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'Notfilm' is a manic and meditative look at one of the great curiosities in film history

'Notfilm' looks back at the 22-minute short movie 'Film,' which is the only movie ever written by Samuel Beckett and stars Buster Keaton. The confluence of the duo should have given rise to something more estimable, but despite that, the short film has its undeniable fascinations.

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    Samuel Beckett (l.) and Buster Keaton (second from r.) stood by the Brooklyn Bridge during the 1964 filming of the short movie ‘Film.’
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One of the great curiosities in film history is a 22-minute short titled “Film,” the only movie ever written by Samuel Beckett, and starring Buster Keaton. Directed by Beckett’s longtime theatrical collaborator, Alan Schneider, the virtually soundless “Film” consists of Keaton, playing a character billed as “O,” fleeing from a pursuing camera, or camera’s eye, as he scurries through a New York street and into a stark garret containing a rocking chair, a mattress, and a few stray cats. 

The confluence of Keaton and Beckett, two of the greatest theatrical geniuses of the 20th century, should have given rise to something more estimable than this pretentious, high-flown art thing, but despite that, the film – or should I say Film – has its undeniable fascinations.

Ross Lipman, the much-admired film preservationist making his directing debut, would certainly agree. His seven years of painstaking detective work investigating the history of how “Film” was made has paid off in his own film “Notfilm.” He may share some of the same philosophical pretensions as Beckett and Schneider, but how else could he have justified devoting so much time to such an enterprise? And he’s smart enough to include naysayers into the mix, including Keaton himself, to balance out all the metaphysical hoo-ha. When Keaton, after seeing the finished film, was asked to comment, he said, “I was confused when I shot it and I’m still confused.” Amen to that.

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“Film” was originally set in motion by its producer, Barney Rosset, the famed censorship-fighting book publisher who conceived of a series of short films to be scripted by major playwrights, also including Eugène Ionesco and Harold Pinter. Only Beckett’s script came to fruition, though. Shot in New York in the summer of 1964, “Film” was the first (and last) time Beckett wrote a movie; it was also Schneider’s first feature. (He had earlier directed a TV production of “Waiting For Godot,” starring Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith.) Fortunately, their cinematographer was the great Boris Kaufman, who shot Jean Vigo’s peerless “Zéro de Conduite” and “L’Atalante” in the  ’30s, and, in 1955, won the Oscar for “On the Waterfront.”

Keaton, perplexed but needing the money, was chosen to play “O” after the role was turned down by Charlie Chaplin, Mostel, and the famed Irish actor Jack MacGowran. His relationship with Beckett could best be described as a détente between two temperamental opposites. Beckett found Keaton inaccessible and is quoted as saying, “He had a poker mind as well as a poker face.”

But surely Keaton must have felt cold-shouldered, too. (His friend James Karen, who has a tiny role in “Film,” concurs with this during an interview with Lipman.) For one thing, Keaton, who had directed some of the most breathtakingly inventive movies ever made, was never once consulted by these two first-time filmmakers. Moments in the scenario, such as when “O” is chasing his cats out of the apartment, seem tailor-made for slapstick and yet are deliberately directed to be played straight. And Keaton’s great iconic face – the emblem of his art – is shielded from the camera until the film’s final moments. Beckett’s approach to Keaton’s iconography was punitive. “We were depriving him of his trump card – his face,” he says.

Lipman was able to retrieve from an ailing Rosset audiotapes of discussions on the set between Beckett, Schneider, and Kaufman, and, although these too-brief snippets are more tantalizing than elucidating, they do provide an opportunity to hear Beckett’s rarely recorded Irish lilt. 

In addition to presenting outtakes and a discarded prologue to “Film” for the first time, Lipman also offers up interviews with, among others, Billie Whitelaw, Beckett’s favorite actress; Schneider’s widow, Jean Schneider; the legendary documentarian Kevin Brownlow, who had spoken to both Keaton and Beckett about the collaboration; and critic-historian Leonard Maltin, who remembers visiting the set when he was a 13-year-old Keaton fanboy.

Is it justifiable to make a two-hour-and-10-minute movie about a 22-minute movie? I would say, in this instance, yes. “Film” may not be a masterpiece, but so many masters were involved in it that attention must be paid. Lipman pads things out with diversions about the nature of film versus digital and doppelgängers and Balzac and eye imagery in cinema history and much else – so much so that, at times, “Notfilm” resembles a folly about a folly. But in his own way, which manages somehow to be both manic and meditative, Lipman makes it all come together. Grade: A- (This film is not rated.)

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