Like ‘Real Life’? You’ll love ‘Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes’

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm
Trawling YouTube is a weekly look at one interesting story or oddity from YouTube. You ever go down a YouTube rabbit hole and suddenly you’ve wasted five hours watching every Madonna video? This is about those rabbit holes, but the comedy-related ones.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1/2, hew[s its] own course and reaffirm[s] the too-often forgotten point that authentic independent cinema is independent in vision, not just in financing.”

–Manohla Dargis, New York Times, 2005

“He conceived of the milieu that human beings find themselves as the symbiotaxiplasm. And this symbiotaxiplasm represents those events that transpire in the course of anyone’s life that have an impact on the consciousness and the psyche of the average human being, and how that human being also controls or effects changes or has an impact on the environment.”

-William Greaves, on the Arthur Bentley essay that inspired the title of this movie

This week I was going to write about the LA sketch group Women Comedy, because of their good videos and their good Twitter, but then I got to this video and got distracted:

You see, as a journalist I am duty bound to “follow” the “story” wherever it may go, and in this case that meant looking up this other video that one reminded me of. The 1968 movie Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. (Because it’s also about shooting a movie.) In addition to having a long name that makes you sound smart, Symbio[…]plasm is a really interesting movie that predicts reality TV (11 years before Real Life), meta-textual storytelling, the thing where Kanye West puts out an album and then keeps changing it online, the current popular fascination with documentaries, and probably a bunch of other stuff.

But whereas Real Life is kind of a surreal-sarcastic accidental proto-Kardashians, Symbio[…]plasm is a like a weird inside-out Joe Schmo Show that is also, because it takes place in New York (mostly Central Park) before 1990, “gritty.”

Here is the trailer:

And here is the whole movie:

Actually, that thing I said earlier about this being a movie? That’s not exactly right. It’s two movies. Or like 2 1/2 movies. Or, 2 1/2 “takes.” Even 50 years later I’m not totally sure what is going on with this movie.

Here’s the Wikipedia version of the story: William Greaves had this idea for a documentary about the process of auditioning for a movie. He was “dissatisfied with Hollywood acting,” as I assume many of us are at one point and/or another, and so he wanted to put up on screen what that whole process is like and why it’s terrible. So some pitch about filming actors through a series of auditions for a part, but like really filming them through the whole experience, not just putting them on tape reading the sides. And then he didn’t do that movie for a few years.

But then he did do it, for reasons Wikipedia tells me have to do with the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, but it seems like he just found this extra puzzle piece that would make the whole concept more dramatic and exciting. He would force this unprecedented degree of spontaneity and naturalism by not just not telling the actors what was going on, but also not telling the crew (actually, three different crews: one to document the actors, one to document the first film crew, and one to document the first two crews, naturally) what’s going on. Soon enough they start realizing something weird is happening, and start having meetings like this one:

And this one:

So this is a New York film crew, the most jaded of the jaded, who observe this weird vibe creeping into the production and doesn’t immediately go, “Wait am I getting punk’d here? I’ve worked on nine shitty prank shows just like this.”

The other thing that’s just endlessly funny to me is the scenes in the movie-within-a-movie (written by Greaves) that he chooses to shoot over and over to build the real tension in the crew. One is about a guy chasing his woman friend because she caught him cheating. Then later they talk about an abortion (“I have had abortion after abortion after abortion, ever since we’ve been married! And I just want to put an end to all of that!”). And the whole thing has kind of cumulative effect similar to the “These pretzels are making me thirsty” plot from Seinfeld, where you see this line repeated over and over, and it reminds you how silly acting is. Here:

Acting is soo silly. But there is one legitimately great performance in this movie: the director, played, of course, by Greaves. Apparently he is playing a kind of heightened version of himself, with some of the base qualities associated with directors exaggerated. So, for example, he’s thoughtless and sexist a lot of the time; but beneath that façade his performance has this impressive dimension to it — how he perfectly skates this line between soft-pedaling the “fake movie” concept and tipping his hand too much.

For example, this scene of him directing the main 2 actors…

…is really Greaves incorporating them into this bullshit “director” performance for the (real, handheld documentary) camera. Remember, this scene is never going to actually be shot. These notes he’s giving are never going to be implemented in any real movie. It’s just kinda to see how much actors are willing to tolerate from someone who calls himself a filmmaker and is willing to give them a job. “See, this is the beauty of shooting this way: we’re totally disconnected from everything.”

Also, William Greaves is black. And that’s not just an incidental fact, he was very racially conscious, and in fact made that the main subject of most of his (over 200) documentaries. And of course this was in America in 1968. (A year later he won an Emmy for the film Black Journal.) If you’re looking for a reason this movie isn’t written about as much as, say, Real Life, that could be a good place to start your research.

So anyways, Bill Greaves probably doesn’t need anybody’s help, but he did get it. From two white movie guys named Steve. In 1992 (!!) Steve Buscemi saw Symbio… at Sundance and, along with Steven Soderburgh, took the film under his wing and vowed to get it seen by a larger audience. (This was the same Sundance as In the Soup and Reservoir Dogs.)

Soderbergh said this about the film:

As you can imagine, I just thought it was one of the most amazing things I’d ever seen. I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe how great it was and that it wasn’t famous, I mean really famous. Even then, almost ten years ago, I felt maybe it’s still, even now, too far ahead of its time.

It’s the ultimate “reality” piece.

The difference being, in this case, that nobody was in on the joke. And that’s what makes it so brilliant. When you do a reality show on TV today, you know you’re part of a show and that they’re going to start creating obstacles for you or trying to complicate the situation purposefully and consciously. Here, you’re just watching a situation where people are absolutely convinced that Bill is out of control, doesn’t know what he’s doing, and you’re a fly on the wall. And then the ultimate mutiny takes place. It’s really incredible.

I think when he was presented with that material, he must have felt like the cinema gods were smiling on him.

Eventually they put together a Criterion Collection DVD, which was released in 2005 (!!!). Part of that release was another whole documentary, shot with the same actors, which picks up the characters 35 years later. I have not seen that version because I don’t have the Netflix thing where you can get them to send you DVDs anymore, and it’s not on YouTube. But just the scope of time involved is soo cool to me. It’s like Boyhood stretched into like 4x the production length and with a way cooler plot.

Anyways this is all on YouTube now so anyone can watch it. Oh, and the score is by Miles Davis.

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes: good.

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