2016 IFFR Interview: Ross Lipman (NOTFILM)


In 1964 author Samuel Beckett set out on one of the strangest ventures in cinematic history:  his embattled collaboration with silent era genius Buster Keaton on the production of a short, titleless avant-garde film.  

Beckett was nearing the peak of his fame, which would culminate in his receiving a Nobel Prize five years later.  Keaton, in his waning years, never lived to see Beckett’s canonization. The film they made along with director Alan Schneider, renegade publisher Barney Rosset, and Academy Award-winning cinematographer Boris Kaufman, has been the subject of praise, condemnation, and controversy for decades, with Keaton describing it as: “I was confused when we shot it… and I’m still confused.”. Still, the eclectic participants are just one part of a story that stretches to the very birth of cinema, and spreads out to our understanding of human consciousness itself.

NOTFILM is a feature-length experimental kino essay on FILM’s production and its philosophical implications by Ross Lipman, utilizing additional outtakes, never before heard audio recordings of the production meetings, and other rare archival elements.

We met Ross Lipman during the International Film Festival Rotterdam, where Notfilm screened last week as part of the festivals Deep Focus program. Lipman’ s bet is a big one: not only is he exploring the historic significance of the footage for cinema, but also Film, the original short, is of great importance for the theater world. With all this in mind, we thought it would be a most interesting conversation to discuss Film, NOTFILM, Beckett, theater, and cinema with Lipman…

How did Notfilm come about? What is it that inspired you to do this video essay on Beckett’s ‘Film’?
I began by restoring Beckett’s ‘Film’ and along the way, I became friends with Barney Rosset, the press publisher, who gave me outtakes that he had, as well as audio recordings. I think that the moment of inspiration was looking through those outtakes. I knew, of course, their historical significance and the material inspired me in general. But, sitting at the Steenbeck (the old editing table) and looking at the footage of the abandoned, empty set, somehow evoked the feeling of despair and emptiness that underlies all of Beckett’s work. It’s always humorous and tragic at the same time. And so, sitting there, I was inspired by the footage and thought: “what can I do with this?” I originally envisioned a live presentation, because I do live documentaries, but then the more I worked with it, the more I realized I wanted to carefully choreograph everything into a film. So it grew in that way.

We’re talking about Beckett who is pretty much one of the “fathers” of contemporary theater. Did that intimidate you ever?
A little bit… I think you need to be very respectful, but you also have to believe in what you are doing. Luckily in the case of ‘Film’, I was very familiar with it; it was a work that had inspired me since I was very young, 19 or 20.

Beckett himself had thought the film was, in part, a failure and I felt I knew exactly what he didn’t like and what he did. I don’t want to be presumptuous to say exactly, but when I read his own critique of the film, I felt very much in sympathy and that the ways in which it was not succeeding were a wonderful entry point to explore further. I was fascinated by the same questions Beckett asked. In the end, I think you need to trust your own vision. If you are lost at sea, then maybe that’s not the work for you. But if you feel like you have something to say then you can make a film. Research and certainly inquiry are part of the process. There is a little song and dance.

Another factor is that I had been working many years as a film restorationist, and so was used to working with the classics of contemporary culture on a daily basis: handling very rare materials that are one of a kind and the legacy of artists who are extremely revered. Beckett is certainly one of the great geniuses of the century, but there are others and I have been fortunate to work on other notable projects.

Have you worked on any other projects that revolve around theater?
Well, I had a background in theater. I was writing plays for many years alongside filmmaking. Then I stopped doing theater at a certain point and focused exclusively on cinema. Some of the films I’ve restored touch on the theatrical tradition, i.e. I restored Charlie Chaplin’s first feature ‘Tillie’s Punctured Romance’, which was actually based on a stage play for Marie Dressler. This was from a time when cinema was not respected and, to give cinema prestige, they would adapt plays. This was the concept of the ‘Famous Players’ company, which in this sense inspired Keystone’s “Tillie.”

Do you expect ‘Notfilm’ to be embraced by theater or cinema academics, or both? There is significance there; it is an important work, so, in which domain do you think it has more to offer?
Oh, I would hope to reach both. That’s of course beyond my control. I am very fortunate to be working with Milestone, the wonderful boutique distributor of archival cinema in the US and our connections are, at this moment, much more in the film world. So, “how do you get out into the theater world?” is a question that we should be addressing. I don’t know the answer to that but I would love to reach out to that community.

You said that you could see why Beckett thought that film was a failure. This film, though, was a 100% Beckett work. There’s this fight between “myself and I,” and that’s what he always puts in his theater works. Our worst enemy is ourself. What is it, you believe, that made him say ‘this film is a failure,’ and not accept it?
I think it had to do with the adaptation of the underlying concept to cinema. The question of E and O. The film is based on the idea of the observing Eye and perceived Object, and the dialogue between them. Beckett uses the camera as a metaphor for the pain of perception. Again, I don’t want to be presumptuous, but he’s made comments that suggest this. I believe that he felt the articulation of this dynamic in cinematic language was not as refined as some of his theatrical expressions. His comfort with theatrical medium was greater than with cinema. He was looking at the properties of film and trying to use those properties to explore his own vision in a new medium, to see what that brought out. So I think the problems had to do with articulation of this idea. Perhaps Alan Schneider (director) would agree to some extent too. Schneider was directing a movie for the first time; of course he had stage experience, but his prior moving image experience was limited to the television production of “Waiting for Godot”, which is quite different from making a movie from scratch. That Godot was adapting a stage play that he had already produced and setting the cameras up to interpret it, whereas Film is actually intended for the cinema by design. s

There were things that Beckett really loved, though, and I love the same things. He writes several times about an intangible experience and feeling that you have watching ‘Film’, so maybe that’s what he is responding to as well. It has this overwhelming Beckettian feeling to it: a feeling of isolation, pathos, humor. That’s all working underneath. You get a strong mood from the film and I think part of that is Boris Kauffman’s cinematography and part of it is Buster Keaton’s performance, but of course from Beckett himself who was the inspiration for the whole thing.

