Daily | William Greaves, 1926 – 2014

William Greaves

William Greaves

William Greaves, a producer and director who helped bring an African-American perspective to mainstream America as a host of the groundbreaking television news program Black Journal and as a documentary filmmaker, died on Monday,” reports Mel Watkins in the New York Times. “Mr. Greaves was well known for his work as a documentarian focusing on racial issues and black historical figures. In his later years he was equally known for his most uncharacteristic film, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One. Made in 1968, it mixed fact and fiction in a complex film-within-a-film structure that made it a tough sell commercially, and it waited almost four decades for theatrical release. When it finally had one, in 2005, it was warmly praised as ahead of its time.”

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One may be the ultimate paradigm of self-reflexive cinema, eating Godard‘s tail for him and one-upping the classic anti-cartoon Duck Amuck by submitting to a cunning entropy and a self-inquiry so relentless the movie never moves from square one,” wrote Michael Atkinson in the Voice in 2005. “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.”

“No one involved, including Mr. Greaves, knew exactly what they were attempting to capture,” wrote Nathan Lee, also in 2005, but for the New York Sun. “Unbeknownst (presumably) to Mr. Greaves, his collaborators hijacked the production and turned the cameras on themselves, recording their attempts to decode the rules of the game…. Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is flower-power Pirandello, a High 60s groove on, like, ‘supra levels of reality,’ man. Or as another crewmember ponders, ‘Sure, it’s a movie, but who’s moving who?'”

“Greaves was no upstart,” wrote Michael Koresky for Criterion this February. “The Harlem-bred filmmaker got his start in acting, both for stage and screen. In the 40s, he had been in major Broadway shows as well as small independent movies geared toward black audiences, such as Miracle in Harlem, with Sheila Guyse, and The Fight Never Ends, with Joe Louis and Ruby Dee; at the same time, Greaves was studying at the fabled Actors Studio in New York… With options for black actors minimal in the U.S., Greaves moved to Canada in the 50s and learned how to make movies while working for the National Film Board there. When he returned to a socially evolving United States in the 60s, he had acquired enough of a reputation to launch his own production company… The Symbiopsychotaxiplasm project married his adeptness at exploratory nonfiction filmmaking with his lingering fascination with performance, as well as his growing interest in interrogating power structures. Greaves knew that a film set functioned according to a certain hierarchy, and he wanted to call these unwritten rules into question. In doing so, he also happened on a powerful image: himself, an African-American, calling the shots in a medium controlled by whites.”

“For an African-American director to make a feature film, let alone one as experimental as a film by Warhol or Godard, could not have been imagined if Greaves hadn’t gone out and done it,” wrote Amy Taubin for Criterion in 2006. “Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2½ [2005] combines material shot in 1968, and originally planned for Take Two, with an update shot thirty-five years later…. If Take 2½ lacks the minimalist audacity of Greaves’s original conception…, it has a bittersweetness that testifies to how much has been lost and found by everyone on the screen—and us as well.”

“Greaves was not only a harbinger of a new era of multicultural filmmaking but a pivotal figure in the history of African-American cinema,” wrote Adam Knee and Charles Musser in a 1992 survey of Greaves’s work for Film Quarterly.

Update, 8/31: “In one sense, the Symbiopsychotaxiplasm project was an anomaly in Greaves’ distinguished career,” writes Noel Murray at the Dissolve. “But really, all of Greaves’ films were just as personal and pensive—it’s just that Greaves stopped showing the cameras always hovering just outside the frame.”

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