Film/Notfilm [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - British Film Institute
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (4th June 2017).
The Film

“Film/Notfilm”

This BFI Blu-ray+DVD dual format set includes the short films “Film” (1965) and “Film” (1979), and the documentary “Notfilm” (2015).

“Film” (1965)

Writer Samuel Beckett’s works have been studied, praised, and debated over the years during his lifetime as well as after his death in 1989 at the age of 83. The 1969 Nobel Prize winner wrote poems, novels, teleplays and stage plays in both his native English and second language of French, as the Irish born writer lived most of his adult life in Paris. But one of his works has been mythical - his one and only screenplay.

Beckett’s American publisher Barney Rosset commissioned the work for a short film that was to become part of an omnibus of shorts by acclaimed writers, and work began on the script in 1963 with Beckett as the writer and television and stage director Alan Schneider as the director. For the camera, acclaimed cinematographer Boris Kaufman was hired after cinematographer Haskell Wexler became too busy to fit into his schedule. For the 40 page script, Beckett had one particular actor in mind and that was Charlie Chaplin, but that was a long shot as Chaplin was living in Switzerland and the script never reaching him. Actor Jack MacGowran had quite a lot of experience with Beckett works performed on stage but he was unavailable. Comedian Zero Mostel was another choice but he was also unavailable. Fate had it that another silent film star was available for the role and Beckett felt right for the part - and that was Buster Keaton. The nearly 70 year old star had lost much of his stride as a star in the post-sound age but was steadily working in bit parts on television and in film, though for a leading role since the underseen and critically panned “Boom in the Moon” in 1946, a Mexican science fiction comedy that did not receive an American release until 1983. With location shooting in New York and an indoor set, the film was shot during a three week period in 1964.

Some problems plagued the production including the entire opening shot of six pairs of people being unusable, not having enough resources for reshoots, animals not acting accordingly, rewriting on set to compensate, and blistering 100 degree weather outside. Even with the setbacks the film was completed, though it wasn’t what Beckett had in mind regarding the original script written. The use of a Schubert composition was not used, a monkey was not available, the opening sequence that had to be discarded, and other minor differences.

“Film” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 1965 where Keaton was greeted with high respect from organizers and patrons. The short did receive praise though no awards were given. In contrast when first screened in America at the New York Film Festival, the reactions were very negative. Ironically for a screenplay by a renowned writer, the script contained a single spoken word, which if considered a word - just a woman saying “Shh”. The entire film is played silently with no music, no sound effects at all. And in another case of irony, Buster Keaton’s face is not seen for most of the film, as the camera is set behind him for three quarters of the production. The stone face that Keaton was known for was not seen, as like a tease for audiences expecting a gag filled farcical work was instead greeted with an avant garde film on self reflection, perception, and memories. Not to say it had nothing Keaton-esque, as the scene with the dog and cat is absolutely hilarious and could have easily been a gag in one of Keaton’s silent shorts from 40 years prior. Keaton claims that he read the script and could not fully understand it, but knew he was in good hands, knowing the talent around him and behind the production. This would be his last starring film role and one of his final productions, as Keaton died five months later at the age of 70.

“Film” was not the critical or personal success that Beckett had hoped for and that would be his first and only attempt to write for the film medium. There were many “what ifs” with possibly reshooting but Beckett was not interested in it and the film was eventually an underseen work. The original plan for an omnibus film fell apart and “Film” never received proper distribution. Film school students had opportunities to see it but it was never screened commercially in theaters or on television.

