, which does make some of the crew uncomfortable. But also, it just sounds like it was written by a hack Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? fanboy. What makes this work is that everyone has a different take on the material. The actors are desperate for motivation and insight but Greaves is wonderfully obtuse and encouraging, often just listening to the actors and saying “go with that” or coming back to his mantra that it’s all about sexuality. He’s about as helpful as a misogynistic Ed Wood. The crew, on the other hand, are so in the dark about the production that they argue about the writing, some calling it out while others defend it as realistic and even try to encourage Greaves to make it even more blunt and “honest.”
Of course, I think Greaves is deliberately choosing to play an incompetent, sexist character himself. If we return to the idea of the movie’s three layers of reality, I think he decided to firmly place himself within the second reality, which allowed him to stir the pot and encourage his crew to nearly mutiny. But that also further muddles the idea of the third level of reality, because if Greaves is performing in a way that intentionally frustrates the other subjects of the documentary, isn’t he then making it, in some way, less authentic? And now I’m getting into quantum physics and the idea that the act of observation inevitably changes what is being observed, so I’ll stop here.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is a lot of fun and for me a delightful introduction to William Greaves, a storyteller who made hundreds of documentaries which altogether earned him an Emmy, a Dusa Award, and an induction into the Black Filmmakers Hall of Fame. The tragedy is that this film was so ahead of its time it didn’t secure wide distribution, instead mostly just playing various festivals in the late sixties and early seventies. That changed when Steve Buscemi and Steven Soderbergh, both of whom consider it among their favorite films, helped finance one of Greaves’ four planned sequels and got Symbiopsychotaxiplasm a wide release in 2003. It’s a real shame that it took so long for the world to find this movie, especially given the enticing “coming soon” ending of Take One, but at least we can be grateful that this confounding piece of cinematic history will now persist to delight audiences for generations, thanks to the Criterion Collection… Wait was the review secretly an ad all along?