Film and Notfilm review: when Buster Keaton met Samuel Beckett

“I took one look at the script, and asked him if he ate welsh rarebit before going to bed at night.” Buster Keaton’s first impression of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into the cinema, Film, is entirely understandable. Although no one would wish its nightmarish scenario to appear in their own cheese dreams. This short, dialogue-free existential chase movie was made in 1966 starring a near-septuagenarian Keaton – and it remains one of the most intriguing corners of film history. The Nobel Laureate’s film might promise slapstick, but as Ross Lipman the director of a documentary on the work, NotFilm says: “It was at once an investigation of the cinematic medium, and of the human experience of consciousness.” Popcorn, anyone?

Keaton plays O, a man pursued by a camera, E. Object and Eye. O runs away from E, and when cornered in a room, goes to desperate lengths to avoid its piercing gaze. The reveal at the end of the movie is chillingly sinister, even if you see it coming. The film is shot in black and white, and although Keaton has aged, he is still recognisably the acrobatic star of the 20s – his pork-pie hat is worn at an angle, an eye-patch caps those famous cheekbones. The mood is bleak, paranoid, the camera is unsteady, Keaton shifty.

beckett-with-film-strip-copy
Samuel Beckett examines a film strip

Beckett was displeased with Film, despite conceding that it contained “the strangeness and beauty of pure image”. The critics were unimpressed at the time, but as is so often the way with these things, the reputation of Film has risen with time. This art film has become, in its own way, a cult movie: very hard to see, and referred to or homaged almost as often as it is screened. The theatrical release of Lipman’s brilliant “kino-essay” documentary was very welcome – offering historical background, cinematic context, and critical interpretation for Beckett’s movie. (I wrote about that last year for the Guardian.)

However, it just increased the desire for Film itself to be more widely available. While it is a joy to see Film on film, with the whirring projector providing the only soundtrack, it’s a boon to have this work available digitally too, on DVD and Blu, for the enjoyment of connoisseurs, and no doubt film and theatre students also. Film has been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and let me tell you, every crease in Keaton’s fabulously craggy face is as deep and sharp as you could wish.

This Film and Notfilm dual-format release from the BFI goes one better than pairing the movie and the documentary. There are outtakes here, including an opening scene thought lost for decades. There’s the haunting British colour remake from 1979, starring Max Wall, interviews, featurettes, photo galleries, and a really very illuminating set of booklet essays by Michael Brooke, Ross Lipman and Vic Pratt (who writes in loving detail about the 1979 version). There’s even the option to download Mihály Vig’s really rather wonderful music from the Notfilm soundtrack.

I especially enjoyed an audio recording of Beckett, cinematographer Boris Kaufman and director Alan Schneider, thrashing out the story.  And the “dog and cat takes” are priceless. I really love the depth and breadth of archive material here. You could spend several hours immersed in this compelling film, and learning all about the extraordinary people who made it.

Whether your interest in the film is due to a passion for Buster Keaton, and admiration for Samuel Beckett, or just the kind of omnivorous cinephilia that can’t pass up such an intriguing snippet of cinema culture, there’s plenty here to expand your understanding of Film. And film, too.

 

 

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