“Film” (1979)

Fourteen years later, “Film” received a remake by director David Rayner Clark and starring Max Wall in the Keaton role, made by the BFI. Instead of it being a shot for shot remake, instead there was attempt to recreate the film as Beckett had intended, by using the original script and notes such as the opening sequence with the six pairs of people, the Schubert music cue, the monkey, and others. While nothing was added to the script there were some notable changes. The production was shot on 16mm color film, giving a very different feel from the black and white 1965 version. In the 1965 version during the first person views the quality would have a blurring effect to suggest the main character had a problem seeing, in the 1979 version videotape and effects were used for the slight blurriness. In addition, there was sound as part of the production but only music and sound effects. The only word would be the hush from the woman, just as the original production had had. While Beckett was constantly on the set of the 1965 version, he did not supervise the 1979 production and was made without his approval. Even without his approval the 1979 version does come closer to what was originally intended. Is it better? The cinematography of the 1965 version stands extremely highly that the fluidity of the camera shots are not recreated as well in the 1979 version. Max Wall may have been a good actor, but the sincerity and comedy from Keaton in the 1965 is a different class altogether. It is an interesting experiment and is a worthy attempt to remake the flawed yet important original film.

“Notfilm” (2015)

In an attempt to restore and reconstruct the 1965 “Film”, UCLA restorationist and filmmaker Ross Lipman undertook the important task. With the original negative considered lost and the producer Barney Rosset only having duplicate prints that were in harsh conditions, though on the brighter side he had some reels of outtakes from the final film including footage of the legendary opening sequence that was not finished. The best available film source that could be accessed was held at the BFI National Archive, although there was a fine grain master positive, there were issues on accessing it (which the story is talked about in the accompanying booklet). With adequate funding for the restoration, Milestone Films helped produce an essay style documentary on the making of “Film” to be directed by Lipman. Featuring interviews with collaborators such as James Karen and Barney Rosset, film critics and historians Leonard Maltin and Kevin Brownlow, and the people who knew Beckett well such as Billie Whitelaw and Jeanette Seaver, the production took several years to construct with the interview footage, film clips, outtakes, and chronicling the production.

“Notfilm” is aesthetically in tone with the 1965 “Film”, with almost all footage including the interviews being in black and white and shot in the same Academy ratio, though there are exceptions for example with clips of the 1979 BFI version being in color. Lipman is able to analyze the production while also giving a great amount of information about the people involved and from the people involved. For a documentary for a short film under 30 minutes, it’s quite amazing that the 130 minute runtime of “Notfilm” does not feel overlong nor does it feel like all the questions are fully answered. Samuel Beckett is an enigmatic figure that historians and scholars have analyzed through his works time and time over, and “Film” adds another piece to a difficult puzzle piece to the picture. “Notfilm” does not and cannot give a full analysis, but gives a great look into the production of the legendary short.

Note this is a region B Blu-ray which can only be played back on region B and region free Blu-ray players

Video

The BFI presents “Film” (1965), “Film” (1979), and “Notfilm” (2015) on a one dual layer Blu-ray disc.

“Film” (1965) is presented in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec, in the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. The film was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, supervised by Ross Lipman using 35mm and 16mm elements, in collaboration with the BFI and Milestone Films. As stated before the original negative is lost and the elements were taken from a few sources to create a new master, recreated photochemically and digitally remastered. Serious damage has been removed though very minor specs remain especially on the sides of the frame, clarity and depth is absolutely stunning, and grey levels look excellent. The portions of the main character’s perspective are intentionally distorted to give a slightly blurred look as was the intention. The black and white photography by cinematographer Boris Kaufman has truly been restored to the point you might forget that this is not directly from the original negative.

“Film” (1979) is presented in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec, in the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Remastered in 2K from the original 16mm A+B negative held by the BFI, and the results are great though very much imperfect. The color photography is saturated in browns so colors are more on the muted side. Damage has mostly been digitally removed with few instances of dust and specs, but there is a hugely damaged portion at the end of the film that was irreparable, like a huge gash coming through the center of the frame. With the portions of the main character’s perspective, the shots were done on videotape, transferred to 16mm film and graded to give an additional unclear look on intention. These shots look extremely rough but that was the intention. Another great transfer from the BFI.

