Unlikely and unlooked-for collaborations are thick on the land where moviemaking is concerned, but few have the resonance of the once-in-a-lifetime connection between Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton.
Hard as it is to believe, the inscrutable Irish avant-garde playwright and novelist and the American slapstick comedy genius collaborated on a 22-minute short called, appropriately enough, "Film," which has baffled, frustrated or intoxicated viewers since its 1965 debut — sometimes all at the same time.
Very much in the intoxicated camp is director Ross Lipman. Formerly a top restorationist at the UCLA Film & Television Archive, Lipman was so intrigued by "Film" that he spent seven years investigating exactly why and how it was made, and "Notfilm" is the completely fascinating result.
"I've never quite trusted films about film. Art should be about art," Lipman says in "Notfilm's" elegant voice-over, but what he has done here will win over similar skeptics who wonder how a two-hour, eight-minute documentary could be made about a 22-minute short.
A thoughtful, incisive meditation on its decades-old events, "Notfilm" is gossipy and philosophical by turn, joining microscopic analysis of the filmmakers' lofty intentions with juicy morsels of information about exactly what happened when theory met practice on the steamy summer streets of New York City where "Film" was shot.
Though Beckett, Keaton and "Film's" director Alan Schneider were long dead when Lipman began his work, and producer Barney Rosset in precarious health, the director found ingenious ways around those gaps.
Not only did he interview people with unlikely connections to "Film" — the great cinematographer Haskell Wexler turned out to be Rosset's childhood friend, historian Kevin Brownlow had talked to both Beckett and Keaton about the project, critic-historian Leonard Maltin visited the "Film" set as a mere lad of 13 — Lipman also made a major archival discovery.
It turned out that Rosset, the founder of Grove Press and Beckett's American publisher, had secretly tape-recorded production meetings between himself, Schneider, Beckett and cinematographer Boris Kaufman. Hearing the rarely recorded Beckett speak in what turns out to be the most lyrical Irish voice is one of "Notfilm's" special treats.
It was Rosset who first came up with the idea of having avant-garde writers devise screenplays for him to produce, but only Beckett actually followed through. Beckett loved film, but he had no experience in the medium. So he enlisted Schneider, who, though he'd directed a TV version of "Waiting for Godot" starring Burgess Meredith and Zero Mostel, turned out to have almost as little firsthand knowledge as the playwright.
The screenplay for "Film," not surprisingly, is a difficult one, and unless you are of a philosophical bent, its concern with existence and perception as conveyed through the flight of a character named "0" from a pursuing camera can be a challenge.
The real-world obstacles that the filmmakers ran into, however, are always engaging, starting with their search for a suitable cinematographer. Getting the job was the great Boris Kaufman, who a few years earlier had won an Oscar for "On the Waterfront."
One of "Notfilm's" charms is its gift for informed digression, and the fact that one of Kaufman's brothers was the Russian avant-garde director Dziga Vertov ("Man With a Movie Camera") leads to a mini-essay on him and his work.
The search for a star was equally problematic, and once Charlie Chaplin and Zero Mostel said no, the role went to Keaton, who, Brownlow says, was befuddled by the script but needed the money.
Though both Schneider and Beckett admired Keaton's work ethic, Beckett's take on the actor was that "he was inaccessible. He had a poker mind as well as a poker face," while Keaton allowed, after everything was finished, "It's one of those art things. I was confused when I shot it and am still confused."
One of the paradoxes of "Film's" collaborators is concisely summed up by actor James Karen, a friend of Keaton's who had a small role in "Film": "Here were two guys who never made a movie before working with a master moviemaker they never took into their confidence."
For all its gifted collaborators, "Film" was not a match made in heaven. But for moviegoers who care about film not just as a title, "Notfilm" can be unreservedly recommended.
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes; with the short "Film," 20 minutes