Many fairly awful foreign films have nonetheless gained a large cultural cache in foreign countries simply for their being foreign; and as the process of orientalizing another culture obscures the particulars of the culture orientalized, so does the naming of the process “orientalizing” obscure the particularities of how different cultures orientalize. In an incident that has since become notorious, the Italian director Antonioni hired the US guitarist John Fahey to score his film Zabriskie Point. At dinner one night, the two both got very drunk and one or the other initiated a fistfight over Antonioni’s cartoonish hatred of the United States. Fahey was fired from the production, and the finished film is possibly the weakest of Antonioni’s mature period, an angry empty caricature, the dull zombified rock and roll club scene in Blow-Up extended to feature length.
The US was similarly orientalized by the French New Wave, but with a distorted view of American tropes that were in fact far more exciting than anything going on in the US itself at the time. These were subsequently internalized and regurgitated in distorted form to make the bulk of the puzzlingly vaunted “New Hollywood Cinema” of the 1970s. The distorted vision of the cultural from one place fascinated by the position of the other as the place elsewhere to be dreamed about projected back so that the place that the dream was overlaid upon begins to dream someone else’s dream as the dream of itself. In China, McDonald’s is a sit down restaurant where you might take a date for reasons of US cultural garbage being taken as cosmopolitan there for their representing a place that isn’t China. And in the US, competitors to McDonald’s have attempted to make a thing that looks like a high end McDonald’s where you can sit down and order a beer; weird commercial mongrels like the Burger King BK Burger Bar in NYC attempt to bring the vision of the US that exists in China to the US itself. I have no clue whether it’s been successful in doing.
The uncomfortable lesson here being that cultural diffusion works largely on the creative power of misreadings and projection; the rest of the world in some manner exists as a more loosely regulated fantasy playground for the mind to imagine further places elsewhere.
(At this point I stopped typing and walked off to make some more coffee. On returning I found myself befuddled trying to figure out exactly where I was going with the pile of text I’d just typed and you presumably just read. Whatever. I’ll run with it. I’ll even leave in the part in italics where I’m talking to myself.
Yeah, that’ll show ’em.)
So what the hell does any of that have to do with William Greaves’ 1968 film Symbiopsychotaxiplasm? Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, like its name suggests, is a lot of things that aren’t necessarily supposed to be together collapsed into close quarters that still, somehow, manage to roll off the tongue musically.
The concept of the film: Greaves is ostensibly directing a film with two actors, but while he’s doing this, a second film crew has been hired to film the making of the film, and a third crew has been hired to film the entire process of the making of the film itself and the making of the making of documentary. The gag being that Greaves doesn’t actually have a film at the center, but just a single scene of a white couple arguing with each other in Central Park about whether or not the man has been having homosexual affairs. Greaves keeps shooting this one scene repeatedly for 10 days, eventually having to replace his first two actors who sense something is awry. His crew isn’t sure whether to mutiny. They start secretly shooting meetings where they themselves try to figure out what the film is and how to deal with the distant Greaves, shooting footage that Greaves in turn ends up using to compose the bulk of the finished product. Unsure whether Greaves is secretly misogynistic, homophobic, incompetent, or eventually whether the entire process is in fact a conspiracy engineered by Greaves to get them to want to mutiny and make the actual film themselves in these secret meetings, the term “troll” as we know it not yet plugged into the cultural consciousness. Despite it all they keep following each other with cameras.
The result is one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen, one that seems to have directed itself out of Greaves’ own steadfast refusal to direct it and somehow still ends up having brilliant thematically coherent sound design and mise en scene which seems to arise from the combination of Greaves’ extremely keen eye as an editor and luck bordering on the mystical. The scenario creates its own sight gags. They’re glorious.
And the scene itself, like Symbiopsychotaxiplasm the larger film, and like my review of Symbiopsychotaxiplasm the larger film that I’m currently writing but will have already written by the time you’re reading this, is an exercise in evading acknowledging a lack of a larger point. Like a Rube Goldberg device, it doesn’t actually do anything, but also like a Rube Goldberg device it doesn’t actually have to do anything. The endless series of distractions from the possible lack of a something, in this case Greaves’ fictional film, is the something. Several shots of individuals are held speaking about what the film is, attempts to bring it to the stasis of coherence, find their monologues drifting as the soundtrack picks up other people talking and the sounds of Central Park; their speeches aren’t entirely audible and this is the point. Life intrudes.
Even shots of the scene, when shown from the level of their straightforward being the “film” itself are shown from two slightly varied perspectives simultaneously with the same soundtrack and a gulf of black screen between them. The scene itself is split and there’s nothing at the center; if the film had been shot straight as a dramatic piece this all still would’ve been lurking in the background.
Greaves makes the most of his own purposely taken stance in the process as a non-entity and locus around which the chaos can happen in a number of shots showing him wandering around at a distance looking like a mock up of a man in serious thought. Greaves the comic cipher grows in cinematic presence/absence as the viewer figures out more and more the prank being played; by the end the slightest reaction shot was enough to make me burst out laughing.
Why this film took 35 years to be discovered is beyond me; I guess like a lot of other great works by black filmmakers from the time period it was suppressed by whatever forces institutional racism or philistinism decides to manifest themselves in that day. It’s better than the vast majority of what’s considered “avant-garde” or “experimental” canon by the Jonas Mekas crowd. Watch it.