An experimental film by an Irish playwright, shot in New York with a silent comedian at the twilight of his career? Samuel Beckett’s inquiry into the nature of movies (and existence?) befuddled viewers not versed in film theory; Ross Lipman’s retrospective documentary about its making asks all the questions and gets some good answers.
First there’s the film itself, called just Film from 1965. By that year our high school textbooks had already enshrined Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot as a key item for introducing kids to modern theater, existentialism, etc. … the California school system was pretty progressive in those days. But Beckett had a yen to say something in the film medium, and his publisher Barney Rosset helped him put a movie together. The Milestone Cinematheque presents the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s restoration of Film on its own disc, accompanied by a videotaped TV production of Waiting for Godot from 1961 with Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith. A separate release gives us restorationist-filmmaker Ross Lipman’s Notfilm (2015), a 130-minute documentary about the making of Film, a story that involves a number of highly interesting creative contributors.
The Milestone Cinematheque
1965 / Color / 1:37 Academy / 20 min. / Street Date March 7, 2017 / available from Milestone Films 27.96
Starring: Buster Keaton, Nell Harrison, James Karen, Susan Reed.
Cinematography: Boris Kaufmann
Film Editor: Sidney Meyers
Art Direction: Burr Smidt
Written by Samuel Beckett
Produced by Barney Rosset
Directed by Alan Schneider
An experimental work of art with more value as a think-piece or debating object than entertainment, Film shows a major intellect in the act of intellectualizing the movie experience, almost like Plato trying to think himself out of his cave. I gave myself the opportunity of watching it ‘cold,’ knowing only that average audiences didn’t normally engage with it well. Far too often I congratulate myself on understanding deep-think movies, when I’ve already been handed a crib sheet in the form of previous reading. Nope, Film on Milestone’s perfect restoration was a virgin experience. I took notes, and discovered that I ‘got’ some but not all of it on a first viewing. Several of Beckett’s intended points of communication sailed right past me.
You can get a description of what happens in Film easily enough, so I’ll skip that and summarize my first viewing. The first scene is a close-up of an eye. It has a wrinkled eyelid, so we guess that it’s Buster Keaton’s eye. Then we cut to a shot of a brick wall in some broken-down city. A man in a coat runs along a wall avoiding the camera; we can tell that it’s Keaton because of his body language. It’s soon clear that the show will not be about Buster Keaton or silent comedy, even if the only amusing thing is the fact that it’s a sound picture with only one instance of any audio. That little bit is brilliant. A minute or so into Film we’re already being reminded of 101 student efforts, where the object is to say something abstract and profound. The close-up on the eye seems fairly generic for ‘serious’ filmmaking. After a few shots we realize that Keaton’s face is purposely being kept from our sight. Even when he gets to his room Keaton’s back is always to the camera. The room is recognizable as a ‘No Exit’- style art film construction, mostly empty but with curious details. He blocks the window, and covers a birdcage and a fishbowl. He tries to remove a puppy and a kitten from the room, one at a time. In what for Keaton would be a primitive gag, every time he ejects the dog, the cat returns, and vice-versa. Keaton’s precise mime makes sense (?) of these nonsense activities.
My subjective reactions continue. At first, I’m wondering why the image quality of half of the shots, the ones showing details of what Keaton sees, are blurry, filmed partly through Vaseline. Then we realize that they’re meant to be Keaton’s POV, and after a while, even though we aren’t given a clear frontal view of his face, we can see that he is wearing an eye patch, and this perhaps represents his faulty vision. But this distinction is blurred too, because the wide shots from behind Keaton have a subjective POV quality as well. In over-the-shoulder shots we share the person’s POV, and thus are partly identifying with him already; it’s something you learn right away watching Hitchcock movies. Through the wide shots I’m already experiencing this room as Keaton’s POV. The insert close-ups of fishbowls, the parrot, etc., are the shots that to me seem clumsily inserted, that don’t always connect well with Keaton. Conventional cutting wisdom would ask for corresponding close-ups of Keaton looking at each item.
