We're in an all but deserted street in New York City. A man (Buster Keaton), unidentified on screen but referred to in the script as O, shuffles home, his coat hiding his face, as he tries to avoid the gaze of the camera, our eyes (E in the script). Once home, his struggles to avoid being seen continue.
In 1964, Samuel Beckett was fifty-eight years old, and five years away from being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Although he'd been a published short-story writer and novelist since the 1930s, his international fame dates from his play En attendant Godot (Waiting for Godot), first performed in French in 1953 and in English in 1955. An Irishman, he lived most of his life in Paris and took to writing in French, so as, he felt, to rein in his natural linguistic flamboyance and to approach a more austere distillation of his intended meaning. He then translated himself into English. Film, a twenty-two-minute short film, is his only original screenplay. In its published form – which differs in some respects from the finished version – it begins with the Latin words esse est percipi, “to be is to be perceived”, a quotation from the Eighteenth Century Irish philosopher George Berkeley. Film is the story of a man trying not to be seen, and not to be perceived...does he therefore not exist? We are watching him through the camera's eye, on (originally) a strip of film going through a projector, light casting shadows on to a screen. But we also see what O sees, in subjective camera shots which are intentionally blurrier than the “objective” shots making up the rest of the film. And, at the end, when O finally sees himself, and when we (E) see him, he reacts in horror.
There's an indication in the script that the action takes place in 1929, the year that all-talkies arrived and silent film gave way to them. Film is a silent film. It has a soundtrack, but there's almost nothing on it: no music, no dialogue, no sound effects. Almost nothing, that is, except for one word, or rather sound, near the start - “Shhh!”. The director of the film was Alan Schneider, a stage director and regular interpreter of Beckett's work, making which was also his only work for the cinema. The film came about when producer and publisher Barney Rosset conceived of a portmanteau film made up of three shorts, each written by a leading modernist playwright: Eugène Ionesco, Harold Pinter and Beckett. In the end, only Beckett's script was filmed. (Pinter, who like Beckett went on to win the Nobel Prize, had a not insignificant career in cinema, with film versions of his own plays and screenplays adapting the work of others.)
While both Beckett and Schneider were newcomers to film, they were surrounded by a more experienced crew, not least the great cinematographer Boris Kaufman, who had won an Oscar a decade earlier for On the Waterfront, and who was a master of black and white, which Film was shot in. Another vital role was the actor who would play O. Early suggestions were Charles Chaplin, Jack MacGowran and Zero Mostel, all of whom turned the script down. Eventually cast was Buster Keaton, who claimed not to understand the script and asked Beckett if he'd eaten Welsh rarebit before writing it. However, the sound era had treated him less well than it had Chaplin, for example, so he agreed to do the film. Shooting took place in July 1964, in a sweltering hot New York summer, with temperatures exceeding 100 Fahrenheit in the (non-existent) shade, which was arduous for Keaton, then sixty-eight and not in the best of health. (He was to die a year and a half later.) A further problem was that the exterior shooting of Beckett's scripted opening scene, with seven pairs of people on the street, did not work out. The scene was scrapped at Beckett's suggestion, and the opening as it now exists features just three people other than O. The rest of the film was shot in a studio with Keaton solo. Given that there's no dialogue, indeed no sound at all, the casting of a great star of the silent era was inspired, and while clearly older and unwell, Keaton does rise to the occasion.
Film premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1965, with Keaton in attendance and being present at a press conference after the showing. Commercially, however, the film was problematic, due to its short length and experimental nature. It was available in the UK from 1965, or at least it was passed by the BBFC with a rather puzzling A certificate, the equivalent of today's PG. (It's now a U, with the BBFC correctly noting that it contains “no material likely to offend or harm”.) It didn't get a commercial run until 1990, when it supported another black and white independently-made New York film from the 1960s, Michael Roemer's The Plot Against Harry (made in 1969, but shelved and rediscovered twenty years later), at the Everyman, Hampstead, which is where I first saw it. Film received separate press screenings to Roemer's film and Philip French in The Observer led his column with it, declaring it the only important film showing that week. As Michael Brooke (who was working at the Everyman Cinema at the time) notes in his booklet essay, watching Film now reminds us of later films like those of Tarkovsky or Béla Tarr (there's a further connection to him, of which more later), or David Lynch's Eraserhead in its atmosphere and focus, especially in the now rapidly vanishing format of 35mm black and white, that is actual black and white 35mm film stock. And more of that too in a moment. So maybe its influence did percolate through.
