Taking as its starting point the fascinating production history of Samuel Beckett’s beleaguered Film in 1965, Ross Lipman’s documentary Notfilm is an evocative meditation on Beckett, cinema, memory, and the nature of vision and perception, and the first foray into feature filmmaking by the renowned archivist and essayist. More than a standard retelling of a fascinating production history, Lipman’s “kino-essay” is punctuated by the director’s own contemplative voiceover, recently discovered reels from Film’s pre-production, and lyrical sequences teeming with historical film footage culled from silent newsreels, Beckett’s television plays, and the oeuvres of Murnau, Vertov, and Buster Keaton, who starred in Film. Originally envisioned as a 90-minute film, Notfilm stretches to 128 minutes, a testament to the richness of its material and the unruly nature of research and introspection. I asked Lipman to reflect on his experiences making the film and how his earlier efforts as an archivist informed this expressive work of nonfiction filmmaking.
Tanya Goldman (Rail): I often like to ask archivists, film scholars, and media artists about their “origin story.” So for you, whose work traverses all of these spaces, when or how did you know that you wanted to pursue these types of work? Do you feel one mode of practice feeds another?
Ross: When I was about ten, a cousin gave me his old regular 8mm camera. I didn’t know what to do with it at first; it seemed like a magical thing that could do anything. Since then I’ve just been exploring that. It still has that magic for me.
Rail: For Notfilm, I suspect the origins of this project may relate, in at least some way, to your first time watching Film, which you’vesaid “wouldn’t leave [you] alone.” Can you elaborate?
Ross: I actually got taken with the script of Film, in the old Grove Press edition, years before I saw the movie. Beckett was a huge inspiration, and naturally in my mid-twenties I rebelled. Film was included in a screening of shorts I saw at the wonderful Scala Cinema in London in the early ’90s, and it drove me crazy. It was followed by Un Chien Andalou, and when the eye was cut I practically cheered in rebuttal to Film’s austerity. It’s the kind of thing one feels at that age. We see different things in great works at different phases in our lives.
Rail: When did you finally decide to create your own film about Film? Was it always your intention to insert your own voice into this project?
Ross: When the rare archival elements began almost landing in my lap, the thought of a movie naturally arose. But oddly, it wasn’t until viewing the outtakes of the decrepit room—Boris Kaufman’s slow pans over the detritus—that those idle thoughts grew into something more. I saw in those fragmentary outtakes a world I wanted to explore up close.
Rail: In recent years, your works has taken on a distinctive essayistic style. Your website defines your practice as “cinema restoration performance.” What attracts you to this mode of filmmaking?
Ross: That’s actually three distinct but overlapping areas: cinema, restoration, and performance. I suppose the fact that I didn’t grammatically separate them on the website says something. The “performance” aspect is, more accurately, live documentary. I narrate a path through a tangle of archival footage. It’s a more elaborate form of illustrated lecture, which I also love. The fields overlap in what I sometimes call “archival arts.”
Rail: How long did this whole project take you? Did anything surprise you when doing your research for the film?
Ross: What surprised me was just how many layers of resonance kept revealing themselves. A fun anecdote in one place might move beyond curiosity and take on significance when seen in the light of a seemingly disconnected event somewhere else. I love taking stray paths and finding where they lead.
I was also very pleasantly surprised by how welcoming the Beckett community has been to me. I’ve been in academia and related areas for decades, and as we all know, it’s not always like that.
Rail: You begin your film with the line “I’ve never quite trusted films about film.” But for a film that so boldly forsakes “film” in its very title, it does feature a remarkable amount of film—I think Amy [Heller] and Dennis [Doros] of Milestone Films [the project’s producers] told me that over four hundred elements of footage needed to be “cleared” for copyright—and something like sixty in the first five minutes! Care to comment on that incongruity?
Ross: That incongruity is, for me, at the heart of the film. When art becomes the focus of one’s life, as it can do over the years, it becomes inseparable from life. But how does one share that? One tells a story, and hopes.
Rail: This may reflect my own brand of semantics but when watching Notfilm I was struck by the various terms that may apply to it—documentary, compilation film, found footage, nonfiction, cine-poem, etc.—do you object to any of these terms to define the work? Is there a reason you’ve selected “kino-essay” specifically?
Ross: No objections to any of those terms; I like all of them. “Kino-essay” is, of course, a nod to Vertov, who pioneered so many of these forms.
Rail: I have heard a rumor that you restored Film three times. A particular sticking point for you was its sound. The film is ostensibly silent, with one notable “Sssh!” Can you explain this process and why it was so important for you to get the sound of silence “right?”
Ross: If one reads Beckett’s letters, he himself felt that sound, or lack of it, was very important. Yet it’s clear he didn’t have a strong enough grasp of the technology to fully control it. A lot of what John Polito [of Audio Mechanics] and I did with Film’s sound was simply interpreting Beckett’s own notes on the topic. It’s well known that the only spoken line is Susan Reed’s “Sssh!” We actually have one version of Film that takes Beckett’s comments literally—with dead silence surrounding the “Sssh!”—and another that I subjectively interpret as his desire, which includes a light ambience, but no concrete sounds of course.
Rail: Not only is this work your first foray into feature filmmaking, it’s also Milestone’s first producing venture. Can you explain how you convinced Amy and Dennis to get behind this project and what it was like to fund via Kickstarter?
Ross: I didn’t need to convince them; they simply loved Film and the idea of telling its story. Of course, that did involve them abandoning their promise to themselves that they’d never make an original film. I don’t know why they did, but I’m unendingly grateful that they trusted me. They also pulled me kicking and screaming through the Kickstarter. I simply hate asking people for money. They orchestrated that beautifully.
Rail: You describe Film as a chase film—“the craziest ever committed to celluloid.” Is Notfilm also a type of chase?
Ross: I see Film as a chase; Notfilm, not so much. But absolutely no objections if others do.
Notfilm premiered at the London Film Festival in October 2015, and ran April 1 – 7 at Anthology Film Archives. More information can be found at filmbysamuelbeckett.com
Tanya Goldman is a doctoral student in the Cinema Studies Department at New York University.