The Sunday Intertitle: Not Notfilm

It feels mean to have a go at NOTFILM, Ross Lipman’s documentary about the making of Samuel Beckett’s FILM. Lipman has all the right materials and a potentially great subject and has spoken to some of the key people, but he is not the right person to be making the film.

When he says “Barney Rosset conducted his last interview,” he means, “I conducted Barney Rosset’s last interview.” Maybe this is modesty. But it’s also misuse of the word “conduct.” And a person who uses words sloppily cannot make a satisfactory film about the precise Beckett.

“One can file these works, almost in sequence, before and after FILM.” I have no idea what this means, or why Lipman says it so portentously. Actually, I can file Beckett’s work absolutely in sequence, before and after FILM.

“Beckett’s was the only that would be completed.” This is just a horrible sentence, the missing word “one” giving the feeling of climbing a flight of stairs and imagining there’s one more step, and having that lurching feeling when it isn’t there.

I liked it when he cut between Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN and Vertov’s MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA in such a way that it felt continuous, but I didn’t like it when he did absurd 1980s video effects, where the image puckers up and shrinks into a ball, etc. I felt that a person who uses images so sloppily couldn’t possibly make a film about the precise Keaton.

There are a lot of great stills and documents… Both the subject, and the fact that the key personalities are dead and have left limited documentation, seem to invite an experimental approach, but apart from the intrusive Kenny Everett Video Show effects, the piece unfolds like the most standard-issue documentary. The default film.

However, within that constraining frame, there is plenty of good stuff — the fact that Boris Kaufman, cinematographer of FILM, was Dziga Vertov’s youngest brother produces not only historical connections but trapdoors into philosophical pondering which Lipman plungers down, investigating the points of contact between Vertov’s all-seeing camera eye and Beckett’s.

This is a two-hour film about a twenty-minute film, but oddly that’s not a problem. If the material were handled more deftly, I can imagine it flying by, and it still manages to trundle fairly effectively.

But asides from the philosophical trapdoors, Lipman also drops down some sinkholes of cliché, devoting line after line to Keaton’s “expressionless stone face.” All wrong. Keaton’s face is not expressionless and it does not leave itself open to interpretation, as Lipman asserts. And FILM has some of the more overt facial acting of any Keaton film, so this is both a failure to observe and willingness to be led by received wisdom.

The most useful interviewee is James Karen, the man who was there — he seems to have been responsible for getting Keaton into the film, something he had cause to regret.

Another really useful person to have spoken to — and one who would have fitted right in with the doc’s pattern of catching people right before they checking out — Barney Rosset and James Karen and Haskell Wexler are no longer with us, alas — would have been Karen Black. I can’t blame Lipman for not tracking her down — her involvement in this tale is only a random fact adrift in my brain like an earwig in a cup of coffee. In some old issue of films & filming magazine, a profile, which also mentions her performing Bowie’s Time while dressed as a Nazi stormtrooper in her cabaret act — Black recalls witnessing the NYC location shoot of FILM, and being horrified by Alan Schneider’s yelling instructions to Keaton during a take. “How can you do your job with someone yelling at you?” she asks, reasonably enough.

But I think Schneider was (a) being a silent film director of the old school, something Keaton probably didn’t mind, and (2) cueing Buster for the moment where, as indicated in the script, his character, O, senses without seeing, the approach of E, the film’s other major character, played by the camera itself. What doesn’t work, though, is the end result: in the film, it looks as if Buster is waiting for the word “Action,” and then takes off on command. Buster, of course, could play anything he could understand, like Ginger Rogers. He didn’t understand, or particularly like, Beckett’s script, though his eventual guess as to its meaning is not a bad one: a man can hide from everyone except himself. Beckett wouldn’t have put it like that, but it comes close enough to the authorial intent to be playable.

Karen complains that the filmmakers didn’t let Buster in on their thinking, and in Schneider’s published reminiscences (quoted too sparingly here), he makes it clear he found Keaton uncommunicative, closed off (Keaton was fairly deaf by this time, which Schneider seemingly didn’t know). Beckett was partially blind, Keaton deaf, and Schneider was a complete novice to cinema. I think Beckett’s notes about “the angle of immunity” wouldn’t have meant anything to him — Keaton isn’t likely to be open to learning a new concept of film terminology, one personal to Beckett, at this late stage in his life. But a direction like “you don’t SEE the camera, but you sense it’s there suddenly, and you want to escape it,” would have worked and even with his back to the camera, Keaton could have TOTALLY have acted that.

