In the late 60s, documentary director Bill Greaves decided to try and make a multi-layered documentary film which would sort-of be about the process of filmmaking, but which was really an experiment in layers of truth. If people think the idea of being ‘meta’ is new, they should visit this 1968 documentary. As for that title: it appears to be a box which one wouldn’t want to even attempt to crack. It is unseemly in its length and psycho-babble. However, it’s the thing that made me DVR this when I happened across it on Turner Classic Movies, so it at least catches the attention!

I watched SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE (1968) on 10.5.12. It was my first viewing of the film.

First, the TAKE ONE of the title is a fairly recent addition. This film lingered with a lack of distribution for a long while before its torch was picked up by Steve Buscemi in the 90s, and Steve Soderbergh in the aughts. Grieves originally had wanted to make a multi-part documentary, but never was able to. With some distribution help, this became TAKE ONE and TAKE TWO AND A HALF was made in ’05. For the purposes of discussion, that is not entirely relevant, but it does point to the fact that something of this sort is not easy to get into public consciousness.

So what is this film? Grieves brought some actors out to ‘screen test’ for a drama he wasn’t really making. The idea was that he was going to capture actors working on their craft. However, he had a second group of people filming this process in order to try to document the documentary. Lastly, he had a third group of people filming that process, but also filming the park for events which matched the films theme (Grieves will only call the theme ‘sexuality’). To further complicate the proceedings, Grieves becomes a character himself, pretending to be a inept (but not obviously inept) director. This causes the crew to break off and add a fourth layer to the film, as they attempt to document what the fuck is actually going on when they film every day in Central Park.

The film is very self-aware, which is ironic since Grieves seemed to not know that last layer was happening until the process was over. But, as the editor as well as the director, he was able to weave it all together in a surprisingly engaging and philosophical piece of documentary art. I don’t pretend to be an expert on cinema verite, so someone else would have to tell you if this is a prime example of the genre. But I will say that this was a wholly satisfying experience for me.

Grieves is a really smart filmmaker, whose skill in the editing room is equal to his skill as a director. The way he builds this narrative is brilliant, focusing mostly on one of the couples he screen-tested for his movie. The events do not unfold chronologically, instead attempting to invoke a feeling in people while trying to make people forget the cameras are there by putting the cameras everywhere. This idea predates reality television, but certainly predicts its absurdity.

The two actors don’t come across well. They are moody, vulgar, impatient, and not very talented. Basically, as someone who works with, and as, an actor, these two are typical actors (zing!). Grieves is willing to come across as ineffective, though there is a certain level of ego present as well as it becomes clear how orchestrated this whole experience is. At point, his direction with an actor is muted and we instead hear the musical genius of Miles Davis. Is this to impart the idea that what Grieves is saying to an actor is unimportant, or is to suggest that the relationship between director and actor is analogous to the genius of Davis? I’d lean towards the former since Grieves is playing the part of a dense director, but the latter certainly fits with the overall idea of the film as well.

This is a movie tinged with homophobia. The scenario Grieves has the actors play out involves an argument between man and wife where the woman accuses her husband of being gay. The scenario isn’t offensive, but some of the things said in private conversations about the argument are. Suffice it to say that we have come a long way as a society in 40 years. The movie itself is not homophobic, as it does not promote or support the homophobia. Instead, it just presents it. The people who indict themselves are free to be judged by the audience.

I certainly did not anticipate this little 60s documentary to be one of the most profound discoveries of the year for me. But there is no denying its draw, and I really think Grieves was genius in his execution of the film. Unexpected, but certainly not undeserved!


Effect replaces Acting for Documentaries, and it measures the film’s ability to make its point.


The bonus is for Grieves editing, as he masterfully put together genius from a large field of footage.



~ by johnlink00 on October 6, 2012.

2 Responses to “johnlink ranks SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE (1968)”

  1. […] we are privy to much beauty. This is the second time this month (the first being the documentary SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE) where I came to a unique movie which I had no expectations for (and which I had never heard of), […]

  2. […] favorite pretentious finds of the year are two fold. First is the documentary SYMBIOPSYCHOTAXIPLASM: TAKE ONE. A very cool and unique documentary. Secondly is the German animated silent film THE ADVENTURES OF […]

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