This disc also contains another version of Film, made by the BFI and directed by David Rayner Clark in 1979, with O played by another comedian and mime, Max Wall. This time, we're in colour, though with muted hues, browns and greys with only the pink of O's hands and, when he takes his hat off, his bald spot, showing up for much of the film. This is different in many respects from the 1965 version. While the only dialogue is again a single “Shhh!”, there are diegetic sound effects, including a flautist. The opening scene is closer to that in Beckett's script than that of the earlier version. Little seen since it was made, it's a welcome inclusion on this disc.
And so on to Notfilm, a “kino-essay” by Ross Lipman made in 2015, a devotee of the Beckett/Schneider film and in charge of its restoration. At just over two hours, it's nearly six times as long as the film it describes,. Notfilm is at heart a description of the inspiration and making of the film, made up of interviews with surviving participants and others, beginning with a now quite elderly Barney Rosset, his memory clearly failing, interviewed shortly before his death. Also included are audio recordings of Beckett (a man not often recorded – as microphone-shy as he was often camera-shy), Schneider and Kaufman, discussing the film before it went into production, and test footage, not to mention extracts and stills from other films as they come up in Lipman's narration. Other participants include Kevin Brownlow, who had interviewed both Beckett and Keaton, Leonard Maltin, who as a fourteen-year-old film buff had got wind of the film's making and sneaked onto the location to meet Keaton, actor James Karen, regular Beckett leading actress Billie Whitelaw (whose solo-close-up BBC performance of Not I has a few extracts shown), Haskell Wexler, a longtime friend of Rosset and at one point considered for the cinematographer job, whose own film Medium Cool also explores the discrepancy between what is seen and what is real. Notfilm also contains digressions on the film and its meaning in a fascinating and often playful way (it comes with its own interval). Like the film it's discussing, it's in black and white with occasional colour, including a couple of extracts from the 1979 version. The title has more than one meaning, as it concludes that films nowadays are increasingly no longer light and shadows projected on a screen, but emanated. Not film, but digital, and we are in the sunset of the film medium.
The BFI's release of Film (1965 version 22:00, 1979 version 26:15) and Notfilm (128:27) is dual-format, comprising one Blu-ray and two DVDs. A check disc of the former (encoded for Region B) was supplied for review. The PG certificate this set carries is due to “mild threat” in Notfilm, namely two sights of a razor being brought to a woman's eye in a sequence from Un chien andalou - though you may well be relieved to know that it cuts before the gruesome closeup. Film, as mentioned above, carries a U certificate.
The 1965 version of Film was shot in 35mm black and white in Academy Ratio (1.37:1), the latter quite unusual for a mid-60s American film, but this was hardly likely to play in many commercial cinemas. This Blu-ray transfer is derived from a photochemical and digital restoration overseen by Ross Lipman, sourced from various prints, both 35mm and 16mm. The results are excellent, sharp and detailed, with strong blacks and greys and good contrast. As mentioned above, the O-eye-view sequences are intentionally blurry. The 1979 version is also in Academy Ratio – even more unusual then – and was shot in colour 16mm. The restoration is derived from a 2K resolution scan of the original negative. For the most part it's fine, sharper and more detailed than many a 16mm production on disc. The subjective-camera shots were video-processed to make them intentionally “noisy”. There's also a noticeably damaged section just before the end credits, which could not be repaired. Notfilm was shot digitally (not film) and is also in Academy Ratio, though digital cinema presentation makes that non-standard ratio not an obstacle, as it's projected, as it's presented here, with black bars to the side, 1.37:1 within a 16:9 frame. No issues whatsoever with this, as you would expect: entirely sharp with the exception of some of the archival footage, the mainly black and white image looking pristine, as it should.