“Notfilm” (2015) is presented in 1080p in the AVC MPEG-4 codec, in the original 1.37:1 aspect ratio. Made up of vintage film, photographs, and newly shot interviews, it is hard to grade “Notfilm” altogether. For the interview segments, it seems that they were shot at 30 frames per second and later converted to 24 frames per second, as seen compared to the 30fps interview outtakes in the bonus features. Some of the interview segments have issues with sharpness in definition with the most obvious being historian and restorationist Kevin Brownlow’s jacket having a moiring effect and with many of the round edges such as glasses having jagged edges. The black and white photography of the interviews is a little soft in the grey scale not having any true blacks. For the clips of “Film” (1965) they look just as good as the main film coming from the restored edition. As for “Film” (1979) it is from an older video master looking muddy and unclear. With many other vintage film clips such as older Keaton silent, they are not as sharp either. But as for most documentaries go, it is not about the quality image of the clips but the content they provide.

The runtimes are as follows:

- "Film" (1965) - (22:00)
- "Film" (1979) - (26:15)
- "Notfilm" (2015) - (128:17)

Audio

English LPCM 2.0 mono
Both “Film” (1965) and “Film” (1979) are both presented with the original mono audio track in lossless LPCM audio. The 1965 version only has a single moment of sound with the lady saying hushing, and besides that is entirely silent. The hush is clearly reproduced while the rest of the production is obviously quiet with nothing to hear. The 1979 version is a much more lively event with footsteps, rocking chair creaking, doors shutting, and other sounds throughout. They are not overly loud but enough to accent the image rather than overtaking it. There are no instances of damage to the audio track sounding very good with both the sounds and the music of Schubert on the flute.

English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
“Notfilm” is presented with lossless 5.1 audio. The narration by director Ross Lipman comes in clear through the center speaker as do the interview segments. The surround channels are relegated to the music cues by composer Mihály Vig who has composed various works for director Béla Tarr, with a hauntingly minimal score to fit the film. There are some hard to hear portions which there are burned-in subtitles. There are no instances of volume problems or audio distortion in the audio transfer.

There are optional English HoH subtitles for all three films in a white font. As stated, the 1965 version of “Film” has one portion of subtitles. “Film” 1979 has much more captioning the sound effects and music cues. “Notfilm” captions all the narration and interviews, and with some of the hard-to-hear vintage audio, there are burned-in English subtitles for those portions.

Extras

The BFI set of “Film/Notfilm” is presented as a 3-disc dual format set, with one Blu-ray that includes all three films and the extras and two DVDs with the identical content on region 2 PAL DVDs. Also note that the DVD has an exclusive DVD-ROM feature not available on the Blu-ray disc.

"The Street Scene" A Lost Scene Reconstruction from the Film Outtakes (6:09)
For the 1965 version the opening scene with the six pairs of people was partially shot but incomplete. With a reshoot being impossible on the schedule and budget, it was eventually changed to what is seen in the restored film with the main character being the first seen figure. Using the outtake reel of film that was shot, on set photographs, and the final shooting script, the scripted sequence has been reconstructed the best it could, but in no way could it be reincorporated into the 1965 version.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.37:1, with no sound, with English text

"The Dog and Cat Takes" outtakes (8:15)
The very funny segment featuring Keaton and the dog and cat had many problems with the animals not hitting their marks precisely. These outtakes show some of the troubles encountered.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.37:1, with no sound, with English text

"What if E's eyes were closed?" Audio Recordings of Beckett, Kaufman, Rosset and Schneider (6:43)
Excepts of audio recordings of the collaborators are offered here, which some portions are heard in the “Notfilm” documentary. As it is hard to hear with the not so good recording equipment, English subtitles are on by default. There is no image to accompany the audio, left with a black screen.
in 1080i 60hz AVC, in English LPCM 2.0 with optional English subtitles

