Symbio

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Media archaeology involves the deconstruction of the medium, enabling audiences to take a step back and reconsider the technicality, methods and pure tangibility of the medium that is used. This essay deals with the work of William Greaves, one of the pioneers of African-american documentary filmmaking.

The moving image has long been considered to be “a series of visual shocks” impressed upon the spectator.1 This essay will identify the reasons behind these “visual shocks” and the ways in which these reactions could be produced upon the viewer. Theories will be drawn from Brechtian theatre, trompe l’oeil paintings and Allen’s concepts of cinematic illusions. The essay will then analyse the methods in which Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm. Take One. aims to reveal these illusions. The analysis will be broken down into three parts: narrative as a whole, the working script of the film and in the film’s screen test, and the technical aspects of the film. Finally the essay would conclude with Greaves’ achievements in the making of this film, similar movements in experimental cinema and how these strive to breakdown the cinematic medium and provide the viewer with a different perspective of the medium.

The Fourth Wall and Other Screens

Breaking the fourth wall can also be referred to the verfremdungseffekt, which is conceptualized by Brecht. In theatre, where a set is usually built with three walls leaving the fourth wall facing the audience open is the setting for the illusionary effect of theatre to take place. Brecht however, strives to tear down this invisible fourth wall. Willett writes of Brecht’s technique, “The audience can no longer have the illusion of being the unseen spectator at an event which is really taking place.”2 In order to execute verfremdungseffekt, Brecht’s plays would have actors addressing the audience directly, or have them react in a way that makes the character vividly aware of his position as a performer in a play.

Trompe l’oeil is a process experienced when a viewer of a painting perceives the subject matter as an object itself rather than an object on the surface of the painting. The medium becomes invisible.3 The viewer might be experiencing a temporary displacement as he struggles between his perception of the image and the perception of the object itself.4 This illusion could be similar to the illusions the cinematic image produces. However it could be argued that the cinematic image produces a “reproductive illusion” where, because the images portrayed are close to reproductive similarities of the photographic medium, therefore viewers perceive what is being depicted as reality.5

Allen also mentions about the cinematic image as a “projective illusion”. Unlike the reproductive illusion where viewers are aware of the function of the medium to reproduce or represent what appears in actuality, staged or not, the projective illusion is unique. Viewers think of themselves actually being IN the situation and experiencing the “reality” portrayed on screen itself. One loses the awareness of the film medium. As Allen eloquently puts it, rather than experiencing the events of the film “from the outside”, one experiences it “from within”.6 Sound would also appear as if it were experienced rather than recorded. It is akin a perceptual illusion that renders one incapable of distinguishing representation from real experience.7

Bearing this in mind, Greaves strives to break down these walls of illusion by making us more aware of the artifice of the cinematic apparatus and its projected screen. There is no doubt that representations are but a retelling or an interpretation of reality. Going a step further, Greaves makes us question the tangibility of reality itself.8

Film about a Film

Symbiopsychotaxiplasm, is basically a film about film. Greaves’ aim is to reveal the processes behind filmmaking and at a deeper level, it is a film on reflexivity;...
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