Students of cinema history are certain to be most intrigued by the film's genre-splicing, style-defying conceits which fall squarely in line with such similarly challenging late-'60s and early-'70s milestones as "Easy Rider," "I Am Curious (Yellow)," "Medium Cool," "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song" and any number of Godard efforts. Set entirely in New York's Central Park, the picture is a wild juxtaposition of footage shot by a documentary crew which has been split into two groups -- one assigned to capture a kind of improvised screen test in which a couple confronts the sexual issues destroying their relationship, and the second assigned to film the doings of the first. Multiple couples were filmed doing precisely the same scene, but it's one in particular on which "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One" focuses, although not for reasons of dramatic efficacy. Overwrought acting, often unbearably melodramatic dialogue and a too obvious flirtation with the sensational all contribute to the steady death of a scene that grows more and more intolerable with each repetition.
By comparison, the behind-the-camera drama is nothing short of compelling. As the crew grows restless with the perceived pointlessness of the exercise, some begin to openly question Greaves' competence as a director. The simmering mutiny becomes even more intriguing when the crew -- without Greaves' knowledge -- elects to film their own very heated group discussions about the film, Greaves' intentions and whether the whole thing is truly meaningful or simply a gigantic waste of time. In a film already saturated with the stylings and attitudes of the day, these intensely esoteric discussions, with their groovy counterculture artspeak, almost take on an air of otherworldliness.
That Greaves chose to include all of this -- including material that mocks and ridicules him as an indulgent poseur and egotistical prima donna -- is critical, for in blurring the lines between art and artifice, truth and fiction, illusion and reality, "Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One" ventures into uncertain terrain that few films, before or since, have dared even contemplate. This, more than the somewhat dated stylistic flourishes (side- by-side multi-camera split-screens and transitional Miles Davis music), is what continues to distinguish the film today, a legacy borne out in the success of its sequel some 37 years after the fact.
Superficially, it may all seem like low-tech Woodstock- era reality television, but the net effect is far different -- for in Greaves' film there is no presumption of honesty. Rather, the presumption is one of transparency, the idea that real truth may be neither graspable nor comprehensible to the human condition. It's far-out existentialism funneled through the lens of a camera and transported through the decades -- a rare time capsule that time cannot encapsulate.
Starring Patricia Ree Gilbert, Don Fellows, William Greaves, Jonathan Gordon and Bob Rosen
Directed and produced by William Greaves
A Janus release. Drama/Documentary.
Running time: 72 min