Beckett, his director and cameraman have one trick that works very well, and that I don’t see remarked on, not even in the long docu Notfilm: some of the wider over-the-shoulder shots of Keaton pan around the room before him, by trucking, circling in the opposite direction. Or, said in a different way, Keaton remains at the center of a circle formed by the camera circling him, seeing the opposite side of the circle as it goes around. Keaton is the pivot point of this depth setup The environment becomes alive, and the camera is the active party.
It is 3/4 of the way through Film that Beckett’s setup finally become obvious. The camera is some kind of All-Seeing Eye, and Keaton wishes to avoid being watched. As this is a film, good luck with that. He’s spooked by the animals and window because they watch him too, as if he has secrets to hide. Keaton even seems disturbed by a rocking chair, because its back has two holes up top that look like eyes, a nice touch that helped me make the connection that Keaton’s problem was a proliferation of ‘eyes’ invading his privacy. As I didn’t go into Film knowing I was taking an intelligence test of my analytical abilities, I offer no apology for my failure to catch on from the get-go.
Keaton wants to do something in private. He destroys a picture pinned to the wall, a drawing that looks like a Babylonian Hammurabi or somebody. He then looks at, and destroys images of his own life, from a baby forward. When Keaton looks at pictures of his mother, he rocks contentedly in his rocking chair. When he finally lets down his guard, the ‘active’ camera sneaks around front, so we finally see Keaton full-face. He’s an old man in the familiar hat, but with a black eye patch, and looking tired. Keaton reacts in shock. Why? Because, as revealed in a blurry cutaway, the camera is him, his own doppelgänger.
Film is a well-shot B&W movie with an abstract storyline that tries to distill to essentials certain chosen elements of existence. As such it’s very much a student film. The quality that makes it watchable is Keaton’s presence — we know him well enough to decide right up front that he’s allowing himself to be used as a mannequin to serve the director’s vision. The only thing that looks like a possible Keaton contribution is the repetitive gag about trying to put the dog and cat out. But the gag is so below Keaton’s level of invention that we know he’s just following orders. Film is a silent movie in that most of the meaning of what we see is provided by Keaton’s mime and attitude: he fears the Camera. Why he wants to destroy his past identity as represented by the pictures, we don’t know.
Frankly, we’re rather shocked that Beckett’s cinematic expression should be so thin. Intellectualizing the set-up, it gains depth. If the camera eye is an omniscient God, and our everyman Keaton’s goal is to free himself from its gaze, then I guess the show is an okay construct of The Human Condition. It’s just not a particularly compelling construct. I suppose I should have connected the Eye at the beginning with the pursuing, peeking camera that bothers Keaton throughout the show, but I wasn’t expecting such a… cliché. The image of a point-blank staring eye is what begins Un chien Andalou, Vertigo, Peeping Tom, Repulsion and I don’t know how many other films with artistic intentions that play a better game of connect-the-dots. Director Alan Schneider isn’t Buñuel or Polanski or Michael Powell, and even the fine cameraman Boris Kaufman can do only so much with the concept. Film is an okay stab at a UCLA project 1, Mr. Beckett, and we look forward to your next effort. I also feel a need to see the docu Notfilm, to find out just how wrong my first impression of Film can be. Left to my own devices, I can mis-read a film just as well as the next viewer.
As Film is so brief, Milestone’s disc includes a highly desirable extra, the full (104 min) teleplay of Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, directed by Alan Schneider for TV in 1961. It’s truly a great piece of theater, with Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith bringing extra meaning and emotion to Beckett’s spare dialogue. Publisher-producer Barney Rosset introduces the teleplay, giving us a feeling of continuity with Notfilm, as he plays such an important part in its making.
The other extra is a compilation of the film takes done during the ‘dog and cat’ filming. For ten minutes Keaton goes through the mime of ejecting the pets, and seeing them sneak back in. The camera covers it more or less in the same way each time, and we wonder if they were trying to find a way to film it so Keaton’s face would always be away from the camera. Keaton is impressively consistent, clearly doing his best to get the director exactly what he wants. We also see a few stage waits and bits where the director or Beckett walks into the shot for a few frames. Nobody laughs. The dog and cat pretty much do what they’re supposed to without fail.
