“Esse est percipi (To be is to be perceived)” – philosopher George Berkeley (1685 – 1753)
The path that winds through movie history is paved with fruitful collaborations between actors, actors and directors, directors and screenwriters, directors and cinematographers, et cetera, the grand ambitions of which have sometimes resulted in landmarks of cinema, but more often simply in memorable works of popular, marginal and even disreputable art. For every masterpiece emerging from the union of sensibilities like Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, or those of Orson Welles, Herman J. Mankiewicz and Gregg Toland, there are artistic associations, just as unlikely in their own ways, which have resulted in movies like The Elephant Man (producer Mel Brooks and director David Lynch), Shadow of a Doubt (director Alfred Hitchcock and screenwriter Thornton Wilder) and Altered States (director Ken Russell and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky). The making of these films wasn’t always friction-free, but the final results were completely unique to the chemistry, and sometimes the incompatibility, of the creative forces behind them.
One of the most audacious and unlikely of these collaborations in the annals of film history must certainly be that of Irish playwright Samuel Beckett (Waiting for Godot, Endgame) and the pioneering director of silent film comedy Buster Keaton (The General, Seven Chances). Beckett’s spare, deliberate and sometimes elastic use of language, combined with his often blackly comic and despairing subject matter, would seem at first glance to be the oil to Keaton’s water, composed of equal parts deadpan, fluidly graceful presence, undeterred pursuit of mastery over his circumstances-- often seeming to bend physical laws to his purpose-- and his clean, persistent, personal filmmaking style.
And somehow, despite the reflectively conversational, argumentative bent of Godot’s Vladimir and Estragon, it’s always been easy for me to imagine Keaton’s professionally mute personage, as full as it is of yearning and the restless spirit of the eternally unsatisfied, as somehow fitting into Beckett’s vision of an unyielding, incomprehensible universe of unresponsive humanity.
Beckett must have thought so too. He wrote his only work as a screenwriter, Film, in 1963 with Charlie Chaplin in mind, but that casting vision evaporated when Chaplin’s secretary reportedly informed Barney Rossett of Grove Press, who commissioned Beckett’s screenplay and eventually published it, that "Mr. Chaplin does not read scripts." Beckett and Film’s director Alan Schneider pursued both Zero Mostel and Jack MacGowran (who had a long association with Beckett’s work), but when they were unavailable Schneider, at Beckett’s suggestion, convinced Keaton to participate.
The entirety of the movie (it runs 20 minutes) is a study of the perspectives of two “characters,” designated in Beckett’s script as “E” (the objective camera) and “O,” the subjective perception of the Keaton figure, who moves about the movie’s strange landscape in his customarily beleaguered and unsettled manner. As Beckett himself put it, “It’s a movie about the perceiving eye, about the perceived and the perceiver – two aspects of the same man. The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide. Then, in the end, one wins.” Schneider, the film’s director, described the script, in a 2010 piece chronicling the making of Film, as “fairly baffling when not downright inscrutable”:
“Along with pages of addenda in Sam's inimitable informal style: explanatory notes, a philosophical supplement, modest production suggestions, a series of hand-drawn diagrams. Involving, in cosmic detail, his principal characters, O and E, the question of "perceivedness," the angle of immunity, and the essential principle that esse est percipi: to be is to be perceived. All composed with loving care, humor, sadness, and Sam's ever-present compassionate understanding of man's essential frailty. I loved it even when I wasn't completely sure what Sam meant. And I suddenly decided that my early academic training in physics and geometry was finally going to pay off in my directorial career.”
Indeed, it would seem that the story of the making of Film, which was released in 1965, might indeed be as compelling in its own way as the film itself, the opportunity to see and reflect upon the essentially contrapuntal styles of two major artistic presences engaged in the act of creation. And it seems now that such an opportunity might finally be realized.
While recently at work on a restoration of Film, UCLA Film and Television Archive restoration expert Ross Lipman had occasion to visit Rosset at his New York City apartment, and while it is unclear as to what led him to it, there in Rosset’s kitchen Lipman made a fortuitous discovery. Under the kitchen sink were stashed multiple reels of film that had apparently been languishing amongst the cleansers and containers of roach spray for decades. He also found long-forgotten audio recordings elsewhere in the house. When he threaded all this material up he discovered footage long thought missing, documenting never-before-seen camera tests and outtakes, as well as unreleased audio recordings of production meetings in which Beckett was present, and many other fascinating and rare archival elements, all of which shed new light on every aspect of the creation of this unique collaboration.
Now Milestone Film and Video, under the guidance of Lipman and Milestone founders Amy Heller and Dennis Doros, are mounting an effort to create a crowd-funded documentary which will marshal all these newly-discovered elements into a new documentary about the making of the influential and rarely seen Film called Notfilm, to be released alongside the restoration of the Beckett/Keaton short. Lipman has been instrumental in realizing critically acclaimed and widely appreciated Milestone restorations of classics like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep, Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles and Shirley Clarke’s The Connection, and much like their recent release of the restoration of Shirley Clarke’s compelling documentary Portrait of Jason (which was the first partially crowd source-funded restoration project), Milestone is envisioning a similar trajectory for the funding of this proposed new work.