Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Notfilm: When Samuel Beckett met Buster Keaton

A Broadway production of Waiting for Godot, starring knights and X-Men collaborators Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, marks the second Samuel Beckett revival in New York City in as many months. Godot famously bears the influence of both music hall variety acts and slapstick comedies. A routine in which Vladimir and Estragon mix up their bowler hats evokes a bit filmed several times over the years by Leo McCarey (it pops up in Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers).

Fifty years ago Beckett made his only visit to the United States to oversee the shooting in New York City of his only screenplay, called Film. Directed by Beckett's friend Alan Schneider, Film starred the silent comedy icon Buster Keaton. Beckett and Keaton—one of the most unlikely collaborations in cinema history.

Although Film went on to win the Film Critics' prize at the Venice Film Festival, it has always been controversial, to fans of Beckett and Keaton alike. The recent discovery of outtakes, a deleted scene, and tape recordings of Beckett, Schneider, and Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset discussing the production could change our opinion of the project.

Producer Dennis Doros of Milestone Films is raising funds through Indiegogo for Notfilm, a documentary about the making of Film. This is the first time Milestone, known for distributing movies like Killer of Sheep, The Exiles and The Connection, is investing in a production. Archivist Ross Lipman, who is directing the documentary, has helped restore works by filmmakers as varied as Bruce Conner and Sid Lavarents.

While working on the recent UCLA Film & Television Archive restoration of Film, Lipman stumbled across a cache of material in Grove Press publisher Barney Rosset's Fourth Avenue apartment. Stored under Rosset's kitchen sink: film reels with outtakes and a deleted scene from Film. Also found in the apartment: audio recordings of production meetings Beckett, Schneider and Rosset held before shooting. Very few recordings of Beckett are known to exist, let alone the Nobel Prize-winning author discussing his work.

Lipman and Milestone are not only restoring and assembling the discoveries in a documentary feature, they are adding supplementary material, like an interview Lipman recently filmed with Judith Douw, Beckett's assistant for much of his New York stay back in 1964. In Lipman's words, "Judith is one of those extraordinary ladies of the avant-garde—a ravishing beauty in her day, now glowing at an age where she seems straight out of a Beckett play herself. She's also wonderfully eccentric in way that is so uniquely New York, and she had some surprising revelations which bear on my understanding of Film."

You can contribute to this important project through Indiegogo or through the Los Angeles Film Forum, which is offering a tax-deductible sponsorship program.

As Doros noted in an e-mail, this is just the opening salvo in "Milestone's efforts to restore Rosset's entire film work, including his 1947 film Strange Victory and the Zero Mostel/Burgess Meredith version of Waiting for Godot that Schneider also directed."

Contacted recently, McKellen and Stewart admitted that they had yet to see Film. But both agreed that Beckett's interest in silent film comedy was serious, and played a part in how they interpret their roles. McKellen noted that Beckett was very specific in his stage directions for the routine with the bowler hats.

Keaton fans should jump at the opportunity to see new footage of one of the true icons of cinema. And by contributing to the Notfilm campaign, we can help Milestone in its important task of producing and distributing more documentaries and restorations.


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