Archive for Barney Rosset

The Sunday Intertitle: Not Notfilm

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2020 by dcairns

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.)

Festival Round-Up, June 18th

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 18, 2008 by dcairns

Escaping the round of conferences at work I took in a round of movies at Edinburgh Film Festival, but since I was celebrating with graduating students last night I awoke with the proverbial “sore heid and a pocket full of sticky pennies”, too late to attend the press screening of Lucky McKee’s RED, starring Greatest Living Scotsman Brian Perfect Cox.

(The name Brian Perfect Cox derives from a graffiti on a big wooden gate at the bottom of Edinburgh’s Ferry Road. Reading simply “BRIAN’S PERFECT COCK”, it managed to be both obscene and yet oddly moving. The anonymous author simply wanted to exult in one of life’s rare perfections, and since actor Brian Cox often seems like another of those splendid anomalies, the two have become linked in  my mind.)

There was more red on display in Martin Radich’s visceral art film CRACK WILLOW. I have no idea what the title means, and little idea about the film, but it’s a searing, often lurid piece of work. Martin’s photography is even more stunning than I expected, with sodium-lit night scenes looking like scratched copper, and nightmare interiors tinged iridescent red and green. The Bennett’s, father and son, stars of Martin’s first film short, IN MEMORY OF DOROTHY BENNETT, are back, but the years have done their destructive work. One is overweight, the other aged and disabled. The scenes of son caring for father will strike a chord with anyone who has cared for an older person. But a shift has occurred — by moving the Bennetts into a fictional storyline where the father dies and the son undergoes a crisis, Martin has changed the relationship between subjects, artwork and audience. We are no longer getting a window into the private world of the Bennetts, but are seeing them perform for us, and there’s an uncomfortable element of exhibitionism to it. It’s doubtful if the younger man would be lying in his bath and urinating into the air if the camera wasn’t there to capture it. Intimate scenes of human behaviour are interspersed with show-off stunts. While the use of improvisation maintains an air of absolute emotional authenticity to the interplay between the “actors”, some scenes seem added for sensation’s sake. Long and rather nauseating scenes of the pair noisily eating seem to gloat over bodily revulsion, sabotaging the human sympathy which was the hallmark of the earlier short. Some of the nudity and swearing seem forced, straining for shock effect that refuses to come. There is a whiff of the freakshow.

(Publicity gurus please note: when promoting a low-budget film that’s a hard sell, you could at least provide more than one still. Also, “synopis” is not a word.)

More problematic still are the interpolated scenes of stylised photography and theatrical performance, in which an apparently psychotic man capers and cavorts in a tinted apartment space, sometimes thrashing in accelerated motion like that fellow in JACOB’S LADDER. If it weren’t for the more compelling spectre of the Bennetts, this might be disturbing, but it seems both tame and melodramatically contrived by comparison, even though imagery and sound design are impressive in themselves. The guy (credits are unavailable) is a brilliant physical performer though.

Nothing directly relates this action to the main thread of narrative, save a brief scene in which Bennett fils glimpses the twitchy man on a beach. A similar encounter loosely connects Bennett to a woman seen confined in what seems to be a psychiatric hospital (although it doesn’t feel like anybody connected to the production has any experience or understanding of mental illness or psychiatric care in this country), so there are three basically free-floating units of action drifting around in the film, unattached by any detectable structure.

Martin is a graduate of the Cinema Extreme shorts programme, and this is exactly the kind of thing they love — “strong” subject matter, “radical” treatment, uncertain meaning or purpose. It’s nevertheless pretty compelling, due to the skill with which it’s made. Chris Morris’ TV show Jam is cited as an influence in the Film Festival programme, but the mission of that series, to push comedy deep into the disturbing until 99% of humour is suffocated, is not shared here. Perhaps this film is heading in the other direction, driving drama into the realms of the grotesque until empathy snaps and we are left with absurdity and horror. There ARE a few laughs along the way though. The younger Bennett’s brilliant malapropism “I quite like that Allied Llama,” is my first favourite line of the Fest.

Grabbing a muffin for sustenance, I plunged into OBSCENE, a documentary on the life of Barney Rosset, whose Grove Press published Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer and The Naked Lunch in America for the first time, battling through the courts to do so. It’s a fascinating story, but such an iconoclastic subject perhaps deserves a less conventional approach. Talking heads were of a high calibre though — I particularly enjoyed John Waters’ dismissal of the once-shocking I AM CURIOUS YELLOW: “It’s a limp dick and an ugly girl and talking about communism.”

A third bout of disturbed cinema followed — FEAR(S) OF THE DARK is a French animated feature anthology, interweaving several short stories written and designed by top cartoonists like Charles Burns and Lorenzo Mattoti. I liked most of the sequences, and was blown away by Richard McGuire’s wordless ghost story in which a traveller sheltering from a snowstorm is persecuted by an avenging female figure in an old dark house. Pellucid darkness (pure b&w without use of gray), tense, gasping sound, elegant movement and design clearly influenced by Edward Gorey but stopping short of the usual wholesale plunder.

Why is b&w animation suddenly so big? First PERSEPOLIS, now this — I wonder if the repulsive SIN CITY isn’t in some strange way partially responsible, in which case, it deserves some credit.