Notfilm


2015
Notfilm

Brief Synopsis

This documentary chronicles the making of one of the strangest ventures in cinema history, the collaboration between Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and comic genius Buster Keaton.

Film Details

Release Date
2015

Synopsis

This documentary chronicles the making of one of the strangest ventures in cinema history, the collaboration between Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and comic genius Buster Keaton.

Film Details

Release Date
2015

Articles

Notfilm


When Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive set about restoring the 1965 short subject Film, he didn't know he would find a treasure trove of unseen footage that would prompt the production of a making-of documentary, Notfilm (2015).

The 20-minute short titled simply Film was directed by Alan Schneider but written and guided by none other than Samuel Beckett, the famed poet, essayist, and contributor to the Theatre of the Absurd. His most famous play Waiting for Godot has earned a permanent place in modern literature. The Irish-born Beckett had expressed interest in film as early as the 1930s and would eventually write minimalist plays directly for television. Film came about when Beckett's publisher Barney Rosset put up the money for an experiment into the nature of cinema itself. Charles Chaplin turned down Beckett's invitation, but the great silent comedian Buster Keaton wanted the job and signed on. Keaton gave the unusual project his full cooperation, performing Beckett's scripted pantomimes.

The finished movie is a perplexing conceptual experiment. A gag in which Keaton's character repeatedly tries to expel a kitten from his room isn't particularly funny. The movie has no dialogue. The one really witty moment occurs when that is broken - a woman loudly shushes her companion. Film did not become a popular item at Keaton comedy revivals.

Packed away with the original printing elements for Film, the film archivist and restorer Ross Lipman found many reels of untouched outtakes. Producer Rosset had saved everything that cameraman Boris Kaufman had shot in the summer of 1965. The outtakes provided an irresistible opportunity to study Beckett's creative process. Lipman's documentary Notfilm combines the unique film footage with new interviews with Beckett's surviving collaborators. Milestone Films' Dennis Doros and Amy Heller stepped in to produce.

Interviewed on-camera are Barney Rosset and director Alan Schneider, accompanied by actor James Karen, a Keaton friend who had recommended him for the job. We also have the recorded memories of English actress Billie Whitelaw, who became a regular interpreter of Beckett's demanding abstract plays, notably the minimalist monologue Not I from 1972. British film authority Kevin Brownlow offers his thoughts as well. The critic Leonard Maltin cheerfully describes his teenage cross-town trek to the filming location near the Brooklyn Bridge to get a peek at his idol Buster Keaton.

A big slice of the lengthy documentary covers the preproduction process. In audio recordings, Beckett explains his visual intentions to Boris Kaufman, who suggests practical ways of capturing the playwright's abstract ideas. James Karen tells us that Keaton couldn't make heads or tails of Beckett's script. But the 69-year-old star performed everything that was asked of him in a cooperative, professional manner. Dressed in a heavy coat, Keaton worked two full days in the summer heat. Karen remembers that nobody thought to get him a chair.

To illustrate Beckett's visual ideas, director Lipman gathers a wide range of film clips, sampling semi-absurdist scenes from Buster Keaton's silent comedies and a TV staging of Beckett's own Waiting for Godot. Excerpts from Dziga Vertov's silent Russian classic Man with a Movie Camera (1929) display a similar experimental attitude, with an equal emphasis on the concept of the 'cinema eye.' Interestingly, Dziga Vertov was cameraman Boris Kaufman's brother.

Lipman's analytic approach illuminates Beckett's artistic process even as it reveals Film's shortcomings. Instead of beginning with thoughts and ideas, as might an experimental artist like Luis Buñuel, Beckett worked in the opposite direction, laying down a theoretical blueprint for a meaningful juxtaposition of images, and then straining to translate this schematic into cinematic terms. We hear much discussion of 'E,' the eye or the camera, and 'O,' the object or the Keaton figure. At first glance, Beckett appears to have stifled his own concept by over-thinking it. He expends pages of words and diagrams to basically say that he wants his camera to stay far enough behind Keaton so as to not show his face. The film makes an intellectual statement, but it's not a living statement. As Kevin Brownlow tells us, it's not "cinematic enough."

Ross Lipman's Notfilm is a fascinating look at how Samuel Beckett attempted to distill and define his theories of 'visual linguistics.' If Buster Keaton ventured an opinion, he'd likely conclude that the literary giant was trying to re-invent the wheel. There is obviously more innate genius in any Keaton film clip than in all of Film. But Beckett's movie does have value as an attempt to break down cinema into its constituent parts. Notfilm is a fascinating look at the creative process, but also an excellent discussion-starter: does film have a basic, universal visual 'grammar?'

