Notfilm: A Kino-Essay by Ross Lipman
The Irish playwright Samuel Beckett only made one venture into filmmaking, a 20-minute experimental short entitled Film directed by Alan Schneider that came out in 1965 and starred the famous silent actor Buster Keaton. His role in the movie was to play a mysterious stranger in the back streets of Brooklyn, trying ineffectually to escape the pursuit of the camera’s gaze – a gaze that, were Beckett not such a celebrated atheist, might almost be said to stand for the penetrating eye of God.
“The perceiver desires like mad to perceive, and the perceived tries desperately to hide,” explains Beckett. “In the end, one wins.” Or, as he put it elsewhere: “A man may keep away from everybody, but he can’t keep away from himself.”
Ross Lipman has constructed a documentary that looks at the famous short from all angles, starting with the initial commissioning of the film by Barney Rosset of the Grove Press. We hear all about the casting of Keaton (the original target was Chaplin) and about the involvement of Beckett with the shooting of the film in New York (rather unusual in itself, as the dramatist tended not to get involved with staging the plays he had written). Surviving collaborators are interviewed in engaging fashion, and the film’s impact on different generations of critics and movie scholars is chronicled with acumen.
An interesting sidelight that emerges is that Beckett was an admirer of Russian cinema – in the thirties he had written to Eisenstein asking to be taken on at the Moscow Film School: Film’s connections with classic Soviet cinema practice (the cinematographer was Boris Kaufman, brother of “Kino Eye” theorist Dziga Vertov) are here suggestively gone into.
Combining well-chosen archive footage with up-to-the-minute formal analysis, Lipman succeeds in painting a multi-angled portrait of a fascinating episode of the avant-garde.
Ross Lipman is an independent filmmaker and archivist. Formerly Senior Film Restorationist at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, his many restorations include Charles Burnett's Killer of Sheep, Kent Mackenzie's The Exiles, the Academy Award-winning documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, and works by Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Robert Altman, and John Cassavetes. He was a 2008 recipient of Anthology Film Archives' Preservation Honors, and is a three-time winner of the National Society of Film Critics' Heritage Award. His essays on film history, technology, and aesthetics have been published in Artforum, Sight and Sound, and numerous academic books and journals. His most recent film restorations are Thom Andersen's Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer and the film Crossroads.