In 1968 William Greaves began disappearing for a couple of hours on certain days from the production offices of Black Journal, a television news programme where he served as executive producer. The programme, whose mission was ‘to present news by African Americans, for African Americans, and about African Americans,’ aired on National Educational Television (NET), a public broadcasting syndicate that was, at the time, run primarily by white people.
Despite an unprecedented rise in civil rights for black Americans up to that point, NET’s racial hierarchy, as well as the irony, had been a mainstay in American society (both at the time and still, in many areas, today) and thus, accepted by many as normal. And if not normal, then simply a reluctantly accepted reality, despite the fervour of outspoken political protest that came to define the sixties as a decade. Considering William Greaves’s work at Black Journal as well as his past documentary work on topics ranging from social justice to Afrocentric arts, one can assume that Greaves was a) growing restless of this hierarchy and the ‘accepted normalcy’ of this status quo, and b) devising ways of subverting it.
A break outside of the office and breath of fresh air can help a person think clearly. A stroll through Central Park can aid in the step of accurately perceiving reality. In Greaves’s case, his midday excursions eventually led to him asking one of his colleagues at Black Journal if he’d like to see a film.
It turned out that, in those extended lunchtime strolls through the park, Greaves was actually shooting a film. And certainly not a film of ‘accepted normalcy.’ He titled it Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, Take One, a multilayered experimental documentary that turned traditional filmmaking on its head by turning the cameras on each other.
Greaves employed three film crews. At the centre of the action, multiple pairs of actors rehearse the same scripted marital quarrel repeatedly, with Film Crew 1 filming, akin to a screen test on location. Film Crew 2 was tasked to film Film Crew 1. Film Crew 3 was tasked to film Film Crew 2, along with whatever curious scenery its Central Park environs happened to offer. Greaves, both director and playing the part of Director, weaves in front of and behind every camera present.
The three film crews restlessly shoot footage of actors reading trite lines, and their performances don’t seem to be improving because the director won’t give them any direction. In its simplest explanation, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm examines the different levels of reality that can be unveiled in front of a film camera. Symbio also asks, or forces its viewer to ask, ‘What is actually real?’ Are the two actors in the centre actually that wooden, or are they playing the part not just of married quarrelers but of wooden actors playing married quarrelers? Are the film crews really that upset with Greaves’s lack of direction? Is he an inept, confused director or simply playing one to provoke his cast, crew, and viewers to consider these questions? After all, there is one moment in the film where, after instructing his three crews of their vague purposes, Greaves looks into one of the cameras and offers one resolute instruction: ‘Don’t take me seriously.’
While there is enough fodder in Symbio to fill the syllabus of an entire film studies course, there must be a certain point where one needs to look past the film’s inherent film geekery and actually confront the levels of reality it displays. A piece of film criticism on Symbio, for instance, might discuss the philosophical quandaries that the film evokes, and perhaps thread that needle through five decades. The piece might relate the crew’s inability to neatly define reality to today’s dependence on technological gadgetry in a hypervisual age. Or the piece might relate the cast’s struggle to believe in their lines with today’s belief that, since we have myriad ways of documenting, we also have myriad ways of performing. But this type of analysis is also susceptible to stopping short of any deep examination, which, in a sense, is one thing Greaves might have set out to prove.
The unrest taking place in idyllic Central Park provides not only a strong juxtaposition but a strong metaphor for Greaves’s unspoken statement of intent. Filming on location is most often as much a practical choice as it is an aesthetic choice. One aspect that Greaves actually is explicit about is setting out to capture the air of political subversion of the late sixties, especially in New York City, forever the hub of American liberal intellectualism. The ironic thing about Symbio‘s use of public space is that, by localising the action in reality, it also carries with it the possibility, maybe even the likelihood, of smokescreening the film’s deepest purpose.
What is Symbiopsychotaxiplasm‘s deepest purpose, the deepest level of reality? It is never explicitly declared; doing so would defeat the purpose of arriving at it, whatever it is. So maybe we can’t really blame the film geeks. After all, the thing they will most likely notice in the strongest sense is that which mirrors their own reality, or what they perceive as their own reality, which to them is: what does it mean to make a film? The scenes in Symbio that show crew members discussing, sometimes rather heatedly, the film’s purpose and Greaves’s intentions, are what give the film its ‘meta’ qualities. But forget for a second what production assistant Bob Rosen and soundman Jonathan Gordon say. How about the fact that there are plenty of women and black people among them, yet it is the two white males who dominate the discussion?
One of the pertinent statements from these scenes unsurprisingly comes from one of the women, who defends Greaves’s approach as an effort to document different levels of reality. The room doesn’t really acknowledge her statement, but she is on point: there are different levels of reality, the likes of which even the film crew eventually fails to notice. Suddenly Greaves’s statement from earlier, ‘Don’t take me seriously,’ assumes a different level of reality in its own right. When it becomes clear that there is ostensibly power to seize, from a black man no less, it is none other than Rosen and Gordon, the two outspoken white male members of the crew, who lead what Greaves cheekily refers to as a ‘palace revolt,’ presumably in reference to the Palace Revolt of 1912, in which the discontented army in Siam attempted to overthrow King Rama VI, only to fail. In an essay entitled ‘Man With a Plan,’ film scholar Michael Kuresky points out one particularly illuminating moment in the film when Greaves, whose vague direction spurs the palace revolt to begin with, says with uncharacteristc explicitness to his crew, ‘I represent the establishment.’ When a crew member confesses that he doesn’t understand, Greaves responds, ‘It doesn’t matter whether or not you understand.’ Never in Rosen and Gordon’s discussions of the film do they make any mention of race. They have trouble seeing past the only level of reality that concerns them, which is: Who has the power?
Employing a cast and three film crews and challenging them to engage with different levels of reality, on his lunch break no less, was no small feat. Nor was it a traditional way of doing so. The filming of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm took place during the ongoing Vietnam War, a time of global political unrest, when social groups connected by a feeling of subordination were beginning to voice their concerns, when fiery and direct speeches inspired and incited the public to action. Even Greaves, in his respected position at Black Journal, could not escape the reality of his race. When it came time to make his own film, his own statement of power and social hierarchy, he set up an experiment susceptible to sabotage. He chose the people in his crew, which means that he had a part in engineering the film’s outcomes, even if he didn’t altogether foresee them. Perhaps one thing Greaves did see, then, was a level of reality that others would only see if he illuminated it for them in broad daylight.