Within the first half hour of this 1968 film, we learn the original working title was Off the Edge of a Cliff. This would have been a more appropriate title for a film that follows freewheeling director William Greaves and his dysfunctional family of actors and crew members as they try to cull a movie from a weak script and practically no plot. It may seem like a '70s precursor to Project Greenlight or American Movie, but there's much more going on in this phenomenal cinematic experiment.
You can't quite call this a documentary, as most documentarians try to keep themselves out of the narrative. But here, Greaves is the man in charge of a fictitious film about a married couple's quarrel in Central Park, and the film about the film. As one crew member confesses to his friends when Greaves isn't around: "What throws me is that, in a sense, he's written himself a part in this film. And as soon as you turn the camera on, he turns on. He's like a bad actor he doesn't turn into his natural self until the camera stops."
In between the filming, we get the good stuff: The actors panic over their own bad performances and are frustrated with Greaves' poor direction, and the crew philosophizes about Greaves' ineptitude is it a put-on or not? It's tough to tell. When a cop rides up on his horse during filming, he asks Greaves what the story is about, and the director responds matter-of-factly, in a way that makes him seem like he could be either a genius or an idiot: "The film is a feature-length we-don't-know. We'll find out after we develop it."
So just what is Greaves' intention? Nobody seems to know, and the uncertainty produces anger, even paranoia. One crew member suggests they're all unwitting actors in Greaves' film, like members of a Greek chorus; it makes you wonder who's real and who's really acting.
Regardless, this is a great glimpse of the artistic process. As an actress outperforms her fumbling co-star, he tries to cover up his bad acting by bitching about her when he thinks he's off camera. Conflicts over the script arise and lead to an interesting conversation about the nature of language in film: A cameraman pleads with Greaves to drop the euphemisms and allow the actors to speak plainly. Instead of corny stuff about love gone wrong, he's looking for something more along the lines of "Don't you like to eat me, Freddy?"
Greaves stops scenes that are going well simply because he's run out of film or to ask the actors how they feel and after a week of this everyone gets fed up. The director decides to start from scratch, turning his film about a loveless marriage into a series of screen tests. Just when the crew looks like they'd kick his ass if they weren't so mentally and physically exhausted, he explains to them that their "losing it" was precisely his goal. Greaves sees the film industry as a fascist dictatorship led by the director, and he's pushing for a revolution.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm calls to mind writers and artists who employ their medium as a looking glass into reality; everyone from Woody Allen, who denies his actors a full script, to Andy Warhol, who used screen tests to exploit human vulnerability.
In the end, Greaves gets his moment of Zen from a homeless guy in the park, who interrupts the crew during a particularly fruitless day of production. With his shoes slung around his shoulders, the sweaty drunk offers slurred words of wisdom: "Why do we have to have an adaptation of words and symbols? Can't we be ourselves? If you want to go get fucked, get fucked. That's the way I think. Didn't you suck your mama's nipples? Well, I did the same thing, you know."
Greaves wanted an uprising, and amid the chaos of artists trying to figure out what's real, he got one from a bum who sleeps in the bushes.
Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), at 7 p.m. on Sunday, April 16, and at 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 17. Call 313-833-3237.
Rebecca Mazzei is Metro Times arts editor. Send comments to [email protected].