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The Criterion Collection presents
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968, 2003)

Cop: What kind of picture are you making?
Rosen: What kind? Um, well, it's a feature.
Greaves: It's a feature-length, uh - it's a feature-length, uh, we don't know.

- Cop, Bob Rosen, William Greaves, as themselves

Review By: Jeff Wilson  
Published: December 05, 2006

Stars: William Greaves, Patricia Ree Gilbert, Don Fellows, Jonathan Gordon, Bob Rosen, Audrey Henningham, Shannon Baker
Other Stars: Steve Buscemi, Marcia Karp
Director: William Greaves

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for language, adult themes
Run Time: 02h:54m:58s
Release Date: December 05, 2006
UPC: 715515021029
Genre: experimental

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ BA-A- B+

DVD Review

Any newcomer to this pair of films will likely want to know, before anything else, exactly what the title means. Derived from a concept of philosopher Arthur Bentley, a "symbiotaxiplasm" is the effect people and things within a given environment have on one another. Director William Greaves adds "psycho-" to it, indicating his interest in exploring these relationships from a psychological viewpoint. The films in question, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One and Take 2 1/2 play around with the documentary format, allowing Greaves to demonstrate the ways in which the typical making of a film can be subverted by those involved to become something other than it was originally intended to be.

The first was shot in 1968, receiving only occasional one-off screenings in lieu of any kind of official release. Greaves' ostensible goal, at least as known to cast and crew, was to film a series of screen tests for an undetermined project. The scene in question is a quarrel between a husband and wife whose relationship is disintegrating, resulting in some violent verbal wordplay between them. Greaves uses up to four cameras to film the actors, the crew filming the actors, the crew, and so on. He remains purposely vague as to what is going on and even cultivates the sense that he is not really sure what he's doing, which leaves his crew in a state of confusion and frustration. As a result, the crew commandeers the equipment and films a discussion among themselves in which they question Greaves' very competence, among other topics. Greaves then inserts selected material from their session into his finished film, which gives it a much needed edge, as the conflict between the various forces comes into play on the set.

For its first few minutes, I found it difficult to get involved with the goings-on, but as events and the questions raised by Greaves' editing unfold, it quickly becomes a fascinating experience. It's never made clear by Greaves what is scripted and what isn't; having shot more than 50 hours of footage, Greaves has a wide range of material to choose from, but focuses mainly on one pair of actors and the crew's mutinous discussion. The project becomes a perplexing mix of fact and fiction, but the catch is that you're never sure which is which. Greaves intended jazz as an inspiration for the film, and the Miles Davis score underlines that feel, as the director's visual riffs play with variations in theme and style.

The second film came about after Steve Buscemi and Steven Soderbergh signed on as producers, and Greaves gathered some of the original crew and two of the original actors, Audrey Henningham and Shannon Baker, to continue both the story of the characters Freddie and Alice, and the experiment in filmmaking as begun in the first Take. The film opens with more material from the original, showing a lot more of Henningham and Baker's "screen test," presumably because we saw so little of it the first time around. Things then move to a festival screening prior to the start of work on the second Take, in which Greaves, Jonathan Gordon, Baker, and Buscemi answer some questions. Finally, we get to the meat of the new material, in which Baker and Henningham re-unite to re-create Freddie and Alice, and bring their story to a conclusion of sorts.

Where the first film worked, the second film just feels forced in many ways; what was spontaneous the first time around is often pre-arranged here with everyone's knowledge, which lessens the impact. Greaves, pushing 80, understandably takes a somewhat less involved role, which also affects the tone. It isn't explained why the story, such as it is, of Freddie and Alice needs a conclusion, but the conclusion reached seems fairly arbitrary, merely serving as a way to end the film. Jonathan Gordon leads Greaves-instigated discussions similar to Take One, but these lack punch as everyone has some general idea of what's being done—the countercultural spirit is long gone. In the end, the spark that grabs the viewer in the first version simply isn't here.

This is a higher-priced Criterion title, and there will no doubt be many questioning this release, but it is worth a rental if not a purchase. I recommend it if only for the first disc; the second film has its moments, if not enough to make for an equally satisfying experience. I'd encourage anyone interested to give this a shot, as you may be very pleasantly surprised by what awaits you, as I was.

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: B


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frameno - n/a
Original Aspect Ratioyesyes

Image Transfer Review: The original sources were used in making the transfers for these films, but at the behest of Greaves, efforts were made only to clean up problems that were not part of the original filmmaking process. The transfers look quite fine overall, though the digital material on the second film occasionally has harsh and/or blurry moments that detract from the viewing experience, but are simply a result of the equipment.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: Given the haphazard style of recording used on the first film, it's impressive, coming across as clean and clear as it does. Both pictures feature clean mono soundtracks that render the plethora of dialogue easy to understand.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 39 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
Picture Disc
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Booklet with essay and production notes
Extras Review: Criterion has collected a trio of extra items to assist the appreciation of the main features. The meatiest is Discovering William Greaves (01h:01m:12s), an in-depth look at Greaves' career from its beginnings onward. If you're interested at all in his work as seen here, it's certainly worth a look. On the second disc you'll find an interview with Steve Buscemi, (12m:41s) looking at the actor's interest in the film after seeing a screening at the Sundance festival. There's nothing of major interest here, but it doesn't outstay its welcome. Finally, the standard Criterion booklet includes chapter listings and credits, in addition to an essay about the films by critic Amy Taubin and Greaves' own production notes, detailing some of his goals for the film. Both are very worthwhile.

Clean, white English subtitles are provided for both films.

Extras Grade: B+


Final Comments

The Criterion Collection brings William Greaves' matching Symbiopsychotaxiplasm documentaries to a wide audience in their fine new two-disc set. Those interested in the documentary format will likely find much to enjoy in Greaves' manipulation of his cast and crew to produce his films. I found the first much more interesting than the second, but the overall package makes this a worthwhile purchase for the experimental cinema afficionado.


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