"Buster Keaton and Film" James Karen in Conversation (41:51)
Taken from a Q&A on March 13th 2011 at the Billy Wilder Theatre, actor James Karen is interviewed by UCLA’s Shannon Kelley, sharing his memories of “Film” and working with Keaton and Beckett. It’s a good session with questions from both Kelley and the audience members but the problem comes with the audio. Talking into the microphones caused a huge amount of echo which made things quite hard to hear. Ironically when they were talking without microphones they sounded much clearer!
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.37:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"Memories of Samuel Beckett: An Afternoon with James Knowlson" featurette (8:00)
Beckett scholar James Knowlson is interviewed by Lipman, in which he recalls first meeting Beckett and the fascination with Beckett’s ability to quote poems by memory, and more. This is an outtake of the interview session with Knowlson conducted for “Notfilm”.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.37:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"Jean Schneider: Memories of Alan Schneider" featurette (11:01)
Director Alan Schneider’s widow recalls meeting Beckett in Paris, watching his play and finding out that Beckett was his own worst critic. This is an outtake of the interview session with Schnieder conducted for “Notfilm”.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.37:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"Jeannette Seaver: Beckett and Godot" featurette (4:13)
The founder of Arcade Publishing Jeanette Seaver talks about how Beckett had many doubts on his own works and more. This is an outtake of the interview session with Seaver conducted for “Notfilm”.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.37:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

Photo Galleries
- I.C. Rapoport: Day 1 (0:30)
- Steve Schapiro: On Location (2:25)
- Steve Schapiro: On the Set (2:07)

Three slideshow galleries of black and white behind the scenes photos of the shoot are presented, photographed by I.C. Rapoport and Steve Schapiro.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, with no music, with English text

Photographing Film Photographing Beckett: Steve Schapiro and I.C. Rapoport in conversation (6:41)
Schapiro and Rapoport talk about their photograph sessions on the behind the scenes of “Film”, especially on Beckett who was very photogenic but absolutely hated having his image taken - just as much as he hated tape recorders. The interviews were conducted separately but are presented here back to back. These are outtakes of the interview sessions conducted for “Notfilm”.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.37:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

"Notfilm" trailer (1:42)
The original trailer featuring Lipman’s narration, clips, and critical quotes are presented.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.37:1, in English LPCM 2.0 with no subtitles

DVD Copy
Discs two and three offer the above content on standard definition DVDs, in the region 2 PAL format. In addition, the DVD copy also includes the Music of Notfilm: downloadable MP3 recordings by Mihály Víg as a DVD-ROM extra.

Booklet
A 28 page booklet is included. First is the essay simply titled “Film” (1965) by film critic and writer Michael Brooke gives an analysis on the film and some of its difficult history. Next is “From Film to Notfilm” by director Ross Lipman in which he talks about the first time seeing the short, how they came to restore it, the problems that ensued, and the making of the documentary. The last essay is “Film” (1979) by writer and film historian Vic Pratt, breaking down the 1979 remake and its importance to counterbalance the 1965 original. There is also a biography of Samuel Beckett written by Brooke, photographs, full credits of the three features, transfer information, bonus features information, and acknowledgements.

In the United States, “Film” (1965) and “Notfilm” were released on Blu-ray in March 2017 by Milestone Films, just two months before the UK BFI release. Interestingly, it was not on a single Blu-ray but released separately. “Film” (1965) was released on Blu-ray and separately on DVD. “Notfilm” was also released on Blu-ray and separately on DVD. Milestone did not release the 1979 version of “Film”, making that a BFI exclusive. For Milestone, the “Film” (1965) disc also includes "Waiting for Godot" 1961 Play of the Week TV episode directed by Alan Schneider as an extra which is not on the BFI release. Other than that, the extras are identical.

Overall

Samuel Beckett’s “Film” is still one of the least known works in Beckett’s long career as a writer and also one of the most legendary due to its rarity and being his only ever screenplay written. BFI’s release of “Film/Notfilm” is an excellent package that not only provides a beautifully restored version of the 1965 short, but the 1979 remake and the acclaimed documentary from 2015 on the making of the short along with great extras co-produced with Milestone Films. It is not the easiest film to digest nor is it a great representation of Beckett or star Buster Keaton’s abilities, but is still one of the highest regarded works of avant garde short films with much to be discussed. The BFI release obviously comes as absolutely recommended.

In addition please also read our special interview with director Ross Lipman on the topic of “Film/Notfilm”,

The Film: A- Video: A- Audio: B Extras: A- Overall: A-

 


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