In 1964, two guys walk into a movie studio. One of them was Buster Keaton, a silent film master of physical comedy, and the other was Samuel Beckett, a master of cerebral literature. They were there to make a movie together, and now a new movie tells the story of their unlikely collaboration.
Beckett and Keaton's project was called Film, and the new account of that project — created by former UCLA archivist Ross Lipman — is called Notfilm. Lipman was fascinated by the Beckett-Keaton collaboration. "I love storytelling," he says, "and I love all the historical figures involved and I love pursuing these strange little nooks and crannies of cultural history."
Film is certainly one of those crannies, but making a movie about the making of a movie posed a problem. In the beginning of Notfilm, Lipman says, "I've never quite trusted films about film. Art shouldn't be about art; it should be about life, and speak to life — or so I told myself, as if they were somehow distinguishable."
As an archivist, Lipman worked on a bunch of restoration projects, from silent films to the movies of John Sayles and John Cassavetes. His research on the Beckett-Keaton project led him to the apartment of the man who funded Film. Under the sink, Lipman found reels of outtakes and a prologue that was eventually rejected.
"There were lots of outtakes of the camera panning across this abandoned room — this decrepit, decaying space," Lipman says. "And they were so evocative. ... I've got all this wonderful material that obviously speaks to me from a historical and intellectual standpoint, but underneath it got to me at this emotional level, and that was the thing that pushed me."
Lipman's film grew into a movie essay on the meaning of images — how we see ourselves on screen and how others see us. He says, "The film by Beckett is about someone who is afraid of being looked at, and Beckett uses the camera as a metaphor for that. And Keaton was one of those people who did have this aversion to the limelight. In his private life, he didn't really like to be invaded in that way. So at a physical level, he understood this aversion to being observed that Beckett was using as the subject of his film."
But Keaton wasn't Beckett's first choice. Actor James Karen, who appears in Film, says, "Beckett had written it for Jack MacGowran and MacGowran couldn't do it, so I suggested Buster."
Karen has acted on Broadway, TV and film, including 1985's The Return of the Living Dead. He was a close friend of Keaton's, but he says he had to convince him to do the Beckett project. Once Keaton was on set, Karen says, the seasoned silent film star didn't think Beckett or his first-time director, acclaimed theater director Alan Schneider, knew what they were doing.
"They were terrific in the theater," Karen says, "but they knew nothing about making a movie. They would ask for things which no actor could do. I remember Beckett one time said to Buster, 'Mr. Keaton, could you hold that blink three more frames?' Buster looked at me and said, 'Sure!' I just said, 'Take my word for it, these are respectable people.' And he said, 'Well, I know Beckett has done a lot of work,' he says, 'but do people really like it?' "
According to Notfilm, Beckett himself thought his first (and last) foray onto the big screen was a failure, but film historian Bruce Kawin says the playwright was wrong. He thinks Film was a well done, simple story about someone who doesn't want to be seen.
"You have to think about what the great, modern experiments were like, and how many of them are actually entertaining," Kawin says. "Like, you know, Ulysses is really great if you like it; and if you don't, it's just too long, about too little, you know? And Beckett is cleaner and faster and simpler. We're talking about simplicity, genius and clarity, which is something that Beckett had and Keaton had. ... Keaton's the real thing. ... Beckett's the real thing. These are amazing artists, just amazing artists."
And Kawin can't understand why they didn't have a great time making a movie that he thinks is funny.
"I think you can really mess it up by being too intellectual about it," he says. "And that may have been Beckett's mistake and it may have been Schneider's mistake. They may have just not understood that they were dealing with an absolute genius — Keaton. And Keaton may not have understood how brilliant and funny Beckett was."