When Beckett Met Buster

The genius of stage and the genius of screen made a movie together. Why was it bad?

A behind-the-scenes production shot of Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton making Film.
A behind-the-scenes production shot of Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton making Film.

Frank Serjack

That Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton once collaborated on a short avant-garde film is, in and of itself, a thrilling fact. You’d have to scan the horizon for a long time to come up with a better match of literary and cinematic sensibilities. Both men were black-humored ironists whose meticulously crafted, formally innovative art nonetheless cuts straight to the viewer’s emotional core. Both came from a stage background: By the time Beckett’s lone foray into cinema was shot in 1964, his minimalist dramas had already helped to reinvent theater for the 20th century. Keaton, who had grown up as the child star and principal prop in his family’s knockabout vaudeville act, started in films at age 21 with a decade and a half of theatrical experience already behind him, and only then went on to help invent the new medium of the 20th century. In their personal and professional lives, too, Keaton and Beckett shared a certain ethos. They were deeply private, taciturn men whose aura of cool remove suggested an inner life so complex and conflicted it could only be expressed in their work.

As a passionate fan of both artists, I remember my sense of befuddlement, years ago, when I first got a chance to see Film, the 24-minute short that was the result of their collaboration with the theatrical director Alan Schneider. How could two such great creators have come together to make something so manifestly not great—not awful, mind you, indeed not without its own strange fascination, but far from transcendent art on the level of Steamboat Bill, Jr. or Waiting for Godot?

Film is often regarded as a curious artifact in the careers of both men, a noble but failed attempt to translate Beckett’s rigorous vision into the medium of cinema. But in his part-documentary, part-essay Notfilm, Ross Lipman, a film restorationist making his feature debut, looks at Film differently—or rather, looks at it in a lot of different ways at the same time. Sometimes Film serves as Notfilm’s subject in the traditional documentary sense: As Lipman speaks in voiceover about the semi-cursed production’s various setbacks, we see stills taken on the set or scenes from the finished film. There’s even a talking head now and again (a documentary convention I’ve never objected to, as long as the words emanating from that head are worth listening to).

But at other times—never predictably, but with a recurring and almost musical rhythm—Notfilm turns into something else again. Even as he tells the story of Film’s conception, production, and reception, Lipman uses that story as the source text for a filmic meditation on history, technology, art, oblivion, and time. This meditation is delivered to us not only via the filmmaker’s voice, but also in a pensive, mournful score by Mihály Víg and a stream of ingeniously interwoven clips from film history. Lipman, who also edited, never resorts to the lesser documentarian’s trick of tossing in whatever random archival find seems to best shore up his point. The images he uses all come from sources that bear some relation, direct or oblique, to the story of Film. Chase sequences from Keaton’s silent comedies are intercut with, and find startling resonances in, scenes from Dziga Vertov’s silent documentaries Man with a Movie Camera and Kino Eye, Russian formalist works that share some of the philosophical concerns laid out in Beckett’s screenplay for Film. That set of concerns—which the finished project of Film often fails to communicate with clarity—becomes a springboard for Lipman’s own reflections on the paradoxes of success and failure, perception and subjectivity, seeing and being seen. Though it’s only about two hours long, Notfilm is dense enough with images, words, and ideas that its built-in intermission, with that gorgeous score playing out for a few minutes over a black screen, serves as a welcome respite between the first and second halves.

Lipman’s voiceover begins with the frank confession that he’s “never quite trusted films about film.” He needn’t worry, because what he’s created with Notfilm is much more than that. I spoke to him about the movie when it opened at the Anthology Film Archive in New York last week; it will be released in more cities in the U.S. and abroad over the next few months (release schedule here).

What question or experience or image first sparked you on this project? What was the first germ of the idea?

Well, there were a lot of germs of the idea, because I’d been attracted to Beckett’s film for many, many years, since I first came across the Grove Press edition of the screenplay, back when I was in my late teens. Years later, the film itself came to me when Andrew Lambert at Anthology Film Archives called me and said he was in touch with [Beckett publisher] Barney Rosset at Grove Press, and thought I would be a good person to preserve Film. I just leaped at the chance. But it wasn’t until years later that Notfilm began to grow. Along the way, I’d gotten a bunch of archival material from Barney, including the outtakes and audio recordings. For a long time I’d been doing illustrated lectures, so I thought of just doing a live presentation of this material. But at a certain point, it just seemed to want to be a film.

The thing that really got to me was something completely unexpected: the outtakes of Boris Kaufman’s camera pans across the set designed by Burr Smidt. There was just something wonderfully evocative in the character of the room, the emptiness of it all, which I know Beckett aspired to and loved. He really thought very highly of Smidt’s set, and Kaufman’s cinematography was just lovely, with exquisite light. Something about those pans of the empty room evoked a world for me, and I wanted to explore that room. That room became Notfilm.

