Directed by Ross Lipman
Directed by Alan Schneider
April 1-7 at Anthology Film Archives
In the summer of 1964, Samuel Beckett traveled to New York to make a movie. As one might expect, the resulting work, simply titled Film, depicts a man at the absolute end of his tether. In the black-and-white, largely silent short—a bleakly sparkling new restoration of which begins a weeklong run of free screenings at Anthology on Friday, alongside Ross Lipman’s companion-piece “kino-essay” Notfilm—Buster Keaton plays an aging man in a rumpled overcoat and a shallow hat who appears dead-set on keeping his hunched back to the camera.
As we learn in Notfilm, a dense but illuminating 128-minute documentary on the 22-minute Film, it was Beckett himself who chose the exterior location for his movie’s first scene: a bombed-out-looking stretch of Pearl Street abutting the Brooklyn Bridge. The camera, identified as “E” (for “eye”) in the published draft of the script, seems to pursue Keaton’s character, “O” (for “object”), out of this wasteland and into an apartment with pocked white walls. There, O proceeds to draw the curtains, throw a blanket over a mirror, and even make sure the several pets occupying the space can’t see him. But the man apparently has no hope of withdrawing from the line of sight of the camera—a somehow symbiotic presence, one that circles around the apartment as if waiting to pounce.
Spoiler alert! The final moments of Film reveal E and O to be one and the same—when O finally looks E square in the face, he merely beholds his own eye-patched visage staring back at him. The film might ultimately portray self-scrutiny as an all-but-unavoidable trap, but Beckett himself didn’t shy away from assessing the “interesting failure” of his own first—and last—foray into the medium of the movies. A story about death that never really feels suitably terminal (thanks in large part to its somewhat convoluted conceit), Film nonetheless all too quickly became something of an orphan work itself. It was originally commissioned by Beckett’s American publisher, Grove’s Barney Rosset, to be part of an anthology; the other parts never materialized.
In his Notfilm, Lipman, who also restored Film for the UCLA Film & Television Archive, doesn’t appear interested in defending Beckett’s work against those who view it as a noble failure, but rather regards the movie as an object worthy of study primarily for all the disparate talents involved. Beckett, Keaton, and Rosset were far from the only major players here. Early on, Alan Schneider, an American who had staged some of Beckett’s works but never made a film before, accepted the directorial assignment. Zero for Conduct and On the Waterfront cinematographer Boris Kaufman, brother of Soviet legend Dziga Vertov, came on board in the planning phases, helping to devise Film’s circling-the-drain camerawork.
Of course, not everyone was on the same page. Notfilm excerpts audio from contentious production meetings secretly taped by Rosset at his East Hampton Quonset hut (an act of recording Beckett never would have consented to). When Keaton showed up on set, he let it be known that he, for one, wasn’t so eager to debate concepts, though in the end the master filmmaker did everything the novices asked him to. Late in his film, Lipman repeats an extraordinary quote the actor gave to the Times’ Rex Reed upon Film’s Venice premiere: “As for Samuel Beckett, I took one look at his script and asked him if he ate Welsh rarebit before he went to bed at night.”
For his part, Lipman only seems to have one artistic collaborator of note: the Hungarian composer Mihály Vig, who contributes music that’s less lugubrious than the work he did for Béla Tarr, who retired almost five years ago with the Film-like private apocalypse of The Turin Horse. Otherwise, the labor of love Notfilm is largely a one-man show behind the scenes. Giving his doc a strong first-person orientation by delivering the voiceover himself, Lipman moves between layered readings of Film (the Irish philosopher George Berkley’s observation “to be is to be perceived” figures prominently here) and more general reflections on how Beckett used the camera eye toward his larger project of “sensorial reduction.” Lipman, who gives a lot of screen time to still photos of Beckett and company, thankfully also weaves in a wealth of more dynamic moving-image material: He makes the most of extracts from Keaton’s 1928 Cameraman, as well as the BBC version of Beckett’s short play 1972 Not I, with its isolated close-up on a stationary mouth babbling in the void.
It is the interviews, though, that form the core of Notfilm. The actor James Karen, who appears ever so briefly at the beginning of Film, recalls the older, more sober Keaton telling him a hair-raising story from his days of drinking. Unexpected guest Leonard Maltin recounts excitedly stumbling onto the nondescript Pearl Street set as a 13-year-old. Beckett biographer James Knowlson sheds light on the author’s perspective on old age. Lipman also speaks with Rosset, Haskell Wexler, and the Beckettian performer Billie Whitelaw—all of whom have passed away over the course of the last few years. By gathering together these recollections (not to mention by doing the hands-on restoration work), Lipman has ensured that the singular Film, which itself portrays the passage of time as a process of elimination, won’t be forgotten. At least for now.