I understand Samuel Beckett's dramatic work about as much as grapefruit is sweet, but I get Buster Keaton. How can you not get Buster Keaton? He's funny, sublimely, absurdly funny, while Beckett is serious, sublimely, absurdism-reaching serious. Put the two together and you get Film, a confounding--while intriguing--1965 short, silent movie that's Beckett's one-time art house indulgence times a thousand.
Ross Lipman's inquisitive documentary on the making of Film, aptly titled NotFilm, aside from dissecting the arduous creative process involved, will, more importantly, serve to put your mind at rest if you've seen Film and scratched your head more than once. What's made clear in Lipman's intellectually driven yet emotionally inclusive discourse is that Beckett wasn't clear either, at least on the best ways to deliver Film's ulterior meaning. He simply didn't know how to translate his literary vision into the technical elements needed for scene and camera to portray his intentions. Neither did his production colleagues, and that's what's fascinating about Film: it's filled with existentialism and synchronicity even before you get to actually watching it, with a movie-making crew not realizing they are in a Beckettian play entitled Waiting for Film. Lipman captures this.
But unlike Godot, Film does eventually arrive. Somewhat. And Notfilm examines that "somewhat" rather well.
Photographs, interviews, letters, notes, illustrative excerpts from silent movies, and the shop talk recordings of Beckett, his director Alan Schneider and cinematographer Boris Kaufman, explaining to each other, but not really understanding each other, provides the argument for the existential angst in the making of Film. When you realize that Charlie Chaplain, Zero Mostel, and Jack MacGowran were each considered for the lead role, but events conspired to bring Buster Keaton to its realization--the Great Stone Face and one of the greatest film directors of all time, you can see the synchronicity; and the irony, since neither his face nor directing skills were much used by Beckett or Schneider.
Keaton was happy, more or less, to have work. Ill, very much alone, broke, and in the process of dying, he didn't understand Beckett or his movie's raison d'etre at all (although Beckett's character, simply known as O, is also alone, broke, and in the process of dying), but he persisted. Whatever comedic bits he did, or flashes of his face shown (before the final scene), were clipped from the final cut. Under the Brooklyn Bridge, in sweltering heat, he would do whatever was needed to complete the scene, having the director call out directions while filming and redoing actions while filming if not good enough. Keaton wasn't one for much rehearsal. He simply did.
It is through an extensive examination from philosophical idea to concrete film that Lipman finds the poignancy and the brilliance found and missed in Film. Segmenting his documentary into parts, the creative team is assembled first, then their choices made, followed by the problems to be surmounted because of those choices. Film is about two characters: O the pursued (played by Keaton), and E the pursuer (the camera's eye) . Who O is and who or what, exactly, is pursuing him (death, perhaps, or unfulfilled life?) is open to conjecture, and Lipman offers much to conjecture on. An exercise in George Berkely's esse est percipi, or a more personal feeling-statement by Beckett, or an artsy attempt handicapped by inexperience, take your pick or take them all.
Notfilm provides insight: Beckett's vision was failing him. O's sight is failing him. We see test scenes done to determine the best approach for creating O's blurred sight when we look through his eyes. What is Beckett implying? E's sight is perfect; unflinching, stark, and crystal clear. E sees O, then pursues him. Like the quintessential silent comedy modus operandi, Film is about pursuit. Easily said, but putting that pursuit onto film proved difficult. The technical difficulties in handling the camera angles and motion would force changes.
By the end of the first day they had blown the budget and couldn't do the multi-participant street scene as Beckett planned. Compromises were made, with his approval, and O becomes a singular character hiding his face against a stark background populated by three other characters; a couple and a solitary old woman (James Karen, Susan Reed, and Nell Harrison). O runs into the couple and encounters the old woman coming down the stairs in his flight away from E. While O evades E, they look upon E and become horrified. Again, what is Beckett implying about E?
More conundrums ensue as O enters a mostly empty room and hides himself from the mirror, the animals, and the gaze of Abu, a minor Sumerian god of plants and vegetation, peering with large eyes at him from a print crudely nailed to the otherwise blank wall. But E eventually catches up with O.
I am not sure which is better: to watch Film first or Notfilm? But watching one, you should not miss the other, whichever order you take, as both complement each other. Answers and questions will abound, but fascination of Film remains.