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To be, or not to be perceived

L'asino vola
Aug 9, 2015 · 16 min read


50 years after its international premiere, Samuel Beckett’s Film starring Buster Keaton returns to the screen in a new 4K restoration released by Milestone and in a riveting feature-length documentary/essay on its production by American filmmaker/restorationist Ross Lipman. Notfilm features lost outtakes, never-before-heard audio recordings, rare archival documents, and a range of dynamic interviews. I attended an early preview screening in Los Angeles, and now I’ll tell you about it in an exclusive interview with Ross Lipman.

by Letizia Gatti
adapted from Italian by Chiara Giobergia and L. G.

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10 July 1964. Samuel Beckett flies from London to New York to shoot Film. Waiting for him in his Long Island summerhouse is Barney Rosset, founder of Grove Press, the most subversive publishing house in the United States. The year before Rosset had agreed to commission some of his best playwrights to write a screenplay for the television production company Four Star. As his closest collaborator Richard “Dick” Seaver recalls in his passionate memoir entitled The Tender Hour of Twilight:

“The first person approached was Jean Genet, who firmly said no. But Beckett, Pinter, Ionesco, Marguerite Duras and Robbe-Grillet […] said yes. The first one who did was Beckett himself, who sent in a short, complex but brilliant work that, predictably, he entitled Film.”

Drawing inspiration from the metaphysical doctrine of the Irish philosopher George Berkeley (1685–1753), epitomized in his principle “esse est percipi” (to be is to be perceived), Film presents the desperate attempt of an Object (O) to flee from the unbearable gaze of a pursuing Eye (E) and from “all extraneous perception, animal, human and divine.” In the end, “search of non-being”, writes Beckett, “breaking down in inescapability of self-perception.” O experiences the anguish of perceivedness, and ultimately, spectators become aware of O’s self-perception.

O = E

Neither exiling ourselves from our self-consciousness nor eluding perceivedness is possible inasmuch we are doomed to be tied to the world indissolubly by means of self-perception, as Theodor W. Adorno astutely points out during a TV program, broadcast by the German TV station Westdeutscher Rundfunk on February 2nd 1968. While commenting on Film itself, Adorno observes that it’s a parody of Berkeley’s motto and, literally, a catastrophe. The German philosopher asserts that it remains to be ascertained whether this catastrophe directly corresponds to death, or — borrowing Beckett’s own imagery from The Unnamable — to a death-sentence to life, as he is more prone to believe better reflects the author’s idea. This is, indeed, a key theme of Beckett’s poetics, which is theorized at its best in Adorno’s conception of works of art as negative truth.

Interpretations aside, let’s return to Beckett: “O should invite laughter throughout [the film] by his way of moving,” wearing a long dark overcoat and a hat lowered down on his eyes, in summertime. What kind of actor could interpret such a role in a film which aims at the most radical abstraction? Beside this, Beckett adds another anti-naturalistic feature to his script: Film — which is shot in black and white — is entirely silent, except for a «sssh!» uttered by a background actress in the opening scene.

Theatre director Alan Schneider, Beckett’s close friend and discerning supporter, is given the task of turning the script into images. It’s his first time behind the film camera. As we shall see, his inexperience will cost him dearly.

After the refusals of Charlie Chaplin, “totally inaccessible”, Zero Mostel, “unavailable” and the Beckettian actor Jack MacGowran, who committed himself to another project at the very last moment, they considered
Buster Keaton, who in 1956 had refused to play Lucky’s role in the American premiere of Waiting for Godot directed by Schneider himself — which turned out to be a total failure. This time Keaton will accept the part, but only for money. “His general attitude was that we were all, Beckett included, nuts” (Schneider).

11–12 July 1964. At Barney Rosset’s summerhouse in East Hampton (Long Island), Beckett and Schneider meet some of the film crew technicians to discuss the pre-production of the film. Among them is the cinematographer Boris Kaufman, younger brother of Dziga Vertov and Academy Award-winner for Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1955).

14 July 1964. Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton finally meet in a Manhattan hotel room. The actor is busy drinking beer and watching a baseball game on tv. He will keep on like that throughout the whole meeting which, in Schneider’s words, “was a disaster.” However, Keaton will prove to be a true professional on the set: tireless, patient and always willing to cooperate — in spite of his age and his puzzlement.

20–30 July 1964. Shoot! The script consists of three scenes: The street (8 minutes long), The stairs (5 minutes long), The room (17 minutes long). As for the first location, Beckett chooses a wall undergoing demolition near the Brooklyn bridge; here Keaton has to run in the opposite direction of a few background actors in an attempt to flee from the perceiving eye of the film camera (E).