Both versions of Film are in mono, rendered as LPCM 2.0. Normally I would say that they are clear and well balanced, and that's certainly true of the soundtrack of the 1979 version. As for the 1965 version, I can only say that the silence is as well reproduced as it should be. Notfilm has a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, but as the film is made up of talking heads and extracts from films with monophonic soundtracks, the surrounds are used for a music score by Béla Tarr's regular composer Mihály Vig, and as it's bass-light the subwoofer gets time off. Vig's score is available as an MP3 download from the second DVD, which I mention without comment as that disc was not supplied for review. English hard-of-hearing subtitles are provided for all three films and one of the extras (see below), though there's only the one subtitle in the 1965 film as you would expect, and other than the same subtitle in the 1979 version they simply render the sound effects. They do make a fair stab at describing the music heard on screen in the 1979 version and in Notfilm. During the audio recordings heard in Notfilm, which play out over a black screen, the hard-of-hearing subtitles become surtitles to identify the speakers, and this also happens when they would obscure the captions identifying onscreen interviewees.
The extras begin with a reconstruction (6:09 including opening captions) of the opening street scene of the 1965 version as it was originally intended. This is made up of surviving footage (not all of it in great condition), stills and printed extracts from the script. Other outtakes from the shoot are next (8:15), featuring Keaton in the studio with a dog and cat. Both are presented silent, as they would have been if included in the finished film.
The next few extras are items that appear in shorter form in Notfilm. This begins with “What if E's eyes were closed?” (6:43), audio recordings of Beckett with Alan Schneider, Boris Kaufman and art director Burr Smidt as the discuss the film, then in pre-production, at Barney Rosset's house. This plays out over a black screen and is the only extra on the disc to have hard-of-hearing subtitles available. “Memories of Samuel Beckett” (8:00) is an interview with his friend and only authorised biographer James Knowlson, who speaks warmly of their meetings and friendship. Jean Schneider, widow of Alan (who died in 1984 at the age of sixty-six, hit by a motorcycle while crossing the road in London), talks about her late husband (11:01) and his work with Beckett, especially on his plays. Jennette Seaver (4:13), the founder of Arcade Publishing and a close friend of Beckett, talks about him and Waiting for Godot, which Beckett thought was a disaster after its premiere.
James Karen, who plays male half of the couple we see in the street at the beginning, is interviewed at length (41:51) in 2011. He was a friend and colleague of Keaton's and introduced Beckett and Schneider to him, and he talks about the man and his experiences while working on Film, interviewed by Shannon Kelley and taking questions from the audience.
The final items on the disc are linked. There is a three-part stills gallery. The first section (0:30) were pictures taken by I.C. Rapoport, on the first day of shooting. He had been sent by Paris Match to take pictures of Alain Resnais and Delphine Seyrig, who had recently made Last Year at Marienbad and were about to make Muriel and who were, rumour had it, having an affair. They were visiting the shoot that day. When she noticed she was being photographed, Seyrig suggested Rapoport would be better employed taking pictures of Beckett, who was standing nearby watching the production. The other two stills galleries showcase the work of another photographer, Steve Schapiro, both on location (2:25) and on the studio set (2:07). Both men talk about this in another outtake from Notfilm, “Photographing Beckett” (6:41). Finally, there is the trailer for Notfilm (1:42).
The BFI's booklet runs to twenty-eight pages, and begins with Michael Brooke's essay on the 1965 version of Film, previously mentioned. This covers the film's inception and the ideas behind it, its production and its afterlife, including a clearly first-hand account of its reception during the run at the Everyman. Next up is “From Film to Notfilm”, Ross Lipman's account of his fascination with Film, initially from reading the screenplay. He first saw it at the Scala Cinema in London's King's Cross, in a programme of shorts immediately followed by Un chien andalou, a juxtaposition that is referred to in Notfilm. He began to work in film restoration and jumped at the chance to restore Film, though he fell foul of a lab owner who held, and presumably still holds, a fine-grain master positive and refused to release it without a substantial fee. So the restoration was made from materials from other sources, including a print held by the BFI struck from the original negative. He then goes on to discuss the making of Notfilm, which he describes as his ongoing debate with Beckett, as Beckett's Film was his debate with George Berkeley. Vic Pratt writes about the 1979 version of Film. Also in the booklet are full credits for all three films, notes on and credits for the extras, transfer notes and stills.