'Notfilm': Film Review

Courtesy of Milestone Film
Essential viewing for cinema and theater buffs.

Ross Lipman's "kino-essay" documents the making of the 1965 short 'Film,' written by Samuel Beckett and starring Buster Keaton.

The idea of Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton collaborating on a movie sounds like a joke. But it actually happened in 1965, with the experimental short film Film (which also sounds like a joke). Ross Lipman's fascinating Notfilm is a self-described "kino-essay" about the little-seen work that will be manna from heaven for film and theater buffs alike. Currently receiving theatrical engagements in New York and Los Angeles, the documentary will soon be available on DVD accompanied by a pristine restoration of the half-century-old 22-minute original film.

Film represented the only cinematic excursion by the Irish playwright who would win the Nobel Prize for Literature four years later. Directed by his longtime theatrical collaborator Alan Schneider, the dialogue-free effort featured the aging silent-movie star Keaton in one of his last screen appearances.

It was not a particularly happy association, with Keaton, whose face is visible only in the pic's final moments, not having a clue as to what it was about (many viewers shared his opinion). Upon his first meeting with Beckett, the actor showed more interest in watching a televised baseball game than talking to the playwright. In a later interview with film historian Kevin Brownlow, Beckett described the actor as "inaccessible," sardonically observing saying that "he had a poker mind as well as a poker face."  The actor was actually not the first choice for the role, with offers having previously gone out to Charlie Chaplin, veteran Beckett stage actor Jack MacGowran and Zero Mostel.

Beckett traveled to America for the first and only time on the occasion of its filming, which included exteriors shot near the Brooklyn Bridge. In an interview, film critic Leonard Maltin talks about visiting the location as a teenager, hoping to meet his screen idol Keaton. He succeeded in his goal, not even realizing or caring that Beckett was on the scene as well.

Lipman exhaustively details the behind-the-scenes making of Film, aided by interviews with its producer, the publisher Barney Rossett; veteran character actor James Karen, a close friend of Keaton's who had a small role in the film; Jean Schneider, Alan's widow; and cinematographer Haskell Wexler, Rossett's childhood friend. He also delves into Beckett's life and work via interviews with, among others, actress Billie Whitelaw, considered his foremost stage interpreter, and James Knowlson, the playwright's friend and authorized biographer.

The documentary also includes outtakes and fragments of unused footage, as well as audio tapes of production meetings which represent the most extensive recordings of the reclusive playwright uncovered to date.

Notfilm gets a little windy with its narration by the filmmaker, who waxes philosophic in a sometimes pretentious manner clearly designed to stress that this is not your usual "making of" documentary. But the loftiness can be easily excused, especially since he delivers many insightful observations that make this effort a work of solid scholarship as well as delicious dish. That it works equally well on both levels makes it as entertaining as it is educational.

Distributor: Milestone Films
Production companies: Milestone Films, Corpus Fluxus
Director-screenwriter-director of photography-editor: Ross Lipman
Producers: Dennis Doros, Amy Heller
Composer: Mihaly Vig

Not rated, 128 minutes