“Film” and “Notfilm”: Playwright Samuel Beckett meets Buster Keaton

Calling all film buffs: Go see a double feature of Samuel Beckett’s “long lost” 1965 experimental short Film starring Buster Keaton, and Ross Lipman’s documentary Notfilm, about their encounter and the intriguing result. While this may not exactly be their cup of tea for popcorn munchers at the multiplex, Notfilm and Film are must-see for any cinefile worth their salt.

On the face of it, a collaboration between the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton sounds like an unlikely alliance of artists. Beckett – best known for 1953’s Waiting for Godot – pioneered the Theatre of the Absurd. As such, the philosophical Nobel Prize-winning writer, who explored the meaning of life, appeals to more serious, sophisticated theatergoers and esthetes.

Kansas-born Keaton, on the other hand, was among silent cinema’s most popular stars, appearing in numerous crowd-pleasing comedies full of slapstick and Keystone Kops-type chases. Many of his simplistic plots revolved around boy-seeking-girl, but with his persona as “the Great Stoneface,” Keaton was also commenting on the human condition. Furthermore, during his peak Buster, who won a 1960 Honorary Oscar, was also an extraordinarily imaginative, innovative filmmaker. Many of Buster’s original visual gags are considered visionary, transcending mere special effects. Movies, such as 1924’s Sherlock Jr., are full of motion picture panache that expanded the lexicon and vernacular of film and the cinema as an art form. (Sixty years later Woody Allen “plagiarized” it in The Purple Rose of Cairo like Joe Biden unleashed on a Neil Kinnock speech.)

Notfilm reveals that the down-on-his-luck Keaton agreed to act in Film for the money (in 1965 the has-been silent star also traded on his former fame by appearing in the teen screen romps Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini). Keaton did not comprehend Beckett and his screenplay. Nevertheless, given Buster’s vast contributions to filmic form, there may be a method to the madness of the comedian cooperating with the vanguard bard of the avant-garde.       

Beckett brought his absurdist and minimalist sensibility to his exploration of the cinematic medium in the 20-minute Film. It is shot entirely in black and white by Boris Kaufman, is almost entirely silent – with one notable exception – and does not have a musical score. In 1961’s ironically named Happy Days, the characters Winnie and Willie spend most of their time buried in dirt, while in 1957’s Endgame, Nagg and Nell reside inside of garbage cans. Similarly, as “The Man” (or “Object”), Buster is confined to a dingy room in what appears to be a tenement for most of Film.

Although this may seem counterintuitive because Keaton was a sublime actor, during most of Film the Great Stoneface’s visage is unseen. His back is turned toward Kaufman’s camera – or “Eye” – although Buster is identifiable because he’s wearing his trademark porkpie hat. In the final shot, Beckett breaks the motion picture persona the so-called Stoneface nurtured and this short would be notable for this, if for no other reason.

Like much of Beckett’s oeuvre, Film has a bleak view of humanity that would have been called “existential” back in the days when the playwright lived in a Paris where beret-clad, Gauloises-puffing, baguette-gobbling philosophes debated “what it’s all about” in cafés incorporating the benign indifference of the cosmos. (Oddly, today, in a bizarre vocab rehab interchange that could be dialogue in a Beckett play, the word “existential” refers to when a state’s existence is militarily threatened.)

As its title implies, Film is also self-referential. For an audio-visual medium that records reality, Film‘s motley crew are most definitely not ready for their close-ups, C.B.: The actors respond with sheer dread when they know they are being shot by Kaufman’s “Eye.” It suggests that old cliché of “primitive” people, who believe photography “steals souls.”

Beckett’s sole excursion into the motion picture art has been debated, as Notfilm notes. Some may consider it an unprofessional student film, while others might think it’s a work of experimental, avant-garde pure film that ranks alongside of, say, Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s chilling 1929 classic An Andalusian Dog or Maya Deren’s 1943 poetic, exquisite Meshes of the Afternoon. Like them, Film has a poetic, cinematic sensibility and dreamlike (or, perhaps, nightmarish?) quality.

