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Magnificent cinematic experiment is an artifact worth digging into

While sci-fi action nerds are off to the gigaplex for the cheap thrills in ''V for Vendetta," experimental film geeks should make their way over to the Harvard Film Archive for William Greaves's ''Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take One." Greaves assembled it in 1968, and it was never really released. So this is a movie those film geeks didn't even know they wanted. But this is a movie from the past that's also eerily of a piece with the film culture of now and tomorrow.

In '68, Greaves gathered a crew to shoot some scenes for a screen test on a sunny afternoon in Central Park. Ostensibly, the film was a relationship picture, and the scene he wrote was an uninhibited confrontation between a man and a woman. She's bitter and accusatory. He's aloof and apologetic. Their argument is long and loud and graphic. (She thinks he's a homosexual and says so, unkindly.) The image of their bickering shrinks and is put in two boxes on either side of the screen. And we see the same take from several different angles. The maker of whatever we're watching wants whoever's watching it to be aware of its madeness.

Then the scene is interrupted, and there's a cut to the director, Greaves, complaining to someone on his crew about how terrible the sound quality is. Later, he tells everyone on the set that what he is after with this picture, which he's calling ''Over the Cliff," is sexual honesty. That, and for the camera to be constantly on. To that end, he gives a technician instructions: ''You're in charge of the filming of the film being filmed." OK, so this is a movie-within-a-movie at a time when most of the meta-cinematic action was coming from Andy Warhol and Jean-Luc Godard. But Greaves goes one better. He's doing Godard doing Cassavetes.

But that admission of artificiality is complicated by another fantastic layer of awareness when the multiracial production crew secretly congregates to discuss the shoot and whether Greaves has any idea what he's doing. Their nearly mutinous palaver turns into a serious discussion of what is reality and their director's intentionality. What if Greaves knows they're talking about him and chooses to put that footage in his movie? ''It may be the biggest put-on of all time," someone says. This isn't merely self-consciousness. It's engaged, in-house film criticism. Is Greaves a dictator or a kind of socialist leader? If he's the latter, is he then still the picture's author or is everyone? And if it's everyone, does that mean the project no longer means what it originally meant? This is a rare deconstructive movie that actually considers the possibility of theoretical deconstruction.

''Take One" has unquestionable value as a high-minded cinematic artifact. But if Greaves had made it 10 minutes ago it'd be compelling as a feat of dizzying independent filmmaking. As it happens, he has completed a sequel, the more ambitious ''Symbiopsychotaxiplasm: Take 2 1/2," which calls the making of both movies into question and introduces into the proceedings a terrifying and surreal new wrinkle: the drama coach.

''Take 2 1/2" made the festival circuit last year with the reflexivity-smitten Steven Soderbergh attached as an executive producer. Tragically, not even an endorsement like that can win the movie a distributor. So the utterly absurd possibility stands that we could be having this conversation all over again in another 38 years. It's outrageous that ''independent" still has to mean ''orphaned." You can see for yourself tonight at 9. Greaves will be at the Harvard Film Archive for a one-time screening of ''Take 2 1/2."

Wesley Morris can be reached at

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