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Despite the traffic, the chaos, the reporters and lots of other glitches, there is a general good feeling about the scene. Daily rushes, however, deliver the bitter verdict: the scene is a disaster. A strobe effect makes it impossible to watch, and they cannot re-shoot it either, as there is no money. Right when despair is about to take over, Beckett himself suggests they get rid of the whole scene. Better that way, he will think later on. Film opens with a close-up of Keaton’s eye, which opens up, wrinkled and unsettling; like that of a reptile’s.

6 August 1964. After working on the early editing side-by-side with Sidney Meyers, Beckett returns to Ussy, and his beloved French countryside.

September 1965. At the 26th Venice International Film Festival, Film receives the ‘Diploma di Merito’ and Buster Keaton an endless standing-ovation. A very different reception from the New York Film Festival, where its screening, as part of a Buster Keaton tribute, is met with criticism and booing.

Later shown in London, Oberhausen and in other cities around Europe, Film will obtain several awards, drawing the attention of the most alert critics.
In 1969, Samuel Beckett will be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Ten years later, the British Film Institute will realize a remake of the film. Beckett never authorized it; preferring instead the 1965 version, despite its imperfections. Afterward, Film will be shown in a few movie theaters but will never be able to find suitable distribution, and it will slowly be forgotten.

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A conversation with

Ross Lipman

“The afterlife of art-works, their reception as an aspect of their own history, transpires between a do-not-let-yourself-be-understood and a wanting-to-be understood; this tension is the atmosphere inhabited by art.”
Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory.

Los Angeles, May, 17th 2015.

I’m meeting Ross Lipman in a typical Californian café in Echo Park, an area beloved by the artistic and intellectual community of L.A. Lipman is a
film archivist and an independent filmmaker
. Over the past sixteen years he’s worked at UCLA Film & Television Archive, where he’s conducted the restoration of excellent auteur films: from John CassavetesShadows and Faces to Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and Shirley Clarke’s The Connection – just to mention a few. His job as an archivist has always gone hand in hand with that of filmmaker. “For me they’re interrelated”, he explains. “Restoration is one end of my creative work, not just a technical exercise; and making films is not just creative, but very much a craft as well”.

His current project, which I had the pleasure to see in an early preview screening at the American Film Institute, is a film-essay with an outstanding historical and aesthetic accuracy. Entitled Notfim, this work represents an attempt to grasp the insuppressible greatness of Film by Samuel Beckett, bringing to light extraordinary audio recordings, outtakes, photos, notes and letters. It’s a film on the making of Film, but also an excavation into cinema archaeology and a reflection upon fleeting and undying memory.

Notfilm is produced and distributed by Milestone Films, which has been recovering and promoting the best independent films for twenty-five years, to the joy of critics and aficionados all around the world. Its daring founders, Dennis Doros and Amy Heller, will also release Film by Beckett in a 4K-digital restoration created under Ross Lipman’s direction.

In order to fulfill their project, they’ve launched a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, in collaboration with Fandor, the streaming movie platform. We encourage all our readers to support the initiative, which will be active until August 13th.

This conversation over an American coffee shall maintain the lingering aroma of an Italian caffè.

From a restored work…

Letizia Gatti — Could you tell me how your interest in Beckett’s Film arose?

Ross Lipman — Beckett’s Film has fascinated me since I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan. I was one of the last students of Rudolf Arnheim, the great German theoretician who wrote about the psychological perception of art. I discuss him in Notfilm because he had influenced Beckett’s thoughts on cinema. Arnheim of course knew who Beckett was, but he was not familiar with Film, so on my own initiative, I wrote a paper on Film for his seminar. Who knew that years later Beckett scholars would find his early letters and realize that he was reading Arnheim in the 1930’s?

L. G. — And who would have ever thought that, years later, you would have restored Film… How did that happen?

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R. L. — In the mid 2000’s, my colleague Andrew Lampert connected me with Barney Rosset, and so we arranged to get the laboratory materials on Film sent over to UCLA. Fortunately, we then got funding through Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation and the National Film Preservation Foundation to get it restored.

L. G. — How long did the restoration process take?

R. L. — More than a year, but of course that wasn’t the only thing I was working on. At that time, I usually had between 10 and 30 projects going at any one moment, in different stages…

L. G. — Did you experience any difficulty throughout the restoration process? Did you manage to retrieve the original camera negative?

R. L. — The original camera negative of Film is missing. We did a lot of research to track down what happened to it, but we were not able to get it. Barney’s deposit wasn’t the highest quality material, so I contacted our colleagues at various institutions across the US, England, and France and had copies sent in. Then I compared them, and used the best extracts to make new negatives from different sections, which I cut together to make the highest possible quality complete version. We simultaneously did a digital restoration in 4K resolution with Shawn Jones at NT Picture and Sound, digitally removing scratches and things like that. Finally we did another negative; a film-out of the digital file… So we restored it in both digital and photochemical iterations.