By Glenn Erickson
Notfilm

Notfilm

When Ross Lipman of the UCLA Film and Television Archive set about restoring the 1965 short subject Film, he didn't know he would find a treasure trove of unseen footage that would prompt the production of a making-of documentary, Notfilm (2015). The 20-minute short titled simply Film was directed by Alan Schneider but written and guided by none other than Samuel Beckett, the famed poet, essayist, and contributor to the Theatre of the Absurd. His most famous play Waiting for Godot has earned a permanent place in modern literature. The Irish-born Beckett had expressed interest in film as early as the 1930s and would eventually write minimalist plays directly for television. Film came about when Beckett's publisher Barney Rosset put up the money for an experiment into the nature of cinema itself. Charles Chaplin turned down Beckett's invitation, but the great silent comedian Buster Keaton wanted the job and signed on. Keaton gave the unusual project his full cooperation, performing Beckett's scripted pantomimes. The finished movie is a perplexing conceptual experiment. A gag in which Keaton's character repeatedly tries to expel a kitten from his room isn't particularly funny. The movie has no dialogue. The one really witty moment occurs when that is broken - a woman loudly shushes her companion. Film did not become a popular item at Keaton comedy revivals. Packed away with the original printing elements for Film, the film archivist and restorer Ross Lipman found many reels of untouched outtakes. Producer Rosset had saved everything that cameraman Boris Kaufman had shot in the summer of 1965. The outtakes provided an irresistible opportunity to study Beckett's creative process. Lipman's documentary Notfilm combines the unique film footage with new interviews with Beckett's surviving collaborators. Milestone Films' Dennis Doros and Amy Heller stepped in to produce. Interviewed on-camera are Barney Rosset and director Alan Schneider, accompanied by actor James Karen, a Keaton friend who had recommended him for the job. We also have the recorded memories of English actress Billie Whitelaw, who became a regular interpreter of Beckett's demanding abstract plays, notably the minimalist monologue Not I from 1972. British film authority Kevin Brownlow offers his thoughts as well. The critic Leonard Maltin cheerfully describes his teenage cross-town trek to the filming location near the Brooklyn Bridge to get a peek at his idol Buster Keaton. A big slice of the lengthy documentary covers the preproduction process. In audio recordings, Beckett explains his visual intentions to Boris Kaufman, who suggests practical ways of capturing the playwright's abstract ideas. James Karen tells us that Keaton couldn't make heads or tails of Beckett's script. But the 69-year-old star performed everything that was asked of him in a cooperative, professional manner. Dressed in a heavy coat, Keaton worked two full days in the summer heat. Karen remembers that nobody thought to get him a chair. To illustrate Beckett's visual ideas, director Lipman gathers a wide range of film clips, sampling semi-absurdist scenes from Buster Keaton's silent comedies and a TV staging of Beckett's own Waiting for Godot. Excerpts from Dziga Vertov's silent Russian classic Man with a Movie Camera (1929) display a similar experimental attitude, with an equal emphasis on the concept of the 'cinema eye.' Interestingly, Dziga Vertov was cameraman Boris Kaufman's brother. Lipman's analytic approach illuminates Beckett's artistic process even as it reveals Film's shortcomings. Instead of beginning with thoughts and ideas, as might an experimental artist like Luis Buñuel, Beckett worked in the opposite direction, laying down a theoretical blueprint for a meaningful juxtaposition of images, and then straining to translate this schematic into cinematic terms. We hear much discussion of 'E,' the eye or the camera, and 'O,' the object or the Keaton figure. At first glance, Beckett appears to have stifled his own concept by over-thinking it. He expends pages of words and diagrams to basically say that he wants his camera to stay far enough behind Keaton so as to not show his face. The film makes an intellectual statement, but it's not a living statement. As Kevin Brownlow tells us, it's not "cinematic enough." Ross Lipman's Notfilm is a fascinating look at how Samuel Beckett attempted to distill and define his theories of 'visual linguistics.' If Buster Keaton ventured an opinion, he'd likely conclude that the literary giant was trying to re-invent the wheel. There is obviously more innate genius in any Keaton film clip than in all of Film. But Beckett's movie does have value as an attempt to break down cinema into its constituent parts. Notfilm is a fascinating look at the creative process, but also an excellent discussion-starter: does film have a basic, universal visual 'grammar?' By Glenn Erickson

Quotes

Trivia