Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Two Takes by William Greaves
In his one-of-a-kind fiction/documentary hybrid Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One, the pioneering William Greaves presides over a beleaguered film crew in New York’s Central Park, leaving them to try to figure out what kind of movie they’re making. A couple enacts a breakup scenario over and over, a documentary crew films a crew filming the crew, locals wander casually into the frame: the project defies easy description. Yet this wildly innovative sixties counterculture landmark remains one of the most tightly focused and insightful movies ever made about making movies, expanded thirty-five years later by its unconventional follow-up, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2½. The “sequel” sees Take One actors Audrey Henningham and Shannon Baker reunited in a more personal, metatheatrical exploration of the effects of the passage of time on technology, the artistic process, and relationships—real and fabricated.
William Greaves’ two films Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One and Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take 2 ½ receive a Blu-ray upgrade from The Criterion Collection, who present both films on a dual-layer Blu-ray disc. The first film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with a 1080p/24hz high-definition encode, while the second film is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.78:1 with 1080i/60hz encode.
This is another one of Criterion’s DVD titles I was certain would never see the light of day on Blu-ray and yet here it is, sitting right in front of me at this very moment. While I still believe any film benefits from a high-def presentation, the nature of the film (and especially the second one) means any sort of Blu-ray upgrade outside of a whole new transfer and restoration is going to offer, at best, minimal improvements over any previous standard-definition release, or—heaven forbid—make any current issues more obvious. Unfortunately, Criterion is simply reusing the same masters for both films for this edition and, in both cases, it’s more the latter: issues are more obvious.
Though I still have to assume some restoration work was done for the first film for their initial DVD edition (the film really did look to be in significantly better shape than it should have been), Greaves had the desire to keep flaws in the picture (and sound) because he felt it kept an “authentic” look that replicated the “spontaneity of the original film.” Criterion has kept to his wishes and there is a decent amount of damage popping up throughout the picture, from large marks to bits of debris to scratches, and it can get a bit heavy at times. On top of that, the source for the first film was a 35mm print and it doesn’t look like any colour correction or grading has been done, which leads to weak colour saturation, weak blacks, and a washed-out look.
Of course, that’s what Greaves wanted and it’s fine in that regard: it’s still obvious a lot of work went into the restoration and the picture is generally clean, all things considered, and rather sharp with a surprising level of detail. On DVD, this looked fine, the disc even rendering film grain decently enough, and for that format I’d say it looked good.
Sadly, I can’t really say the same for the Blu-ray’s presentation of the first film. The high-definition presentation does improve detail somewhat, and the film does have a somewhat “sharper” look, but it’s obvious we’re looking at an older master with a problematic digital presentation. Shimmering can be especially bad in places, Greaves’ mesh shirt being the worst offender, followed by any other tight pattern thereafter. Grain looks sharpened as well, and this leads to several noisy looking sequences, especially in the shadows. With the DVD I was impressed at how close the presentation came to looking film-like in texture, while the Blu-ray’s manages to surprise me by looking more digital and processed. In this case, the DVD’s compression probably helped the final image by softening the grain.
Still, if the first film’s weak high-definition master didn’t kill off any reason to upgrade this edition to Blu-ray (without an all-new restoration) the second film probably should have. A majority of the second film was shot digitally in standard-definition. There is unused film footage from the first film that takes up a big chunk of this one, but it has obviously been transferred from film to standard-definition video (and, somewhat oddly, the footage looks to have gone through a more vigorous restoration process in comparison to the first film). This is of course all fine-and-dandy, but the film looked digital and weak on the DVD and looks even worse here. Basically, we’re watching an upscale, and it’s not a very good one. Though the footage that comes from film doesn’t look too bad in the end (it just looks like video), it’s the newly shot footage that doesn’t translate well. Artifacts are rampant during the newly filmed sequences, compression getting especially bad at times. This leads to jagged edges, ghosting and a lot of noise (the interlacing doesn't help). Even colours come off waxy, while blacks look mushy. It doesn’t look all that great, and I would actually say it looks worse than the DVD.
I’m not criticizing the films in any way and I hope that’s not how this is coming off. Ultimately, they are what they are, made the way Greaves wanted to and had to. I’m just questioning the Blu-ray upgrade because the first film, despite a few improvements in detail, actually looks more digital, while the second film ends up looking “worse” than what the DVD looks like upscaled. If the first film received an all-new restoration I could see an upgrade making sense, because the film does have the potential to look pretty good in high-definition, but as it is I’d say most will be just as happy with the DVD’s presentation for both films.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One (1968): 6/10 Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1/2 (2003): 5/10
Both films receive lossless PCM 1.0 monaural soundtracks. Both films sound fine, more limited by how the films were shot, which can lead to minor drops and such. General quality is good and both manage to deliver decent fidelity and range.
The supplements are still (sadly) sparse, but a one-hour profile on director William Greaves (called Discovering William Greaves) makes up quite a bit for it. Featuring interviews with Greaves—along with wife (and coproducer) Louise Archambault, actor Ruby Dee, filmmaker St. Clair Bourne, and scholar Scott MacDonald—this in-depth profile covers the filmmaker’s early life (where he discovered a passion for the arts and science), from his work in theater to his move to Canada where he got a job with the National Film Board. While there he was eventually able to dip his toes more into every facet of filmmaking before moving back to the States where he was able to make films with a focus on documentaries or creating material addressing social issues.
The last half (or so) focuses then on Symbiopsychotaxiplasm Take One, and a little about the second film, but that one gets covered more in the 12-minute interview with Steve Buscemi, who first recounts how he saw the first film (when he was at Cannes in 1992) and the impact it had on him, leading him to help out in getting the second film made.
Both of those features on their own manage to cover the films well, though sadly, outside of the trailer (for the 2005 Janus Films release) and a booklet (containing an essay on the two films by Amy Taubin, followed by Greaves’ production notes) there isn’t anything else, not even an interview with Steven Soderbergh, producer of the second film and one who is usually really good about doing interviews for releases of films he’s involved with in some way. For anyone fascinated by the films and their director the features we do get are a must.
I think this is a title that any film buff should be happy to own, and though the supplements are few they’re great, the profile on Greaves being especially thorough. Still, in the end, I can’t say this Blu-ray edition is much better than the previous DVD edition. Though the image for the first film is a bit sharper in comparison to the DVD, artifacts end up being more problematic, while the second film probably looks worse here compared to how it looked on DVD (when upscaled). If you already own the DVD it’s certainly not worth upgrading to. For everyone else, it’ll just come down to preference.