The verdict? By now we are hooked, and eager to see the second release, the docu that’s going to vindicate my biased opinions show me that I had no idea what brilliant things Beckett and Co. were really up to.
The Milestone Cinematheque
2015/ Color & B&W /1:85 widescreen / 130 min. / Street Date March 7, 2017 / available from Milestone Films 34.99
Starring: Kevin Brownlow, James Karen, Leonard Maltin, Barney Rosset, Jeanette Seaver, Haskell Wexler, Billie Whitelaw.
Cinematography: Ross Lipman
Film Editor: Ross Lipman
Original Music: Mihály Víg
Produced by Dennis Doros, Amy Heller
Directed by Ross Lipman
I first saw Ross Lipman at an AMIA The Reel Thing confab in Hollywood, talking about his restoration of Barbara Loden’s Wanda. While doing the same for publisher-producer Barney Rosset’s Film, Lipman found that the producer had retained many cans of outtakes for the show, and the race was on. Notfilm is many things besides a making-of documentary. Lipman uses old film clips to illustrate the impressive backstories of its makers, while examining Samuel Beckett’s artistic approach in full detail. Beckett had been involved in several video productions of his works, and would later direct experimental theater pieces for TV. Publisher Rosset put the show together with his TV director from Waiting for Godot, Alan Schneider. He tried to get cameraman Haskell Wexler, of the thematically- related art film The Savage Eye, but instead secured the services of the legendary Boris Kaufman, whose own ‘eye’ associations extended back to Lenin’s Soviet Union, and his brother Dziga Vertov’s epochal Man with the Movie Camera. The concept of camera-eye (‘Kino-Eye’) is that mind-blowing, visually complicated film’s central theme. Thirty years before, Kaufman had been the cameraman of choice for the brilliant Jean Vigo.
Lipman uses the Film outtakes plus the memories of Rosset, Schneider’s widow, various assistants and still photographers associated with the shoot, plus actor James Karen, who was friends with Keaton and recommended him for the job when Charles Chaplin turned the producers down. We also have the recorded memories of actress Billie Whitelaw, who became a regular interpreter of Beckett’s difficult, physically demanding plays. A big slice of the two-plus hour docu covers the preproduction and filming; we hear audio recordings of Beckett trying to convey his visual intentions and Boris Kaufman trying to interpret those abstract ideas into something that can be filmed. Karen tells us that Keaton couldn’t make heads or tails of the script he was sent, but wanted the job and so did whatever he was asked in a purely professional way. They worked him two days in the summer heat next to the Brooklyn Bridge, dressed in a heavy coat, and Karen remembers that the amateur producer didn’t even think to get Keaton a chair. We also hear from a happy Leonard Maltin, describing his cross-town trek to the filming location at age thirteen to try to get a peek at his idol Buster Keaton.
To analyze the theoretical – cinematic – poetic elements, Lipman mixes up images from Film, Dziga Vertov’s silent pictures, Beckett’s Godot and later video works, and many of Buster Keaton’s silent pictures. Rather than merely illustrate what’s being said, Lipman uses the often- abstract images to enlarge upon Beckett’s intentions. All in all, the filmmaker uses found images to illustrate another artist’s grand cinematic scheme. It works much better than I expected it to.
What we find from the analysis tells us more about the artistic process, even as it reveals Film to be less than a masterpiece, nor even a good film. Buñuel’s surreal visions work because he and his bohemian cohorts found disturbing images by tapping into their own dreams. Your average film student just parrots back what he’s seen elsewhere, but the good artsy student filmmakers also find inspiration from inside themselves. Beckett appears to have worked in the opposite direction, laying down a theoretical blueprint for the meaningful juxtaposition of images, and then trying to convert the whole thing into cinematic terms. We hear much discussion of ‘E,’ the eye or the Camera, and ‘O,’ the object, the Keaton figure. Beckett expends paragraphs of words and complicated diagrams to basically say that he wants the camera to at all times stay far enough behind Keaton so as to not see his face. Someone like Cocteau would just make the ‘O’ figure anonymous by placing an actor in a blank mask, like a mannequin or a villain in a Giallo slasher picture. Beckett stifles his own concept by over-thinking it. The film makes its statement, but it’s not a living statement. As Kevin Brownlow says, it’s not cinematic enough.
