Film was one of the oddest collaborations in the history of the medium of cinema. It was Samuel Beckett’s only foray into celluloid, although he did do some work in television before and afterwards. It was also the last starring role for Buster Keaton before he succumbed to lung cancer in 1966. Keaton found Beckett’s work baffling (he turned down a role in a version of Waiting for Godot) but desperately needed the cash, so he signed up.
Despite obvious differences, they were both masters of their different mediums, and together with director Alan Schneider they created this oddity. Beckett himself would say it was “interesting failure”: it premiered at some festivals, but swiftly disappeared to become a legendary cult item for Keaton and Beckett aficionados. Given that it’s Beckett, it has a sense of existential dread throughout, as Keaton plays “The Man” who is trying to not be seen by the all-seeing eye. Beckett had a famous aversion to being recorded and very rarely was even filmed, although he was photographed a fair amount and was of course was extremely photogenic. Maybe the film is a statement on Beckett’s persona, maybe a statement on Keaton, or both—or maybe it’s just pretentious hogwash (or all of the above.)
Notfilm is an absolutely excellent documentary on the strange odyssey of this film from conception to screen. In exhausting but endlessly fascinating detail, it examines the genesis from casting to finding a cinematographer (they settled on the masterful Boris Kaufman), the small, almost ramshackle production, and of course interpretations of its themes and the philosophical questions it raises.
It also rigorously goes through Beckett’s own interest in cinema, which was long-standing, and the parallels between Film, silent films like Un Chien Andalou, and the work of Russian filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. Boris Kaufman was actually Dziga Vertov’s brother and shot all of Jean Vigo’s films; Schneider was a great admirer of Vigo. The documentary also covers why the casting of Keaton is key to the film, and how his persona and look contributed greatly to the finished work, even though Beckett originally wanted Charles Chaplin.
Filmmaker Ross Lipman had a great wealth of material to work with while making Notfilm, including outtakes, making-of footage, photographs, Beckett on tape discussing the film (he was rarely audiotaped,) and some talking-head interviews with Kevin Brownlow, Haskell Wexler, and Barney Rosset etc., which are sparingly but effectively used. It’s also full of clips from other films, such as Keaton’s own films and the various films Beckett and Schneider were influenced by.
The disc compiles both films in a dual-format package, along with a British remake which was created 14 years later. It has 14 minutes of outtakes and a deleted scene. Beckett fanatics will be overjoyed with more audio recording of Beckett, who had a great lyrical Irish voice. There is over an hour of extra interviews on film, Beckett and Keaton, and lots more. It’s finished off with a nice big booklet with new essays on both films from a host of writers.