What’s Mark Borchardt watching? Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One
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Every now and then, The A.V. Club wonders, “What’s Mark Borchardt watching?” So, we asked the Milwaukee filmmaker, and he told us about the 1968 experimental documentary Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One.
1968. It’s a heady time in America, and within the burgeoning heat of this cultural revolution a sea change in social and sexual mores is occurring, solidifying the iconic mythos of the era. Reflective of this dynamic transition is the blossoming of the American New Wave: a freer, more truthful cinema let loose from the tight strictures of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” and the suffocating grip of the Production Code. From this potent milieu emerges a peculiar documentary aptly titled—hold on to your hats—Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. Obviously, this one most likely didn’t make it to a theater near you.
In this fascinating film (one of the crown jewels of cinéma vérité), a group of enthusiastic filmmakers (at least at first) and the director, William Greaves, set upon Central Park to embark on an experimental film project. They arrive with a flotilla of 16mm cameras. From the outset, it’s explained that Symbiopsychotaxiplasm is a film within a film within a film, with each crew member’s presence actively acknowledged. Again, it’s a heady time.
However, it becomes increasingly apparent that it’s essentially mission unknown, even though the film is given the aura of a collaborative project. Greaves is ostensibly at the helm, but instead of providing assertive direction, he proves more a pathway to a growing uncertainty with his broad interpretations of how scenes should be played. Still, it’s a delightful uncertainty as the possibilities of cinema are explored, debated, and further expanded. And it doesn’t hurt that Miles Davis provides the soundtrack: a jazzy correlative to a rambling and oft-times discordant filmic melody of spontaneous creativity.
It becomes increasingly apparent that an actual film isn’t being constructed in totality (as in a conventional narrative), but rather, it’s an exploration of the same scenes enacted by different sets of the cast, allowing for identical premises to be put through the prism of various interpretations. How this all will add up, we don’t and won’t quite know. But the film’s genius is in its enigma; it’s not about getting there, for “there” is a growing realization that there is no “there.” And it’s this filmic riddle that begins to rub some of the crew the wrong way.
After a number of days of frustrated shooting, a faction of the company convenes for an impromptu rap session to debate the nature and direction of this seemingly wayward project. It’s a meeting of minor dissent (actually, almost mutinous) and major analysis, as they surmise that Greaves’ answers to their nagging inquiries are “so vague it’d be better that you hadn’t asked the question in the first place.” This inflamed coterie even goes on to subtly meta-fy their roles in this project, paradoxically hinting that they themselves could be in on its mystery (that is, if there is one) as additional provocateurs of its oblique contours.
Greaves persists confidently with his amorphous odyssey, possessing a disarming, erudite personality, and knowing how to work the crowd as well as the individual—the kind of charming raconteur that could fit into any crack or crevice of any given social situation. That ubiquitous charm can also be seen as a means of glib coercion; this fact does not go unnoticed.
Ultimately, Greaves is trying to get down to something, something truly immersive, drawing cast and crew out while drawing them in, where they are to learn something expansive about cinema and at the same time each other, portraying the exhilarating challenge of making films on one’s own terms and enjoying (if not tolerating) the temporary community it conjures. It’s an existential romp in a great venue during an evolutionary time, and we are all the better for it.