Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Revised Thoughts on NOTFILM and FILM at Film Comment Selects

I attended the Film Comment Selects screening of Samuel Beckett's FILM  and the making of  FILM called NOTFILM from Ross Lipman last night. It was an intriguing evening if not a successful one.

The evening started with Beckett's FILM.  A 22 minute film starring Buster Keaton as a man trying very hard not be seen lest he exist or something. Seeing on the big screen I realized almost instantly I had never actually seen it.seen it. I know I had read the published script years ago but since it  made little sense to me I realized that the only way I was going to ever get the film was to see it. Having seen it  projected on a huge screen I realized I still don't get it or if it's even possible to get it.

The film has a really mixed reputation and I completely understand why. This is a rough film that looks at time extremely amateurish. It comes across as the sort of experimental films that were being churned out in the 1960's which only film historians and cineastes watch today. I'm pretty sure that if it wasn't for Beckett and Keaton the film would not be talked about. There presence makes people think that the film is actually about something when I don't think it's about anything.  I suspect that part of the problem is that there is a huge amount of material that isn't in the film. There are notes in the script referencing things not on the screen. As NOTFILM says there is the explanation that the room is Keaton's mother's, but it's never referenced i the film, in deed because of the silent nature and the structure of the plot so much Beckett wanted to get across is lost. I think without the explanation the film is a meaningless.

Ultimately it's a film that is perceived to more than it is simply because Beckett wrote it. And since he wrote it it must mean something and not be full of hot air. (and apparently Beckett who was initially unhappy is quoted in NOTFILM as finding greatness in the film well after the fact. I think he just didn't want to admit failure)

Lipman's NOTFILM screened next and it's best described a weird mash up of making of film and essay. Its a film that is alternately riveting and frustrating. The film nominally tells the story of the making of FILM and of the work of Beckett. THe film then shifts in the later part to attempt to become a mediation on life and Beckett's ideas.

As a making of film it's quite good.It gets into the whole making of process and how it was shaped and how Keaton was really doing it for a paycheck.  It reveals a great deal about Beckett as well (I never knew that WAITING FOR GODOT is essentially a steal from a Balzac play-which in a weird meta way had a film version that starred Buster Keaton).  There is lots of behind the scenes stuff  including secretly recorded audio excerpts of meetings with Beckett and interviews discussing the way that films such as this are put together.

What I love was all of the behind the scenes photos and film. I loved watching how it was all put together. I loved the taste of outtakes, which made me wish that they had actually let Keaton go or at least let him help with the technical aspects of the film. Sadly Keaton was just a hired hand who did what was asked of him but it's clear that despite Beckett's desire for certain things which he channeled through the director, he was completely clueless as to how to make a living breathing film. There is a liveliness and a realness in several of the out take clips lacking in the finished film. The battle to get what Beckett wanted and the ability to make a real film makes for engrossing cinema

Beyond the making of aspect he film is also striving to be more. Lipman fills the film with his reading of FILM as well as his mediation on Beckett's themes found in the making of the film and it's remembrance by those who were there. Its this last part where the film really doesn't work. Lipman would love to make a point about how life is essentially a grand Beckett play and we lose our memories and yet remain ourselves, points he hopes are illustrated by talks with Barney Rossett and Billie Whitelaw before they passed away. The trouble is we see so little of them that this grand illustration of his points is nowhere to be found. Yes, Barney can't remember his first meeting with Beckett but while he is a character in the story of the making of the film he physially disappears early on from the telling from the telling. There is simply not enough material to know if Lipman is right of wrong. The ability to illustrate the point is even weaker when it comes to Whitelaw who never fumbles and generally holds court, explaining what it took to do Beckett's plays and rattling off a large section of one of Beckett's plays off the top of her heard. If they ever illustrated Lipman's point it was something that Lipman saw but never managed to put on the screen.

To be honest I really like the film a great deal and I want to see it again, I just think that it's dorector shouldn't be over selling a film  that he is much too close to. In other words it's not as deep as he thinks it is.

The Q&A that followed both films was good. The interim head of Film Comment, whose name I didn't catch, did a stellar job doing the Q&A and he managed to get to everyone's questions.

Lipman said the film was produced for almost nothing. He did it nights and weekends over a roughly seven year period. He said that he called in lots of favors from people he had known over the years  doing film restoration. He said that interviews were arranged to be done around business trips. He illustrated the point explaining he went about contacting Bela Tarr to get Mihály Vig who had scored his films to do the music.(He also talked about how Vig gave him the score in various forms so he could mix it as he chose)

There was also a lot of questions about Beckett and his thoughts on differing things such as New York (For him one trip to the city that never sleeps was enough for him). To be honest some of the odd bits shouted out by the audience were more interesting then some of Lipman's answers to the questions simply because they focused on things Lipman couldn't address because he was answering someone's question. The shout uts were the sort of things that you wished had gone some where since they were better than the questions.

And then there was that odd moment when a woman in the audience questioned if Lipman's suggesting that Chaplin was Beckett's first choice was correct since she knew Keaton's widow and had spent time with Beckett and she said that they told a slightly different story- that Keaton was always Beckett's choice for film and for Godot. Lipman masterfully deflected it saying there are a lot of stories concerning the casting depending on who you talk to. And it's probably true since even Beckett's official biographer says that the man himself would conveniently "forget" things such as seeing Keaton perform in Paris during the original run of Godot if it interfered with the story he wanted to tell.

Ultimately it all made for a memorable evening.

While I probably will never look at FILM again, I am looking forward to seeing NOTFILM when it hits DVD or Bluray with all the extras tons of extras promised.

Its a good film that is getting a theatrical release in April at Anthology Film Archives.

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