The other day, my daughter – Lizzie – asked me to recommend films that address the subject of acting, and the rapport between actors and directors, in movies. I gave her a long list, but top of that list was Symbiopsychotaxiplasm.
This extraordinary 1968 docu-drama is in two parts, “Take 1” and “Take 2 and a half”, with over 30 years elapsing between the two. It is the work of African-American director William Greaves (1926-2014) and consists of a screen test in Central Park. Several different couples are screen tested, with a first film crew filming them, a second film crew filming the first film crew filming them, and a third film crew filming not only the second crew filming the first film crew filming them, but also anything that happens around the screen test, involving for example curious passers-by – including one delightful intervention by a highly educated homeless man.
The curious title comes from a social science philosopher, Arthur Bentley, who coined the term symbiotaxiplasm to describe all events that human beings are involved in, affecting their character and environment. William Greaves added the “psycho” for mental mechanisms involved in creative processes. The film also owes something to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, Stanislavsky, Chaos Theory, mysticism and – well, the 1960s…
Fundamentally, it is about how actors and directors work together – with the added bonus that in 1968 the technical crew mutinied, rebelling against William Greaves whom they considered totally incompetent, and filming their mutinous discussions to add to the debate – confirming the hypothesis that “everybody wants to be a director”. It has also been called “a site of creative tension between individual vision and collective endeavours” and, by Steven Soderbergh – largely responsible for saving the film from oblivion – “the ultimate reality piece”.
In the second « take », two of the actors and the director and crew get together over 30 years later – a touching encounter, seeing how everyone has changed – and shoot a sequel screen test, again in Central Park, after a showing of “Take 1”. The two films were first screened in 2001.
Even if this metatextual “happening” idea does not appeal to you, it is great fun watching people interacting back in 1968 – nearly half a century ago. Everyone smokes, and the attitudes seem at once modern and dated, by turn. The Actor’s Studio cast show just how varied the same scene – a woman suspecting her boyfriend/husband of being homosexual – can be played. In its way, it is a kind of Master Class.