Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Samuel Beckett in and on FILM, as Ross Lipman's grand compilation, NOT FILM opens

When I tell you that today, we're covering a two-hour-and-nine-minute documentary about the making of a 22-minute movie, eyes will probably roll. But when the filmmaker is a fellow named Ross Lipman -- noted for his terrific restorations of works by Chaplin, Welles, Altman, Cassavetes, Shirley Clarke and Kenneth Anger -- and who turns out to himself have a tremendous talent for documentary filmmaking, you had best put his movie NOTFILM on your must-see list. That is, if you have any reverence for Buster Keaton, Samuel Beckett, cinema history and the artistic and filmmaking processes.

Lipman's movie (the filmmaker is shown at right) is all about how another, earlier movie got made: a film called simply FILM, written by that uber-famous-and-reclusive writer Mr. Beckett; directed by a noted theater director but newcomer to movies, Alan Schneider; and starring the beloved silent-film star, Keaton, who died the year after Film was completed.

TrustMovies imagined that he had somehow seen Film when it first appeared. Well, he hadn't. But he is happy to have seen it now. Though not considered much of a success upon its release, the little film holds up much better than critical assessment would have it. All about "the we and the I" (eye) -- with a nod to Michel Gondry -- Film is also about seeing and being seen, and, as always with Mr. Beckett, about the state of being itself.

Film is actually fun. That's a prime moment, above, in which the only sound in this "silent" movie is heard. There is also a marvelous scene of animals doing a kind of slapstick routine, and of course there's Keaton. And though, back in the day, critics and audiences were evidently flummoxed as to what the thing meant, now, with another half century of movies and film knowledge under our belt, audiences should have no trouble deciphering "meaning," should they need it that desperately. (It seemed pretty obvious to me.)

Also, Film lasts but 22 minutes. Even if you don't appreciate it (I think you will), you'll have spent almost no time at all. (We just watched Tarantino's The Hateful Eight last night and gave up nearly three hours to that well-acted, dreadfully written, poorly conceived, sub-level, Agatha-Christie-writes-a-western piece of trash. Talk about wasted time that one can never recover.)

Now, what about NotFilm? Can you really spend over two hours delineating/discovering what went into the making of Film? You have no idea. What Mr. Lipman has given us compiles history, personality, filmmaking and marketing, along with all the "art" and "chance" involved in the moviemaking process. And he does all this with such intelligence and grace that I probably could have watched a full four hours without tiring or even complaining.

Lipman begins with an interesting cliché that he then turns upside down: "Art shouldn't be about art, it should be about life -- as though they were indistinguishable." From there we meet Mr. Beckett and learn of his relationship with Barney Rosset and what he wanted to do with his Film and how he planned to achieve it. While this will be catnip for Beckett fans, even those, like me, who don't find his work as meaningful or brilliant as do some, it will still fascinate,

Using a number of talking-head interviews, done with smart and on-point Q&As with people like Kevin Brownlow; Jean Schneider (the widow of Alan); premiere Beckett interpreter, the now late Billie Whitelaw; and many others, including James Karen an actor friend of Keaton who plays a supporting role in Film, Lipman allows us to learn so very much about how art is created and how life intrudes on that art. (Mr. Beckett's cataracts -- that's the writer, shown above and below -- have much to do with how the Keaton character perceives the world in front of him).

We also witness, thanks to reams of archival footage the filmmaker viewed and then parsed, a number of small surprises (how Rosset managed to tape-record Beckett, who was adamant about never allowing himself to be recorded), as well as how Brownlow used his (then) excellent memory to write an immediate transcript of his talk with Beckett.

Lipman spent seven years making his movie, and it shows -- in everything from how people age and change to the amount of material collected and then sifted through to find the gems. We learn that an entire scene that would have brought Film to a half-hour length had to be cut; how Beckett even had camera angles mapped out; and how film critic Leonard Maltin, who was but a youngster at the time, managed to be there on location near the Brooklyn Bridge (above) as filming took place.

Finally Lipman addresses the change from photo-chemical film to digital, and alerts us that the latter is how his film is being shown. Yes, NotFilm really is not film. As written, narrated, photographed and edited by Lipman, this wonderful work is an appreciation of everything from the creative process to Beckett, Schneider and cinematography (we also meet and hear from the late Haskell Wexler who, only by chance, was unable to shoot Film).

This milestone work is being fittingly released via Milestone Films and will open in New York City this Friday, April 1, for a one-week run at Anthology Film Archives and in Los Angeles at the American Cinematheque from April 1 - 9. At both theaters you'll have the chance to see Film along with NotFilm. (Check the schedule for each theater.) Further screenings across the country can be found by clicking here. Whether or not Film will be shown along with NotFilm at other venues is unclear as of now. If I were you, I'd call the theater you're near and make certain -- beg if you must -- that management plans to schedule both for viewing.

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