Lipman is nothing if not thorough. He even shows clips from an old dramatic film that would seem to be Waiting for Godot from an alternate reality: some businessmen anxiously await the return of a partner named Goudot, who indeed shows up at the finish, but off-screen!
Making a film that examines the structure of film itself is perfectly legitimate idea — many enthusiastic genre-film directors try to work reflexive visual games and investigations into their thrillers. Brian De Palma and Paul Bartel began with highly complex films of this nature. Unfortunately, by working from theory back to film, rather than from human experience, Beckett comes off delivering a message that comes off as weak, even trite. A spoof of the doppelgänger surprise twist used in Film cropped up a year later in the (not particularly witty) art film parody After the Fox. A phony ‘artistic’ film director instructs his actors to ‘run away’ in a shot, without knowing why:
Actor: What are we running from?
Director: From yourselves. Uh, you get the symbolic meaning?
Director: Ah! No matter how fast you run, you can never run away from yourselves!
Actor: Aahh! Beautiful!
That last comparison isn’t meant to be at Film’s expense; if Buster Keaton examined all this evidence he’d say that Beckett was trying to re-invent the wheel. And it’s true that there’s more cinematic art in a frame of any one of Keaton’s film clips, than in Film. I still say that this is a film-study must. Notfilm’s investigation into the details of this unique artistic project is fascinating, seen from any angle.
The Milestone Cinematheque’s Blu-ray of Film / Notfilm is an excellent encoding of this fine production, an investigative documentary by a film restorationist. The show has a thoughtful intermission- like pause at its mid-point. As might be expected from a film restorer, the clips from vintage films and video are top-quality.
Notfilm comes with a wealth of extras, most of which are on a second Blu-ray disc. Many are extended interviews from the shoot, or separate audio and video interviews in which associates and experts talk about Film. Fans of James Karen will like his personal account of Buster’s involvement with the crazy art filmmakers, and Karen is a terrific raconteur. We also get an assembly of outtakes of Film’s abandoned first scene, that introduces a group of normal people on the street before ‘O’ enters the scene. Cues from the film’s score are also downloadable, as MP3s.
I’m not that worried about Buster Keaton’s health while working for these filmmakers, as the intensely physical performer had for fifty years been the one to decide what he should or shouldn’t do, and I doubt nobody could stop him doing what he wanted, even if he wanted to jump out a window. Richard Lester also gets off the hook for Buster’s exertions on A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, as the actor was probably hiding his condition on that movie (and probably thought dying in harness wouldn’t be a bad way to go). Should Buster have done Film? Why not? It can’t be more demeaning than wearing an Indian costume in a Beach Party movie, to prance about with a go-go dancer.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Film / Notfilm (separate releases) Blu-ray rate:
Movies: Very good
Supplements: FILM: Dog & Cat scene out-takes; full video presentation of Waiting for Godot (see above). NOTFILM: outtake compilation The Street Scene (six minutes); “What if E’s Eyes Were Closed?” audio recordings of Beckett, Kaufman and Schneider (7 mins); Buster Keaton and Film, with James Karen; James Knowlson on Samuel Beckett; Jean Schneider on her husband Alan Schneider; Jeanette Seaver on Godot; Steve Schapiro and I.C. Rappaport about the photography of Film; downloadable MP3 recordings of Mihály Víg’s music score.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English, French, German, Spanish, Portuguese (feature only)
Packaging: two Blu-ray discs in keep case
Reviewed: March 16, 2017
Text © Copyright 2017 Glenn Erickson