I should say that the doc has some tremendous material: recordings of Beckett in conference, outtakes, and clips from a pin-sharp transfer of a film I’ve only ever seen in fuzzy form.

Oh, and THE LOVABLE CHEAT! This is a 1949 film in which Keaton appears, alongside Charles Ruggles, Peggy Ann Garner and Alan Mowbray. It’s based on a play by Balzac which Beckett denied having read (lying bastard), in which a bunch of characters await an unseen figure named Godot. In the Balzac play and the film, however, Godot finally arrives, and everybody’s really happy. Personally I think Lipman missed a trick here — opening with the jubilations about Godot’s arrival, which are funny only because of their absurd resonance, without any explanation of how this sequence came to exist, would have been really striking. Lipman, by taking us through events in a more rational order, has spoiled the surprise. It’s still really funny, though.

Oh, and I think he should have compared the scene in SHERLOCK JR where Buster struggles to get himself incorporated the film within the film (he uses plenty of clips from that one but not this bit) with Beckett’s Act Without Words I, which seems to be telling the same story. (If Beckett denied the influence, again, he’s a big fat liar.)

8 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Not Notfilm”

  1. ehrenstein47 Says:

    I wrote about it back in 2016 Hope his link still works A deeply strange project no matter how you slice it. Beckett was deeply inspired by classic comedians. By rights “Waiting For Godot” should have been performed by Stan and Ollie.

  2. The site is not considered secure! Security certificate has been allowed to lapse. Hopefully it will get fixed.

    It’s SUCH a good subject for a film. I’m baffled that the Beckett-Schneider correspondence isn’t quoted more, but maybe there were limits on what they were allowed to use.

    Oddly, productions of Godot with comedians have often flopped, but maybe the particular vein of absurdity Beckett mines is better tackled by “legitimate” actors. Though the great Max Wall starred in a remake of FILM, quoted in the documentary, which I’d love to see in its entirety.

  3. bensondonald Says:

    John Lahr devotes a fat chapter to “Godot” in “Notes on a Cowardly Lion”. The practical, unintellectual Bert Lahr readily admitted he didn’t understand it, but was endlessly fascinated by it.

    Scheider directed the first production with Lahr. It costarred Tom Ewell, opened in Miami and was promoted as a comedy in line with both men’s mainstream hits. The rehearsals went badly — Lahr and Schneider had a hard time communicating, and they had very different takes on the play. It bombed. A second production in NY replaced Ewell with E.G. Marshall and was directed by Herbert Berghof. It fared better, with Berghof knowing how to use Lahr. John Lahr interviews both directors. Schneider mentions in passing that Keaton on “Film” was always eager to oblige, but was constantly suggesting bits of business from past films.

    Keaton turns up in person in an account of “Ten Girls Ago”, a botched and evidently unreleased movie where Keaton, Lahr and Eddie Foy Jr. played comic relief to Dion and the Belmonts. Keaton was mostly quiet — Foy was the playful one off-camera — but Lahr was impressed that Keaton built a nice, respectable life after his wild MGM days.

  4. revelator60 Says:

    Footage from “Ten Girls Ago” is on the DVD “Keaton Plus,” which was originally as an extra disc on Kino’s “Art of Buster Keaton” DVD set. It was later sold on its own.

  5. James Karen in FILM and Don Calfa in the film version of RHINOCEROS (also with Karen Black!) RETURM OF THE LIVING DEAD really had a large absurdist stage actor contingent, huh?

  6. It did… I wonder if O’Bannon was going for that…

    Don’t forget Linnea Quigley’s long association with the works of Durrenmatt.

    Apparently Keaton suggested the gags with the cat and dog that won’t stay out of the room, which Beckett accepted for FILM and then couldn’t work out why it didn’t quite work onscreen (a: poor editing).

  7. I have this memory, possibly from Jonathan Croall’s book The Coming of Godot, of some Beckett-approved potential castings for the play. There’s one bringing together Chaplin and Keaton, where Chaplin would play the more high-flown and talkative of the two tramps (Vladimir?) and another including Keaton, this time with Marlon Brando, where Keaton would now play the chattier tramp.

  8. Chaplin was certainly approached for FILM, and Keaton was approached for and turned down the US debut of Godot, which went to Bert Lahr and Tom Ewell instead and was not a success. So you might be absolutely right or you might have conflated a couple of things which certainly are true.

    Chaplin wouldn’t have been able to act in anything on US soil at that time, I suspect. And, though he had been a sort of patron to Bunuel and Dali and Sternberg in their outsider phases early on, he confided to a friend that it was important to look sophisticated by backing rubbish like Un Chien Andalou…

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