Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot is in previews at the Cort Theatre in New York with acting legends, Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart. In London, All That Fall is opening at the Arts Theatre on the West End, starring Eileen Atkins and Michael Gambon. Under the kitchen sink of a walk up apartment on 4th Avenue, film archivist Ross Lipman made the most surprising Beckett discovery of all.
Lipman was visiting Barney Rosset of Grove Press Publishing and talking about Beckett's only foray into cinema. In 1965, Beckett made Film, a 22-minute experimental film exploring cinema and starring Buster Keaton. The script was difficult. Beckett and Keaton didn't get on particularly well. The entire (expensive) eight minute first scene of the movie had to be scrapped and was believed to have been lost forever. This is where Lipman's visit to Rosset comes in.
It turns out that Rosset had reels of film stored under his kitchen sink, including rare audio of Beckett at production meetings and material relating to the unused first scene. So why is this important?
If you're a Beckett fan or a film archivist, you can't help but love stories like this. And everyone's getting a documentary film out of the discovery. Lipman has teamed up with Milestone Films to make NOTFILM, a feature-length documentary about Beckett's Film.
Beckett's Film is a heady, strange, intriguing movie, a commentary on cinema and relevant today for its address of issues of privacy and being seen. Silent and shot in black and white, there's a compelling starkness to Film that enhances the viewer's desire to understand what Beckett is saying. Though Film was directed by Alan Schneider with Academy Award winner Boris Kaufman as cinematographer, Beckett's mark is on every frame. I talked with Lipman about Film and the focus of his documentary essay, NOTFILM.
"One part of it will be almost a straightforward telling of the production history which is quite fascinating because of the conflicts, to be quite honest, between Beckett and Keaton and Schneider. More so with Schneider. There was a lot of tension on the set and to get it made was a real struggle. So that's one strand. But then it does spin out into quite a number of different directions, inspired by the film itself and the questions that the film raises.
We have a lot of interesting material in that direction and the strands of the film intersect. For example, the film was originally intended to have an opening sequence that was quite long. They started shooting this and spent quite a bit of money and labor doing so, but then they were having technical problems and as kind of a desperation measure, they ended up scrapping more or less this entire first scene and re-conceptualizing the film."
Documentary filmmakers usually start with one vision or idea and the fun comes as their research leads into new, unexpected and exciting directions. Lipman shared about one really important discovery that's proved crucial to the whole NOTFILM project.
"[The first scene of Film] was thought to be lost and I would visit Barney and he was always lamenting the loss of this scene and finally he said, "I do have some old cans of film under my kitchen sink, but it's not there." I asked to archive those and when I got to look at the material, sure enough, the scene was actually there or at least the footage of it was all there. One thing that I've done as a side project for the Blu-Ray is a somewhat academic reconstruction of what that scene would look like. So between that and production stills and rare production documents, I've got a reconstruction of the entire scene. In the documentary there are excerpts of it. You can then see how that links in conceptually with what was originally intended and how they re-conceptualized it. That would be a good example of how the production history intersects with some of the ideas behind the film."
Beckett won the Nobel soon after making Film, so he was already an important figure in the theater and literary world. I asked Lipman about the reception to the film, given the fact that it's a difficult piece.
"There was a lot of bewilderment when it first came out. Some people were coming to it as a Beckett film, others came to it as a Keaton film. Those coming from a Keaton perspective were...it wasn't quite what they were expecting or hoping for. A lot of people found it puzzling. My own take is very much aligned with Beckett's own take on the film, in that it's a flawed work. It's got a wonderful conception behind it. It was not fully recognized perhaps by the sheer fact of having to cut out a third of the film. On the other hand, some amazing things happened during the production that were never intended that are a brilliant part of it, that Beckett came to love. One of them for me is the brilliant cinematography by Boris Kaufman. To see where all these points converge and diverge is really the heart of the film."
You can learn more about NOTFILM and get previews of some the interviews included in the documentary at the website. Lipman has footage of many people associated with the film from lead extra James Karen, who brought Keaton into the original project, to film critic Leonard Maltin who actually visited the film set as a 13 year-old boy. NOTFILM is slated for release in 2014.