For two weeks in 1964 Buster Keaton found himself in a strange little art film directed by Alan Schneider and written by, of all people, Samuel Becket. It was called, simply, Film, and had been conceived by Grove Press founder Barney Rossett as part of a showcase for Grove authors. As history would have it, Becket's was the only one that saw fruition. Depending on your point of view, it was either a tremendous way to bookend Keaton's legendary career, a shameless piece of existential fluff from Becket, or both. Notfilm, a 2015 "cinema essay" by Ross Lipman, isn't likely to help you decide, though it is occasionally fascinating.
Keaton seemed ideal for Beckett, who was best known for Waiting for Godot, a groundbreaking theater piece that consisted of some people sitting around, waiting for something to happen. By the time Godot premiered in America in 1956, Keaton was scraping out a living by appearing in circuses and on television. The Keaton rediscovery of the 1960s was still a long way off.
Notfilm tells the story of how Keaton - in ill health and less than two years away from his death - was brought into the production (after Charlie Chaplin had bailed out), how Schneider the stage director fumbled his way into his first movie, and how Beckett stood by looking pensive and craggy. There's a rather academic dismantling of Film, and some interesting footage that was thought to be lost, but a lot of Notfilm is static, and heavy. Lipman can make this documentary jump into life by showing a clip from one of Keaton's old silent films, particularly Sherlock Jr and The Cameraman, but those merciful breaks don't come often enough. Beckett, who won the Nobel prize for literature in 1969, is dead weight here. Clips from his plays feel pretentious, and his fear of being photographed or recorded means we have to rely on the memories of others to describe him. Since most of the people interviewed are quite old and their memories are shot, we don't get much.
In a way, the faulty memories of the people questioned create a sort of Beckett play within a Beckett play. Instead of Waiting for Godot, we're waiting for a clear recollection. Fortunately, veteran character actor James Karen shares some poignant memories of an ailing Keaton suffering through the humid New York weather, while historian Kevin Brownlow and cinematographer Haskell Wexler offer some interesting asides. Lipman has artsy pretensions, and occasionally lets the narrative ramble, though he can usually bring it back with a striking image, Beckett's haggard face, for instance, or Keaton's, the stoic hangdog.
Lipman put extensive time and research into this project, and the idea of Keaton and Beckett working together is tantalizing and certainly worth a documentary. The downside is that both are men are deserving of ample coverage, which means the movie runs about 20 minutes too long. Lipman, ultimately, seems less interested in telling the story than in swimming in the middle of it. He's like a deep sea diver who went in search of treasure, but got sidetracked by a couple of squids.
Lipman makes a tactical error in narrating the movie himself - his voice isn't suited for the job. Beckett, too, comes off as rather weedy. His eyesight was beginning to trouble him, and his notorious shyness made him a less than colorful figure. Lipman spends time with actress Billie Whitelaw, but her vague digressions about acting in Beckett plays amount to little.
As for Film, it was a 20-minute short featuring Keaton as a mysterious figure walking through the backstreets of New York's Upper West Side and near the Brooklyn Bridge, trying to avoid being seen. A few people notice him and grimace in horror; he ends up alone in his shabby, empty apartment where he smashes old pictures from his past. Keaton, as always, makes it watchable. Film garnered attention at various international film festivals, and though many agreed with critic Andrew Sarris that it was "a dreary exercise," it was part of the big Keaton renaissance that included him appearing in a beach party movies and cheesy spectacles like A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. The impression we get from Notfilm is that Keaton wasn't impressed by Beckett or Film. It was a paid gig, no different than the detergent commercials he was doing in those days. According to Tom Dardis' Keaton: The Man Who Wouldn't Lie Down, Keaton made $5,000 for two weeks' work.
Notfilm is currently playing on Fandor, and available on DVD and Blu-ray from Milestone Films.