There’s a kind of critical orthodoxy that regards Film as an intriguing but failed experiment, an oddball anomaly in both Beckett’s and Keaton’s careers. In your voiceover for Notfilm, you call it “a riddle that at once revolts and strangely compels.” But if it were an undisputed masterpiece, there wouldn’t be this story to tell.

That’s exactly right. If it were a complete success, I really doubt I would have felt a need for Notfilm. You have these amazing artists who are interacting but not interacting with each other at the same time. And so these questions arise as to what could have happened, what did happen, why it happened that way, why it didn’t happen another way. That, for me, is the point of entry. It’s where Notfilm begins.

Toward the end of the film you bring up this notion of Keaton and Beckett as one other’s doubles. The story of their encounter is sometimes characterized as if they didn’t get along, but it seems to me that this is a misconception, that if anything they were too similar in their approaches to communicate effectively. What do you think?

I think I described it in Notfilm as a kind of détente. They were friendly and cordial. I don’t think they had outright conflict on the set. Keaton was a true professional, and he went along with whatever they asked. He might not have had the highest opinion of it, but I don’t think he was getting into fights. Beckett and Keaton weren’t often going out, you know, to share a drink afterwards. It just was two ships passing in the night. So when I explored that idea of them as doppelgängers, it’s like they parallel each other in these odd ways without even knowing it. They never quite connect, and yet, somewhere in there is this elusive quality, despite the disconnect.

It’s as if Beckett’s idea for the film is at once never completely explicated, and yet too present. There’s this combination of heavy-handedness and inexplicable mystery. Kevin Brownlow, the great historian of the silent era whom you interview in Notfilm, says of Film that “It’s not cinematic enough for me.” I think that’s true for me as well. It’s as if the camera is always asking, “What’s my motivation? Where do I go?”

Yeah. It’s ironic that a film called Film might be considered uncinematic. I love Kevin’s patter for that reason. And yet, as you say, it does have this wonderfully evocative feel to it.

You can see, watching Film, that Alan Schneider’s experience is as a theatrical director, because it’s in that last scene in the enclosed room that the film starts to succeed, to the extent it does. The way he explores that space. But at the same time, the person who would have known best where to put the camera was right there in the room! Keaton is such a master of using screen space.

Oh, yes.

So for him to be boxed into a room that could be a theatrical stage is a strange choice.

Yeah, you’re quite right: Keaton was an expert craftsman. He always has the camera in the right place. And that to me is just astounding, because very few filmmakers are like that.

Let’s talk about the filmed essay. I’ve always loved this genre, and it’s existed from the beginning of cinema, since Dziga Vertov and the Surrealists, you could say, and up through Chris Marker, Agnès Varda, etc. But this use of film always seems to occupy a crucial yet marginalized space in the cinematic landscape. What are your thoughts about the essay as a form, and the future of that form?

There’s a sense in which it’s easier to make these works now, because everybody has this technology at their fingertips and can get access to wonderful materials. So really, you’ve got the whole history of cinema at your disposal. All you need is the inspiration and discipline to make the work. So it’s very exciting in that sense, and it’s led to a transformation of the nature of scholarly discourse. The academic essay is evolving as we speak. And I’m not saying these things have to be academic. That’s one valid form of expression, but there’s a lot of other directions you could take it. Notfilm was very much an exploration of the essay form, but also tells a simple story, the story of Film’s production. The more conventional choice would have been to go the direction of the PBS-style “making of”—which is a wonderful form, and I love works like that—or to make a purely analytic work. I didn’t want to do either. I really did want to explore this hybrid form that would hopefully work for both audiences. The term kino-essay is just a tip of the hat to Vertov, who was, again, there at the beginning of everything.

And the vast majority of archival images that we see, especially at the beginning of the film, if they’re not from a Keaton film, are from Vertov, right? Pretty much all of the cityscapes, for example.

Yeah. With a few exceptions, all of the archival footage in the film has some kind of historical resonance with Notfilm. If was doing a film that was purely about metafilms—films about film—I could have included hundreds or perhaps thousands of works. So I very specifically limited myself to quoting films that had historical resonance with Film itself.

Did Beckett find value or meaning in what he saw to be Film’s failure?

In his letters Beckett talks about the mysterious quality we’ve spoken of. And for me, that’s really the cinematography. Self-servingly, I feel like Beckett’s attraction might be similar to that feeling I had looking at the outtakes of Kaufman’s pans across the empty room. That all the intellectual constructs just washed away in the end. They’re fun to think about, but they just wash away, and you’re left with the plain fact of emptiness.

Correction, April 8, 2016:​ Due to a production error, the caption on this article’s photo originally misstated that it was a still image from ​Notfilm​. It was a production shot from ​Film​. The photo has subsequently been swapped out for a different behind-the-scenes photo from ​Film​.