Criterion // 1968 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brendan Babish (Retired) // December 5th, 2006
A far-out movie about making movies.
Symbiopsychotxiplasm is an experimental art film from 1968 that remained unreleased for over 20 years. You may have heard it described with all manner of highfalutin terminology, but I'm going to be honest with you: while Symbiopsychotxiplasm is an innovative experiment in metacinema, it's really an embryonic reality program. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
A symbioptaxiplasm is a social science term for a group of people and the constant interaction they have with everything in their environment.
Symbiopsychotxiplasm -- director William Greaves added the "psycho" -- begins with a montage of actors rehearsing the same scene in New York City's Central Park. We then watch William Greaves, the mesh-shirt wearing director of Symbiopsychotxiplasm the film, and also the director of the scene, giving instructions to each of his three cameramen: one is to shoot the scene, another is to shoot the film's crew shooting the scene, and the last is to stay back at a distance and film the entire process from afar. The movie then proceeds to focus on a single pair of actors as Greaves continuously tinkers with the scene on each successive take. As the days pass, all spent on shooting the same scene, the crew and actors become vocal with their frustrations. And it is all been preserved on film for your viewing pleasure.
It's not only difficult but almost unfair to attach a grade to Symbiopsychotxiplasm. This is an experimental film from an industrious filmmaker who takes complete advantage of the freewheeling 1960s to create a feature movie documenting the filmmaking process of said movie. It's a pretty groovy idea, and not something that should be critiqued with the same level scrutiny of a Michael Bay film.
The other problem is that Symbiopsychotxiplasm was shot in 1968, and one wonders whether it should be judged by the parameters of its time or that in which I watched the film and am writing this review. The rise of reality filmmaking, in particular, has certainly stolen much of his Graves' thunder. In 1968 his movie was surely a novel and ingenious concept; in 2006 it comes off as a slightly more avant-garde Project Greenlight.
That all said, I have no problem with the reality genre. I certainly don't care for its lowest forms -- such as the wife swapping shows, and the last two seasons of The Apprentice. But when reality programming really works -- such as in the aforementioned Project Greenlight or the first few seasons of The Real World -- it creates an exhilarating learning experience that couldn't be replicated with conventional narrative means. As a forbearer of this genre, I cannot help but admire Symbiopsychotxiplasm. However, viewed in the context of 2006 cinema, and within the reality genre as a whole, it will likely underwhelm a lot of viewers.
The biggest problem with Symbiopsychotxiplasm is the same that plagues many reality projects today. The observer effect posits that the mechanisms used to observe an object or situation will invariably affect that very object being observed, thereby compromising the observation process. As such, the presence of cameras in reality filmmaking often cause the subjects profiled to act in ways contrary to their nature.
It is almost exciting when we hear an embryonic version of this oft-stated criticism from one of crewmembers, who offers a befuddled complaint that whenever the camera turns on, Greaves seems to begin acting. But we also get the common response to that argument when another crewmember notes that the director seems to be acting even when the cameras are turned off.
Later on, another crewmember, who has finally figured out Greaves' intent, realizes that this film they are making "can be edited 300 ways." In fact, that's a huge understatement, but a salient point. Greaves filmed enough material for five feature films, so when we watch this 75-minute movie -- a good portion consisting of crewmembers conversing off set -- we know we are getting a very truncated version of what actually happens at rehearsals and film shoots. And one cannot help but feel mixtures of disgust and sympathy for the actor who, unaware that he is in fact taking part in a reality film, giddily engages in behavior that may have been borderline in 1968, but is clearly homophobic and misogynistic behavior today.
In essence, the best and worst of Symbiopsychotxiplasm is on display in its final scene. An effeminate homeless man crashes the set and delivers a rambling, drunken rant. What's particularly interesting is that, were Greaves not making a reality movie, his appearance would be met with extreme irritation. Instead, crewmembers happily shove a release under the man's face as they imagine what a nice bit of local color he will bring to the finished product. While it's true that he livens up the film, the fact that the crew is more interested in capturing the filmmaking process as opposed to capturing a film leads them to manipulate their actions and impede the purity of the project.
Also included on Criterion's two-DVD set is Greaves' follow-up film to Symbiopsychotxiplasm, Symbiopsychotxiplasm 2 ½. This film, personally financed by director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic), incorporates leftover footage from the 1968 shoot with video Greaves shot in 2003. The old footage consists of an acting pair that was only shown briefly in Symbiopsychotxiplasm. This pair is then reunited in 2003 and the beginning rehearsing anew. These rehearsals, as well as the crew's actions, are shot in a similar fashion as they were in 1968. However, the big difference is that the crew is now well aware that their comments are being filmed for possible inclusion in the film; not that they mind, everyone seems to be having a grand time. But the relative lack of friction on set makes Symbiopsychotxiplasm 2 ½ come off as more of a victory lap after a long fruitful career than a film anywhere near as challenging or interesting as its predecessor.
Another extra on the DVD set is the documentary Discovering William Greaves. It is an intriguing documentary of one of the pioneering African-American filmmakers. And at the risk of sounding condescending, I have to say I was heartened to see how lively and cogent William Greaves still appears to be despite being now well into his 80s. Though almost 40 years have passed since he filmed Symbiopsychotxiplasm, he still seems to have lost none of his acuity, and I am anxious to delve into some of the other 200 other documentary films he has made over his career.
Like the film itself, the sound and video quality on this DVD are hard to judge. From an objective viewpoint the picture is poor, with scratches on the print and dull, washed out colors. Still, I am certain Criterion has restored the print to the best of their ability, and this is probably the best this film will ever look. Still, the picture and sound have not deteriorated to the point where their quality distracts too much from one's viewing experience. And again, it would be unfair to judge this with the same standard of a Michael Bay film.
In reading over reviews of Symbiopsychotxiplasm I was surprised that nobody has yet dared compare this film to the recent spate of reality programming. I suppose junk like The Littlest Groom and Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire? have so sullied the genre that critics feel it would insult Greaves to include his groundbreaking independent film among their midst. I understand that, but instead of sullying this film, I feel that works like Symbiopsychotxiplasm are more likely to provide a much needed elevation to an often unfairly maligned genre.
I am also disheartened that Symbiopsychotxiplasm was never released in 1968. Not only would this have allowed Greaves to receive the widespread praise he deserves, but it would have provided the film with an audience unaccustomed to this style of filmmaker through years of reality television viewing. Symbiopsychotxiplasm is still definitely worth watching, but it would be dishonest to recommend it as heartily as it deserves.
I'm digging what Greaves was trying to do here. Not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 1968
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Symbiopsychotxiplasm: Take 2 ½
* Discovering William Greaves, a New Documentary
* Theatrical Trailer
* Official Site