Great art shakes one to one’s core and leaves a scar. We call the scar memory. The documentary NOTFILM is one of those experiences. FILM, the only film written by Samuel Beckett, is the subject. Among many pleasures is hearing Sam Beckett talk. Beckett the writing god, Irish baritone, whisperer.
Directed by Ross Lipman, NOTFILM takes us on a journey of the creative process of a writing god. We’re also treated to the story of how Charlie Chaplin turned down a part only to be replaced with Buster Keaton, who professed to not understand a second of what was going on. The legendary Stone Face, Keaton was instructed not to show his face to the camera—with one exception.
Interviewed before her death is the stunning actress Billie Whitelaw, who starred in Beckett’s plays “Not I,” in which Whitelaw’s mouth is the only human thing seen on the stage, and “Happy Days,” where she delivers a searing monologue buried up to her neck in garbage. She told friends that Beckett was trying to kill her. Beckett said Whitelaw was his muse.
NOTFILM is about the nature of seeing, eye and camera, and of awareness of self. (Beckett, whose lined Irish face is iconic, couldn’t stand to be photographed or taped.) Buster Keaton, everyman, walks in a bleak city and watches, people and places, and he catches glimpses of himself, and he is horrified.
I have seen all of the Beckett plays. The Goodman Theatre in Chicago produced “Waiting for Godot” in such a manner that I could not leave my seat after the curtain fell. I sat and wept at what Beckett called “a relaxation.” And then there is the TV production starring Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel, which blew me away as a kid. And informed my sceptic adult self. Samuel Beckett changed my life.
NOTFILM was born when director Lipman interviewed film director and founder of Grove Press (“The Tropic of Capricorn” and D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover,” among others) Barney Rosset, who was dying but able to talk with perfect memory of the making of Beckett’s screenplay. And then Rosset revealed a cache of tapes he had recorded of Beckett, the recorder hidden below a table. And so we hear the god Beckett speak.
The film, as bleak—or as funny, if you get what the writer was up to—as Beckett’s plays, received mixed reviews. But the story of the making of the film is breathtaking. On a single canvass are greats of the 20th Century: Rosset, Beckett, Keaton, Whitelaw, Haskell Wexler, and some commentary by the actor James Karen, whom I only knew from his so-so movie career (“Poltergeist,”) and who turns out to be a brilliant eyewitness and analyst of acting and of Beckett’s work.
Everyone interviewed for FILM is dead. By luck of discovering historical tapes and films, and by coaxing Whitelaw and Rossett, both in the throes of Alzheimer’s but with perfect memories of Samuel Beckett, Ross Lipman skillfully narrates a film born by accident. And what an accident.
Sam Beckett, who did research for James Joyce for “Ulysses.” He worked for the absolute master of words and became the master of silence, of nuance, of gesture. “Malloy,” “Malone Dies,” “Godot,” “Endgame,” “Happy Days,” “Not I,” and the list goes on.
I was in a Chicago room with Edward Albee once, overhearing him tell an anecdote about calling up “Art” (Arthur) Miller and saying they should fly to Russia to see some dissident writers, and Art said great idea, and then they stopped off in Paris to see “Sam.” And my knees buckled. And I went home and stayed in bed for days. What else can one do in the presence of gods?
NOTFILM is available on various streaming platforms. I saw it on Turner Classic Movies. It is unforgettable, awe inspiring, lustful, shattering, beautiful. A masterful visual and aural analogue (as I used to tell my theater students) of emotive life. A memory scar which will haunt me to the end.
ESTRAGON: Well, shall we go?
VLADIMIR: Yes, let’s go.
They do not move.
Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot