By Michael Atkinson
[Photo: “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One,” Criterion]
A legendary but unreleased phantom from the crazy, hazy summer of 1968 that finally got a nominal theatrical release last year, William Greaves’ “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” may be the ultimate paradigm of self-reflexive cinema, eating Godard’s tail for him and one-upping the classic Chuck Jones anti-cartoon “Duck Amuck” by submitting to a natural entropy and a self-inquiry so relentless the movie never moves from square one. The suave, implacably jovial Greaves plays Greaves playing a vague indie filmmaker shooting a film about marital rupture in Central Park. With three mutually interrogating cameras going at all times, the set and surrounding passersby (including cops) get folded into the meta-vérité mix, which is often prismed out for us as a split-screen triptych. Eventually, the discontented and cerebral crew begin filming themselves complaining about Greaves (and his script) when he’s not there, scenes that are sometimes cut up by Greaves later on in entire chunks of the film, shooting and editing are actions in deep conflict with each other. Or so it’s made to seem, or made to seem possible. “Stop acting!” someone hollers early on; the magical moment when we see two simultaneous shots get refocused on distractions (a squad car, the actress’ legs) is trumped only by the sound team’s scathing critique of Greaves’s “acting” on and off-camera.
Was it life, Memorex or something else? Bewitched by the process of turning our perception of movies and the priorities of a viewer’s “knowledge” inside out, Greaves had no intentions of stopping: as the title implies, “Take One” was supposed to only the first of up to five movies derived from the same pool of ’68 footage, of which there is presumably a great amount. The project never happened that way; instead, Greaves spent the decades on smaller films (many of them educational), and only in 2005 did a second “take” emerge at the Sundance Film Festival (“2 1/2,” actually), produced by Steven Soderbergh and Steve Buscemi, adding the passage of time to its hall of mirrors, and featuring contemporary footage about the history of the first film folded into the batter. Aptly, Criterion rescues both “Symbiopsychotaxiplasms” for good from the dark vault of moviegoing amnesia, on two discs, with additional interviews, docs and Greaves’s own production notes.
Another veteran of the Nixon-‘Nam postwar culture tussles, Wim Wenders was once a legitimate rival for the New German Cinema kingship alongside Werner Herzog and Rainer Werner Fassbinder. He has since spent over a decade in Hollywood, falling in love with California, Sam Shepard, noir clichés and roadhouse jukebox music, only to return to Germany last year, but if one need be reminded of Wenders’s once prodigious talents, or if one remembers acutely where they were when they first saw “The American Friend” (1977) or “Wings of Desire” (1987), then one could do worse, at holiday gift time, then to cunningly mention the new eight-disc Wenders box to your shopping-crazed loved ones. Adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel, “Friend” is a masterful, oddly epochal tale of criminal doom (starring Dennis Hopper as the titular, untrustworthy acquaintance, and Bruno Ganz as a principled frame craftsman sucked into underworld business) that is at the same time bouncy with in-jokes and cinephilic references. But the box also rolls out with Wenders’s deeply strange and confrontational adaptation of “The Scarlet Letter” (1972); the Peter Handke-scripted (from Goethe!) “Wrong Move” (1975); the ailing-Nicholas Ray-codirected semi-doc and homage “Lightning Over Water” (1980); the famous non-fiction essays “Tokyo-Ga” (1985) and “Notebook on Cities and Clothes” (1989), and more. Supps include a shotgun spray of deleted scenes, commentaries, new interviews and trailers, as well as a videotaped lecture by Ray and a booklet on all eight films by critic Godfrey Cheshire.
“Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One” (Criterion) and “The Wim Wenders Collection, Vol. 2” (Anchor Bay) will be available on DVD on December 5th.