…to a kino-essay

L. G. — When did you start thinking about making a documentary on Film by Beckett?

R. L. — After the restoration was completed, I continued to visit Barney Rosset when I was in New York, and on subsequent visits he gave me the audio recordings of the pre-production meeting between Beckett, Schneider and Kaufman, in East Hampton, and the outtakes too. The idea for Notfilm came as I was looking through them. On my next trip to New York, I brought a camera and interviewed Barney.

L. G. — Could you explain the meaning of “Notfilm” and of “kino-essay”, the expression you use to describe your documentary?

R. L. — “Kino-essay” obviously refers to Dziga Vertov — to his concept of Kino Eye and Kino Ear — because “kino” is the Russian word for “film” or “cinema”. Notfilm is in the essay film tradition, but technically it’s not a film, it’s digital. The word “film” is archaic in this context; it’s no longer accurate for a digital work. So I’m calling attention to our use of language and the long history of essay-documentary that traces back to the 1920’s and Vertov.

As for Notfilm… I originally thought of calling it FilmFilm, a film about Film. But of course there’s Beckett’s Not I, where the “I” can be understood in terms of consciousness, individual identity, psyche and ego. So, Not I is also a work that I use heavily to contextualize the themes of Film.

L. G. — I’m reminded that Film was originally called The Eye, which in English evokes the personal pronoun I. This revealing homophony is unfortunately lost in Italian translation.

À la recherche du temps perdu.
Barney Rosset

L. G. — In Notfilm, you rightly devote much space to Barney Rosset since he was arguably the most important publisher in the United States in the Sixties and early Seventies. Beyond Beckett, Grove Press gave a voice to the European theatre avant-guarde — I’m mainly thinking about Brecht, Genet, Pinter, Ionesco — , to the American counter-culture — Miller, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Burroughs — and to the intellectual and revolutionary politics of Che Guevara and Malcom X…

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R. L. — Barney Rosset really played a tremendous role in the formation of American culture as we know it today. He loved to challenge authority and he would therefore gravitate immediately towards any author who was considered scandalous, provocative, or controversial. He fought dozens of battles against censorship and puritanism.

L. G. In Italy, Feltrinelli has just published the Italian translation of Richard Seaver’s memoir, the other great mind behind Grove. I’d like to talk about that with you, but for now let’s continue with Notfilm.

R. L. — You see two interviews with Barney in Notfilm. One of them is earlier, and you can see he’s in OK shape. But even then, he wasn’t doing as well as when we first met. By the time of the second interview, he was struggling to remember things, and was courageous just to be there with us [1]. There are other, earlier interviews he’d conducted where he discusses Film, and people say “Oh, why don’t you use those?” But I’m not just trying to present a straightforward history; I’m interested in certain questions about Film itself, and questions that Beckett raises. If Barney were in better health, our interviews would have taken a different trajectory. But as Haskell Wexler says in Notfilm: “It’s better not to get what you want, but want what you get.”

“Since we have been a conversation”.

L. G. — Because you have just mentioned Haskell Wexler, who has been a very important cinematographer as well as Barney Rosset’s long-time friend, I would like to spare a moment for the people you interviewed, beyond Wexler and Rosset. I will quickly go through them:

  • Jeanette Seaver: widow of the editor Richard “Dick” Seaver;
  • Jean Schneider: widow of the director Alan Schneider;
  • Judith Douw-Schmidt: Barney Rosset’s personal assistant, who helped Beckett while Film was being filmed;
  • Billie Whitelaw: unforgettable actress in many of Beckett’s plays;
  • James Karen: background actor in Film and Buster Keaton’s affectionate friend;
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  • Steve Schapiro: internationally renowned photographer, who took several shots on the set of Film;
  • James Knowlson: author of the only authorised biography on/by Samuel Beckett;
  • Mark Nixon: expert on Beckett and director of the Beckett International Foundation;
  • Kevin Brownlow, Leonard Maltin, S. E. Gontarski: critics, scholars, historians.

Can you explain the function of the interviews in Notfilm?

R. L. — For me, interviews are a chance to get an account of what happened, but also to gain a personal insight into events, through the personalities of the people who lived them. I think that people are as fascinating as the story itself. So, for me, interviews are intellectual and spiritual inquiries.

