“Everyone is the other and no one is himself.”
A comical dance of Heideggerian phenomenology, Samuel Beckett’s 20-minute experimental short film, aptly titled Film, the prolific writer’s sole venture into the medium (he did, however, make a number of televised plays), is an oddity quite unlike anything else. A completely silent film devoid of a soundtrack or dialogue, aside from a amusingly condemning “Shhh!” near the beginning, Film begins with an extreme close-up of an eye opening and closing followed by the camera gliding through a courtyard and, upon meeting of several individuals eye-to-eye, causes them to look back in horror and collapse. It then finds its true protagonist, played by the inimitable Buster Keaton, who in 1965 took this job merely for the money, wearing a trench coat and his signature porkpie hat with a scarf covering his face as he attempts to flee the camera. What follows, in equally comical and frustrating measures, is a chase of sorts, a cat-and-mouse game between Keaton and the camera where, in Beckett’s terms, the camera eye (E) persistently pursues the object (O), who flees its deadly gaze.
Ross Lipman’s Notfilm approaches Beckett’s avant-garde curioso from various philosophical and historical angles in an attempt to understand how such a strange project with even more bizarre casting and production issues came into being as well as how Film fits, however awkwardly, into the Beckett canon. Lipman, like a good film studies scholar, rigorously structures the documentary, dividing it into acts focusing on different aspects and stages of the film (pre-production, production, themes, etc.), but his acute attention to detail often leads him down avenues that are of interest only to those obsessed with the minutiae of Beckett’s works. The audio recordings of production meetings are fascinating in offering a rare opportunity to hear Beckett speak and some of the talking head interviews offer humorous asides (Leonard Maltin’s visit to the set as a 14-year old Keaton fan) and glimpses into the mood behind-the-scenes and on-set, yet Lipman also finds it necessary to include numerous interviews about director Alan Schneider and various producers of the film that feel like extraneous and occasionally tedious additions.
Despite the mixed bag of historical background that takes up large chunks of the film, Notfilm thrives when it hones in on the philosophical and cinematic nature of Beckett’s inquiry. It is here that his attention to detail pays off, with insights from himself, famed cinematographer Haskell Wexler, film historian Kevin Brownlow and Beckett’s favorite actress, Billie Whitelaw, along with Beckett scholars and collaborators providing a context for what Film was attempting to achieve. Even if it is, as Beckett says, an “interesting failure,” its inquiry into consciousness and the nature of being is sought through such purely cinematic means that it is a film far more valuable for the discussion it leads to than for what it actually accomplishes on-screen and while Notfilm plays like the collective extra features on Film’s Blu-ray, in this case it is the extra-textual material rather than the text itself that contains the most interesting content.
Incorporating clips of earlier, equally meta avant-garde films, particularly Man With a Movie Camera, and numerous Keaton films, which often examined the nature cinema as it relates to consciousness (Sherlock, Jr.) and the camera itself (The Cameraman) in a way surprisingly similar to Beckett, Lipman successfully contextualizes the intellectual and cinematic explorations that theoretically drive Film. In its best moments, Notfilm breaks free of the restrictions of its film-about-a-film roots and waxes poetic about the nature of film itself where “we become aware of our own being and self, ”expanding on the limited scope of “E” and “O” as presented in Film and relating them back to the early roots of cinematic expression and to Beckett’s own ontological queries into the nature of being and man’s innate struggle to fully perceive and comprehend him/herself. In these moments, Notfilm becomes about so much more than it is and as scattershot and uneven it is, rambling through its 2+ hours, it justifies its own existence, not as a behind-the-scenes/historical documentary, but as a film steadfastly grasping at the meaning of its own medium and it’s approach within it. It’s meta, but in the least obnoxious way possible and as tough as it is to sit through at times, it’s worth the effort to get to the beautiful nuggets of gold it occasionally mines.