I was surprised Beckett thought it was a failure, though, because ‘Film’ is 100% Beckettian work, I couldn’t have imagined it differently. So I thought, maybe having Keaton on the set was something upsetting Beckett, perhaps they weren’t getting along well?
First of all, Beckett was a true gentleman – I never met him, but from everything I understand he was considerate and very friendly. Him and Keaton did talk and have some exchanges. I don’t think they were fast friends, but I don’t think they had any outright conflict. It is more that they were so different. They made some efforts to interact with each other, but they just didn’t have enough in common to be close friends. There was more disconnect than conflict.

How long did the whole project last?
The restoration took place prior to making ‘Notfilm’. At that time, I was doing multiple projects. It would have taken a year or two to get the restoration done. But then the documentary took 5 to 7 years because I was working full time doing other things. The film had to be made on evenings and weekends, on almost no budget.

Was there a moment that you thought, “oh, this is impossible, I can’t do it?”
Many, but the problems I faced were more practical than aesthetic. There were many moments along the way when something happened that could have made the whole production collapse. There are so many moments when you just don’t know whether you will make it to the end.

Which one of the interviews did you enjoy the most?
Oh my goodness… they are all so wonderful in different ways. For me, Billie Whitelaw had been one of my heroes. I think there was a certain excitement in being able to meet her. She has provided some of the most profound theatrical experience that I have witnessed, but so many of the interview subjects were wonderful. James Karen is amazing… I don’t want to single them out because that would then exclude the others, which were all wonderful.

‘Notfilm’ is very minimalistic in general- you choose black and white, the interviews are very simple frames. What was the idea behind its aesthetic?
It has been pointed out to me that in some ways NOTFILM has a very non-Beckettian aesthetic, it’s not constructed like a Beckett work. The only area, perhaps, where I do some overlap is that I try to articulate very carefully all the aesthetic components in my film: sound, image, motion, light – they’re all very carefully choreographed in the way that Beckett carefully sculpts the components of the works he makes. That being said, it is a different kind of articulation. I am not Beckett, I am a very different person and any two people will make different works. I did want to be able to evoke Beckett’s world through that, and Beckett’s worlds are very minimal. Some of the decisions were practical, i.e. I very much like shooting a person in their environment, in their home if possible, and I like to use natural light rather than bringing in photographic ones, which can overpower the person. I think you can get a better feel of who the person is when you are seeing them in the comfort of their own space rather than imposing on them. The negative side of this is that you might not always have control over an environment. I, for example, interviewed Kevin Brownlow in a hotel, which is obviously not his own environment. When you are stuck with such an environment the color can be quite garish and ugly. When you see black and white you don’t see color. So I made the decision early on that I was going to film all the interviews in black and white. Primarily to avoid all the ugly color that could come in when you are not in control of a film set, but still evoke a little bit of the feel of the person and their space. However, there are little bits of color that do appear throughout the film and I viewed that in the way that sound appears in ‘Film’. There is one sound and the idea is that sound is possible but absent resonates – color is possible but mostly absent in ‘Notfilm’.

One of the many things you do is preservation and restoration. How do you see that field nowadays? Is there a future in it? How is it perceived in the States? Do you think it is a global phenomenon or do you think it happened suddenly in countries where there is a rich cinema history?
|So much of it is tied to finances and financial support. Even the wealthier countries are having trouble raising money for film preservation right now. It’s much harder to find funds to preserve films than it was seven or ten years ago. Most of the remaining laboratories are struggling to stay afloat.

The other thing thing is that the technology is changing so quickly. If a work originated on film, to be “restored” it technically needs to end on film as well. Yet people use the word ‘restoration’ when all they have really done is digitize it. If you just digitize a work that originated on film, from an archival perspective you have not preserved it; you have digitally remastered it. Now, that’s good too; you have a digital copy… but you really need to keep it on film to preserve it. That’s getting harder and harder to do. Ideally, you do both

Today, less and less works are being shot on film, and film exhibition itself is becoming more rare, so the underlying questions get transformed. In the future we are going to be talking about the preservation of a digital file.

For true restoration, you need money and you need technology and you need support. One bright side is that the cost of digital tools is decreasing.

Do you have any other projects coming? Another video essay maybe?
Yes… I am currently working for the estate of artist Bruce Conner. He was a collagist, illustrator, photographer, and he made many wonderful films. Part of what we are doing is restoring, re-mastering, and making new prints of most of his moving image work. The retrospective will be opening at MoMA in July.

Alongside this, one of the full restorations that we have done is a film called ‘Crossroads’ and it is about the atomic bomb tests in the Bikini Atoll in 1946. Conner made an extraordinary short film about this and I have a live documentary prepared, which is somewhat similar to ‘Notfilm’, where I talk about its history and production, but also about the photography of the bomb. The Bikini Atoll atomic bomb tests were the most photographed event in human history and there were so many cameras of all kinds – flying and at sea level, miles away and up close. It discusses the photography of death, the photography of atomic explosions, and also the making of ‘Crossroads’, which has a wonderful musical score by Terry Riley and Patrick Gleeson. I have gotten interviews with them where we talk about Bruce Conner’s working process.

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