Viewing Notfilm feels a lot like sitting through an illustrated lecture by a droning professor.
Samuel Beckett, awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, was beloved by critics and popular audiences alike. (Serious question—is there anyone interested in theatre who doesn’t know Waiting for Godot?) Many of his plays have been filmed, but it’s less well known is that he wrote the screenplay for a 1965 short film bearing the appropriately minimalist title of Film, which was commissioned by Grove Press publisher Barney Rossett, directed by Alan Schneider, shot by Boris Kaufman, and stars Buster Keaton.
With a lineup like that, Film would seem to demand attention no matter the quality of the resulting product (which Beckett and Keaton both regarded as unsuccessful). That’s pretty much the approach taken by Ross Lipman in Notfilm—he assumes that Film is a worthy object of study and that everything about it is also of interest. Film is only 22 minutes long, while Lipman’s “kino-essay” is over five times that length, which would be fine if all of Notfilm’s 130 minutes were fascinating, or at least illuminating. Unfortunately, they’re not, and while Lipman has certainly collected a lot of interesting materials (discovery of footage from the creation of Film provided the original impetus to make Notfilm), but viewing Notfilm feels a lot like sitting through an illustrated lecture by a droning professor with no sense of drama or humor, and who is a little too in love with his penchant for drawing connections among disparate objects and people.
Ironically, some of the problems of Notfilm can be traced to a problem similar to which plagued Film: the guy in charge was an expert at expert at some things, but directing films wasn’t one of them. Lipman, a noted film restorer at the UCLA Film & Television Archive (Beckett’s Film is one of many he worked on) is listed as Notfilm’s writer, narrator, photographer, editor, and narrator (and since no one is credited as director, we can assume that’s also his by default). That’s a lot of hats for one guy to wear, and, a collaborator might have been useful as a second voice in the room, suggesting when things could be left out or when Lipman’s penchant for interpretation was getting the best of him. The one major role Lipman did not assume, that of composer, is filled by frequent Bela Tarr collaborator Mihály Vig, whose soundtrack is effective and offers a welcome relief from the surfeit of information served up by Notfilm.
Notfilm will appeal primarily to people with a strong interest in Beckett and/or the avant-garde, and for them it will be like catnip to, well, a cat. It includes lots of fascinating clips from the production of Film, as well as from other relevant films like Man With a Movie Camera, The Cameraman, Not I, and Un Chien Andalou. It also includes many interviews, some of which are quite illuminating, particularly those with Billie Whitelaw, perhaps the actress most identified with Beckett’s work. Other interview subjects include Rosset (but it seems unnecessary to show, and comment on, his mental confusions in old age), film historian and director Kevin Brownlow, and Beckett biographer Jim Knowlson.
If you’re interesting in seeing Film on the big screen, and in seeing Keaton in a movie more typical of his work, The Cameraman (dir. Edward Sedgwick, 1928) and Film will be screened as part of the Webster Film series on July 29, 30, 31, and August 1 and 2. | Sarah Boslaugh
Notfilm will be screened at 8:00 pm on July 22, 23, 24, 25, and 26 at the Winifred Moore Auditorium at Webster University (470 E. Lockwood Ave., St. Louis, MO, 63119). Tickets are $6 for the general public, $5 for seniors, Webster alumni, and students from other schools, $4 for Webster University staff and faculty, and are free for Webster University students with proper ID. Further information about tickets is available here and the film series calendar is available here.