In addition to Beckett’s script, part of Film‘s poetic ambiance owes to the cinematography of Boris Kaufman, the renowned director of photography who shot the trancelike 1930s’ Jean Vigo classics Zero for Conduct and L’Atalante, plus other non-narrative, experimental films. The Russian went on to emigrate to France and eventually America, where he was DP for notable 1950s films such as On the Waterfront (for which he won an Oscar) and 12 Angry Men.

Interestingly, the great Soviet cameraman Mikhail Kaufman and director Dziga Vertov were Boris’ older brothers. In Notfilm Lipman includes clips from their 1929 Man with a Movie Camera and cleverly juxtaposes sequences from this Soviet masterpiece with Keaton’s 1928 classic The Cameraman. There are also scenes from 1969’s Medium Cool (plus an interview with its recently deceased director Haskell Wexler, a two-time Oscar winner for cinematography). Although very different films, the trio have something in common: the use of the self-reflective lens and a wildly creative, unfettered formalistic cinematic sensibility. The former ties into Beckett’s theme in Film and is reminiscent of Vertov and Mikhail’s earlier 1924 Kino Eye film.

Lipman, a movie restorationist and indie filmmaker, worked on Notfilm like a man obsessed with an Ahab-like monomania, for seven years, unearthing pieces of celluloid here and film history there. His great white whale is mostly in black and white and includes interviews with notables such as film historian Kevin Brownlow, actor James Karen and critic Leonard Maltin. There is also footage of Charlie Chaplin, to whom, according to Lipman, Beckett offered the lead in Film, which the Little Tramp declined.

Although Beckett’s Film actually exists, and was even remade in 1979 by the British Film Institute, Notfilm resurrects not only it but much more. It is a bit like the great new book by Swiss film historian Pierre Smolik called The Freak, which exhaustively recreates in book form what the subtitle calls Chaplin’s Last Film. After turning Beckett down and directing his swan song, 1967’s A Countess from Hong Kong with Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren, Chaplin worked on a screenplay about an angelic creature, a script which never made it to the screen but which Smolik meticulously, lovingly brings vividly back to life, along with fascinating details chronicling Chaplin.

It’s copacetic that Notfilm – which documents one of Keaton’s last movies – is being released the same month that Chaplin’s World, a movie museum built on the grounds of Charlie’s Swiss mansion above Lake Geneva, also opens. Of course, Chaplin’s 1952 Limelight paired the Tramp with Keaton, who had been his top rival for the silent cinema’s crown of comedy. In Limelight they play vaudevillians who’ve lost their audience and are reunited for a final performance. Backstage, as they put their makeup and costumes on, Keaton – who was broke and given a job by his former silent screen competitor – says rather poignantly: “I never thought we’d come to this.”

In addition to working with Annette Funicello, Frankie Avalon and Zero Mostel in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (based on the Roman playwright Plautus’ comedies), as Buster and his career faded out in the 1960s, Keaton worked with one of the stage’s greatest geniuses. Although I enjoyed and was fascinated by Beckett’s foray into cinema, Lipman’s film about Film is arguably better and more interesting than the work that inspired it. The highest compliment I could bestow upon Lipman is that his documentary is worthy of its lofty subjects. This double feature is required viewing for all serious esthetes, film students and lovers of the cinematic stuff that dreams are made of.

​Los Angeles Filmforum and American Cinematheque are screening Notfilm and Film on April 1, 8 and 9 at the The Spielberg in the Egyptian Theatre, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., L.A. 90028, and at the Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave, Santa Monica 90403, on April 2, with director Ross Lipman. More info here.

There are also four special screenings at the Laemmle Theatres in L.A. from April 4-7. Notfilm and Film are also being screened at Anthology Film Archives, New York, April 1-7. (Director Ross Lipman will be presenting April 1.) See here for other screenings.

Photo: Buster Keaton, Samuel Beckett


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian/critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.