Rosset’s Last Tape

L. G. Let’s now focus on the unreleased materials. Firstly, the audio recording. At one point, while recalling the pre-production meeting which took place in Rosset’s summerhouse in Long Island, Schneider writes: “[…] I kept wishing I’d had one of Mr. Krapp’s abandoned tape recorders around.” We could say that Beckett’s Last Tape — or perhaps one could say Rosset’s — has turned up. It was Rossett who recorded the meeting without any of the participants knowing. Even Beckett wasn’t aware…

R. L. — Correct. But he later learned about them.

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L. G. — Did he get angry when he found out?

R. L. — No, at least not that we know of. This recording has actually been known about for many years. There’s even an English language transcription of excerpts, in Stan Gontarski’s The Intent of Undoing in Samuel Beckett’s Dramatic Texts. But what people haven’t heard is Beckett’s voice. And the transcriptions only published Beckett’s words, without the context of the surrounding dialogue.

L. G. — Beckett agreed to the publication, but what about use of the audio?

R. L. — There was no discussion of it that we know of. But the myth that Beckett was completely rigid on such issues isn’t true. He certainly had a discomfort with media representations of himself, but what people forget is that he made exceptions to this somewhat regularly, especially in his later years. So we don’t know what he would say. We ultimately rely on what Stan Gontarski says; that he was supportive of people who were doing serious work. So we, perhaps presumptuously, considered ourselves serious practitioners in our work, and hope that Beckett would approve.

The Street Lost and Regained

L. G. — Speaking of outtakes, in Notfilm you say you found the reels of film, containing the unseen street scene, literally piled under Barney Rosset’s kitchen sink… I’d be interested to know how you recovered it.

R. L. — In Notfilm you only see about one minute, but I’ve reconstructed the whole scene to the extent one can. The longer reconstruction runs 6 minutes; the scene itself was originally intended to be about 8. Either they didn’t finish filming or maybe some footage was lost. My personal guess is that they never finished shooting it.

L. G. — The whole scene will be part of the dvd-blu ray edition, which will be published next year by Milestone Films. Why didn’t you decide to put the reconstruction in Notfilm?

R. L. — The complete reconstruction is more academic. A reconstruction isn’t restorationFilm’s prologue was never completed originally, so one can’t truly “restore” it. What I did is use Beckett’s notes, production notes, scripts, and the footage and still photographs, to give an impression of what the scene would be like in its entirety.

Stetson and chapeau!
Buster Keaton

L. G. — Nowadays, Buster Keaton is considered one of the greatest actors of the XXth century. Throughout his career, however, he experienced highs and lows. This very year Bologna’s L’immagine Ritrovata, which is an internationally-renowned laboratory in the field of film preservation — began a multi-year project to restore all of his films belonging to the Cohen Collection. However, when Beckett and Schneider thought about him for Film, Keaton had just been ‘rediscovered’…

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R. L. — A significant moment in the revival of Keaton’s reputation was actually the premiere of Film at Venice International Film Festival, in 1965. It’s not that people thought it was his best performance, but the controversial Raymond Rohauer, who did a number of questionable things in his career, did a great one here in helping to arrange and coordinate the Venice tribute. This, along with other events at the time, really helped bring Keaton back to the public’s eye. Since then his star has only risen higher.

“The atmosphere inhabited by art”

L. G. — In September of that same year, Film was shown at the New York Film Festival, in a program tributing Buster Keaton. “Already the film was becoming Keaton’s and not Beckett’s as Schneider observed. However, it was harshly criticised, precisely for this reason: it was ultimately Beckett’s film, not Keaton’s. In Venice nonetheless, it was awarded the ‘Diploma di Merito’…

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R. L. — In Venice it received a standing ovation but the screening was really a celebration of Keaton, and Beckett thought it was superficial. He was in essence rolling his eyes and suggesting “That’s very nice for Buster, but what about Film?” Keaton died not too long after that [February, 1st 1966], so a bright side of it is that he enjoyed this very nice moment. A moment which, ironically, Film itself is still awaiting.

L. G. — This is also what Schneider highlighted, too, halfway between pride and bitterness, in the last page of
On Directing «Film»:

“Hard as it is for those involved to appreciate each time, that’s par for the Beckettian course. All of his stage plays, radio and TV pieces, first get slammed, derided, ignored. Then, five years later, they are hailed as classics. It’s about time for that to be happening to Beckett’s Film.
After all, it’s 1969.”

To this day Film remains one of Keaton’s least known works, and probably the same applies to Beckett. What kind of response are you expecting from today’s audience?

R. L. — It’s hard to say. The hope is that our project will bring Film and its story to a larger audience. But that may be too much to expect… the closer a “difficult” artist like Beckett comes to the mainstream, the more watered down the original gets. Beckett’s work, and hopefully Notfilm as well, should be entertaining, but also stirring and challenging and not experienced as a mild diversion. So in the end, we may only appeal to a small group of people. We’ll see what happens.

L. G. — After all, it’s 2015.


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