When an Existentialist and the King of Slapstick Made a Movie
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because when polar opposites like this collide, you might want a front-row seat.
By Jim Knipfel
In the summer of 1964, five years before receiving the Nobel Prize, Samuel Beckett made his one and only trip to America to work on his one and only film, a profound, darkly comic and all-but-silent avant-garde short he called, appropriately, Film. At first glance, the teaming of Beckett and Buster Keaton is as unlikely as they come, but considering Beckett was never one to let a banana gag go unexploited and Keaton always brought an existential stoicism to his slapstick, it was, in fact, a perfect match.
Along with Beckett and Keaton, add character actor James Karen and a production team that included Grove Press founder Barney Rosset (the first man to publish Beckett, Jack Kerouac, Henry Miller and William Burroughs in the U.S.), director Alan Schneider (who’d staged the first American production of Waiting for Godot) and Oscar-winning cinematographer Boris Kaufman (who had shot On the Waterfront), and Film boasted an almost unheard-of collection of diverse talents. It’s a fascinating and provocative picture about the mechanics of filmmaking and the human condition, both simple and deeply complex, and one people have been arguing about ever since.
Keaton couldn’t figure out why he’d been hired to be in a movie where he was required to keep his face covered through most of it.
In 2012 film archivist Ross Lipman, while working on the restoration of Film at UCLA, visited Barney Rosset at his East Village apartment in Manhattan. There, much to his surprise, he found a stack of film spools under the kitchen sink. “I visited Barney regularly in his later years,” Lipman says. “And he often spoke of the long-lost prologue, which initially had been so important to the project. But he really thought it had been discarded years ago. Thus, when he mentioned the outtakes under the sink, he was under the impression it was scrap, and I didn’t let my hopes get too high. Fortunately, he kept the rolls — I think he was even more surprised than me to hear that the footage still existed!”
The spools contained not only never-before-seen outtakes, but also the fabled eight-minute prologue that was filmed the first day of shooting but later scrapped at Beckett’s suggestion. He also got hold of Rosset’s recording of an early production meeting between Rosset, Schneider and the generally reclusive Beckett. With this treasure of extraneous material, he began gathering interviews with people involved in the production and Beckett scholars and started crafting NotFilm, a documentary about how the picture came about.
Sometimes when you get that many talented people together on one project, things don’t always go very well, and Film embodied that. Keaton, for one, couldn’t figure out why he’d been hired to be in a movie where he was required to keep his face covered through most of it. In the end, the final result turned out to be something other than any of the involved parties had in mind at the beginning. “What I hadn’t suspected was the depth of discord,” says Lipman, who adds that one of NotFilm’s biggest challenges was to be truthful without upsetting those on the other side. “I don’t try to sugarcoat, nor to muckrake.”
It’s a documentary that not only offers a history of the sometimes tense, sometimes tumultuous production, but also a more wide-reaching essay on what the film did and didn’t mean to be, what it is and isn’t and what, in the end, it may or may not mean.
- Jim Knipfel, Jim Knipfel is the author of 10 books and thousands upon thousands of articles about most anything you like. He’s also blind, which means his other senses have been honed to almost superhuman levels, save for those dulled flat by years of chain smoking, alcohol abuse, and punk rock. The Green Bay, Wisconsin, native lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his wife.Contact Jim Knipfel