Criterion Corner: The Many Layered Reality of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (1968)

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (1968)

Director William Greaves describes the term "Symbiotaxiplasm", which he got from Arthur F. Bentley's book Inquiry Into Inquiries: Essays in Social Theory, as 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". He then added the root "psycho" to complicate matters even more which is symbolic of the theme of the film itself.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One is a multilayered metatextual "documentary" film that tries to play around the concept of what the audience considers to be reality. In the first layer Greaves is directing a scene consisting of actors playing a couple having an argument. This scene will supposedly be part of a film called Over the Cliff. The fight the couple is having is heated with harsh language (some of it incredibly homophobic) and generally unpleasant to listen to. In the second layer, Greaves has hired a second film crew to document the first film crew who is filming Over the Cliff. In the final layer, a third film crew was hired and instructed to film the other two film crews, the actors, and capture any background occurrences, such as random people passing by the film set. In this way, Greaves has set up multiple instances of "reality" and the further out from the center you get the closer to real life you get. Or do you?

To further muddle the proceedings Greaves himself is playing a character, that of an inept director who doesn't know what he wants from his own film. He constantly changes his mind, says conflicting statements, and makes sexist remarks. For what purpose would Greaves try to sabotage his own project? The main reason is to cause conflict, because without conflict a narrative isn't very engaging. Indirectly, because Greaves is a black man in 1968, his race plays a part in how he is perceived, because there were not many black directors at the time in Hollywood period, let alone making experimental cinéma vérité. As the film progresses his main film crew in the first layer start to catch on to what the director is up to, but they aren't entirely sure of what his motives are. They begin having secret meetings, which they record, to discuss and speculate about the film. They even address the future viewers of the footage pointing out the fact that "Greaves could be off-camera directing us right now and you won't ever know the truth".

What is the truth though? Just by adding a single camera, pure reality becomes artificial, as a machine is involved between the viewer and the situation. The idea behind Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is that if you keep adding cameras you might be able to catch people more unaware as they are playing to a different camera than the one that is actually filming them. The film also uses split screen techniques to great effect sometimes showing three different viewpoints of the same situation simultaneously. Are any of them more real than the others? That's up to the audience to decide. Another interesting aspect is that the film uses whatever takes convey the best information regardless of quality. Sometimes the sound is hard to make out or the film is over/under exposed, but that adds to the authenticity of the atmosphere as capturing reality takes precedence over technical aspects or any kind of formalism.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One is a dizzying journey into what it means to document real life and an exercise in the deconstruction of the process of film making.

--Michelle Kisner