“Notfilm,” or how Buster met Beckett

A new documentary reveals the fascinating story behind Samuel Beckett's only movie, "Film," which starred silent comedy icon Buster Keaton

A documentary more than two hours long about the making of a 24-minute movie might seem like overkill, but director Ross Lipman’s “Notfilm” isn’t your typical making-of doc, nor is its subject anything close to a typical movie.

In 1964, five years before he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, playwright Samuel Beckett conceived and wrote the only motion picture of his career. Simply but pretentiously titled “Film,” it starred silent comedy icon Buster Keaton. That collaboration (more of a collision) between these titanic talents of the 20th century, who share a minimalist bent despite laboring in entirely different arenas, is enough to make “Film” a grade-A cinematic curiosity.

By the Brooklyn Bridge, shooting a scene from FILM BY SAMUEL BECKETT taken in the summer of 1964. Beckett is seen on the far left in his only trip to America, specifically to shoot the film. Director Alan Schneider is wearing the baseball cap and glasses and Buster Keaton is wearing his porkpie hat.

By the Brooklyn Bridge, shooting a scene from FILM BY SAMUEL BECKETT taken in the summer of 1964. Beckett is seen on the far left in his only trip to America, specifically to shoot the film. Director Alan Schneider is wearing the baseball cap and glasses and Buster Keaton is wearing his porkpie hat.

As Lipman’s serious, engaging study (or “kino-essay,” as he calls it) reveals, the connective tissue binding Beckett’s effort to his own past and future work, as well as to the history of movies, is intricate and beguiling. The producer of “Film” was renegade publisher Barney Rosset, who had brought D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller to American readers. The cinematographer was Boris Kaufman, younger brother to Russian avant-gardist Dziga Vertov and Oscar-winner for “On the Waterfront.” And its star, of course, embodied a comically stoic response to an absurd world as much as Beckett’s best-known creations did in “Waiting for Godot.”

For Beckettologists, “Notfilm” is a treasure, featuring priceless interviews with Billie Whitelaw, the foremost interpreter of his work on stage, as well as never-before-heard, surreptitiously made recordings of discussions between Beckett and his filmic collaborators. The most endearing recollection, though, is that of film critic and historian Leonard Maltin, who, as a movie-mad youth, stumbled upon the location shoot of “Film” and had the briefest of encounters with Keaton. Hearing him recall it today is a reminder that cinephilia can be a glorious, life-long affliction.

It’s one that Lipman shares. He’s spent decades working in the trenches of film restoration, and this documentary, made in collaboration with Milestone Films, is a crowning achievement.

(“Notfilm” screens at 7 pm, Wednesday & Thursday, April 13 & 14, and 4:30 pm Saturday, April 16 at the Northwest Film Center’s Whitsell Auditorium. The Wednesday and Thursday screenings will be immediately followed by a showing of “Film.”)

 

 

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“A Woman in Berlin”: The great Nina Hoss (“Phoenix”) stars in this 2008 German film based on the notorious, anonymously published 1959 memoir about a female journalist in postwar, Red Army-occupied Berlin who initiates a relationship with a married Soviet officer in order to help herself survive. Presented by the Portland German Film Festival. (7 pm, Clinton Street Theater)

“Voodoo Man”: This poverty row horror flick, shot in seven days, stars Bela Lugosi as a mad scientist who kidnaps young women in order to steal their life essence for his dead wife. It does reportedly feature a nicely metafictional denouement. (9:15 pm, Joy Cinema & Pub, 21 & over)

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