Samuel Beckett titled his one film Film, but the work itself, while arresting, is never as bold as that title. Beckett’s 1965 short, starring Buster Keaton, is more A Film than The Film, a study of a Beckettian dread of being seen or recorded. Much of its 24-minute running time is devoted to Keaton, seen from behind, wheeling around a dismal room, eyeballing a parrot and covering mirrors with black tarp.
The camera trails him, and you know that’s bad, because earlier, outside that room, it’s caught a couple old folks in its eye — and in silent close-up they scream to be seen. In a way, it’s fortunate for film preservationist Ross Lipman’s studious, rigorous, and surprisingly tender documentary Notfilm that Beckett will never know how he and his film are being tracked for us now. Lipman screens outtakes from Film, plays generous excerpts from tape-recorded production meetings and generally gives us access to Beckett at work, the dramatist and writer for once not fully in control of how we’re perceiving him or his art. If Beckett turned around and saw us listening to those tapes, he would scream, too.
For us, though, access to the process only richens Film itself — and Beckett as well. Lipman finds insight and pathos in the gulf between what Beckett aspired to in Film and in what he actually achieved. Lipman is attentive to the technical practicalities of filmmaking, devoting much time and many interviews to Beckett’s crew, which included On the Waterfront cinematographer Boris Kaufman. It’s amusing to hear Keaton, in interviews not long after Film‘s premiere, attest to not understanding what Beckett had been after; more illuminating, however, are Lipman’s shrewdly chosen excerpts from Keaton’s own silent two-reelers, which show the comedy great wrestling, in his own way, with themes that anticipate Beckett’s.
Two of the interviewees have, with age, lost track of some of the specifics they’re asked about, a fact Lipman handles with clear-eyed sensitivity. He also knows when to wander slightly afield: What a thrill to see Billie Whitelaw, the manic Mouth of Beckett’s brilliant monologue Not I, filmed by the BBC in the 1970s. She tears back into it, and her Mouth still roars.
Directed by Ross Lipman
Opens April 1, Anthology Archives