Though he directed more than 100 documentaries and helped pioneer cinema vérité in the late 1950s with his work for the National Film Board of Canada, William Greaves remains largely obscure, outside of his 1968 meta-movie Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One, first released by Criterion in 2006 and now out in a surprising Blu-ray upgrade. That release comes in close proximity to Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release of Greaves 1972 documentary Nationtime, recently rescued with a 4K restoration. Given Greaves’ prolific career, there’s no way these two releases sum up the man’s work, but taken together, they start to piece together a picture of the breadth of his interests and styles.
Nationtime, originally released in a truncated version as Nationtime – Gary, takes an intensely focused look at the 1972 National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana. Organized by poet, author and activist Amiri Baraka, the event attracted 10,000 people and a who’s who of influential Black Americans in an attempt to unify on a national political platform.
Four years removed from the assassination of Martin Luther King, Black political voices were largely divided between nationalists, like Baraka, and moderates, like members of the newly formed Congressional Black Caucus. Both sides were well represented at the event.
Greaves’ film, shot guerrilla-style from the convention floor, the camera peering around corners and craning its neck upward from sharp angles, doesn’t belabor or even overtly acknowledge this split, though the differences are evident in the message of Baraka and elected officials like Rep. Charles Diggs and Gary, Indiana Mayor Richard Hatcher. Widows of the two men most emblematic of these diverging viewpoints, Coretta Scott King and Betty Shabazz, are both in attendance. There’s a sense that an amalgam might be possible in Jesse Jackson’s stirring speech, which Greaves includes seemingly in its entirety, the camera unable to cut away from Jackson’s charisma and passion.
Though Nationtime is largely focused on the onstage events at the convention, the film becomes looser as it goes on, assembling a portrait of a diverse collection of people and offering tantalizing glimpses of the wealth of artistic talent on display, from the avant-garde jazz of Phil Cohran and his band — Cohran also contributes the film’s score — to Dick Gregory’s trenchant comedy. Richard Roundtree and Isaac Hayes appear briefly to bask in the crowd’s admiration, while Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier add in intermittent bits of narration. The film functions both as an incredible historical document and an assertion of the essential cultural and political influence of Black Americans on this country.
Kino’s Blu-ray features a 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer, sourced from a 4K restoration of the original camera negative. It’s apparent that both the condition of the elements and the film’s shooting conditions contribute to an uneven presentation, with the film’s color scheme ping-ponging from reasonably vibrant to completely washed out. Image detail and stability are more consistent, and the transfer looks acceptably film-like. Damage has been mitigated nicely, with a generally clean presentation overall. The film has been appended with an onscreen introduction and what appear to be newly added chyrons identifying the film’s major players. The uncompressed 2.0 mono soundtrack is about what one would expect for a film shot in a gymnasium, but there are no obvious issues otherwise.
Extras include an audio interview with Greaves’ widow, Louise Greaves, and a video interview with his son, David Greaves, who worked as a cinematographer on the film. David Greaves also contributes an audio commentary. A booklet includes an essay with historical context from Leonard N. Moore and restoration notes from Sandra Schulberg. Those notes identify what is an odd omission from the extras: a black-and-white version that was created to mitigate the color version’s inconsistencies. This version was “strongly preferred” by Louise Greaves and was the version screened at the restoration’s premiere at MoMA. Given the color version was the cut that received the wider release when Kino picked up the film, it makes sense to give it priority, but the black-and-white cut would have been a welcome supplement.
Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One is one of the hidden gems of the Criterion catalog, a not-quite-fiction, not-quite-documentary film that chronicles Greaves’ ostensible attempts to shoot a melodrama in Central Park. While different sets of actors performing a break-up scene over and over, Greaves loosely orchestrates, but bystanders wandering onto the set and Greaves’ own pontifications to the making-of crew about the kind of film they’re making both threaten to prevent anything from cohering. Meanwhile, the crew considers a mutiny of sorts.
Self-reflexive and formally playful movies about moviemaking aren’t all that rare, but Greaves’ film is one of the few that’s convincing as a genuinely found object — a film that somehow sprung into being despite itself. Key to this ruse is Greaves’ own performance as a charming but dubiously competent director. The Criterion set also includes the long-promised sequel, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 ½, which returns to Central Park nearly 40 years later to film a follow-up with original actors Audrey Henningham and Shannon Baker. Though the seams are way more visible this time around, the way the film plays with the thin membrane between performance and real life is certainly worthwhile, and Greaves remains as winning a screen presence as ever.
Criterion’s Blu-ray presents both films in 1080p, with a 1.33:1 transfer for Take One and a 1.78:1 transfer for Take 2 ½. This is one of those upgrades whose primary value comes in hopefully introducing more viewers to the films, as the technical improvements are quite modest. The Blu-ray release uses the same high-definition transfers as the DVD, and though the 16mm photography of Take One benefits from the added resolution, the on-the-fly shooting style limits how much can be done. Take 2 ½ is mostly shot on standard-def digital, and the new 1080p presentation obviously does nothing for the rampant artifacting and fuzziness. Uncompressed 1.0 mono soundtracks are adequate though obviously limited by the source material. Even Miles Davis’s “In A Silent Way” sounds a bit flat.
Extras are identical to the DVD release: 2006 doc Discovering William Greaves, an interview with Steve Buscemi, who helped make the sequel happen and who appears in it as himself, and a booklet with an essay by Amy Taubin and Greaves’ production notes for Take One.