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Samuel Beckett’s FILM

Editor’s Note: Gate Theatre Dublin will perform Samuel Beckett’s Watt and Endgame on October 27-29. Below, Akiva Gottlieb takes a closer look at Film, a film by Samuel Beckett.

Samuel Beckett’s Film.
The closing credits try to tell us that Film is “by Samuel Beckett,” but to make such a statement is to beg a series of questions. Did he direct it? No. Did he hold the camera? Well, no. Does he star? No, Buster Keaton does. So did Beckett write it? Let’s say yes, while keeping in mind that this twenty-minute silent film has no dialogue, only one audible “shhhh!”

Even if this provocative, entrancing experimental cinema curiosity (directed by Alan Schneider) didn’t bear Beckett’s imprimatur, it would be accused of bearing all the unmistakable hallmarks of his influence. It’s as moody and darkly elemental as Godot or Krapp’s Last Tape, but specifically developed for a medium outside Beckett’s comfort zone. An old man in a frayed coat rushes along nervously in a bleak, almost post-apocalyptic urban landscape—it’s a patch of Lower Manhattan in the summer of 1964, if you can believe it—evading the glare of passersby, animals, and most importantly, the camera itself. He holes up in a spare, unwelcoming room, covering his mirrors, removing a wall portrait, tearing family photographs in half, and shrinking from anything that even resembles an eye. He tries to get his dog and cat to leave the room, but they keep coming back in: this is the extent of Film’s physical comedy. Fifteen minutes into the film, the camera has still not shown us his face. “The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide,” Schneider said of the film. “Then, in the end, one wins.” I’ll let you find out which one.

The perversity of Beckett’s conceit is obvious. Buster Keaton’s impassive, haunted Great Stone Face is his comic calling card—of course the camera hungers for a glimpse. (Boris Kaufman, the cinematographer, also shot On the Waterfront and Jean Vigo’s Zero de Conduite. He was also the younger brother of Dziga Vertov.) Moreover, the fact that Keaton was decades past his silent-era prime, already suffering from the terminal illness that would take his life in 1966, lends the proceedings a morbid curiosity. The star-figure can be excused for wanting to escape our perception, but nevertheless, we need to know: What does an aged Buster Keaton look like?

Keaton seems the movie’s very reason for existence—and Beckett, a fan, had even offered him the role of Lucky in Godot’s American premiere a few years earlier—but Charlie Chaplin was apparently Beckett’s first choice for the role. When Barney Rosset, Beckett’s publisher, sent that aging star the screenplay (such as it was), he received only a secretary’s indifferent response: “Mr. Chaplin doesn’t read scripts.” As the story goes, Alan Schneider went to track down their second choice, and found the despondent, weary Keaton in the middle of an imaginary poker game with high-rolling (but invisible) companions. At the end of a career now largely given over to guest appearances and cameos, the 68-year-old Keaton said yes on the spot.

Remarkably enough, Beckett was present for the filming of his screenplay, marking the only time the author set foot in America. Canadian playwright Sherry MacDonald recently wrote an entire play, The Stone Face, about the interactions between Keaton and Beckett while making Film, and a short 1964 New Yorker piece by Jane Kramer, collected in The Fun of It: Stories From the Talk of the Town, neatly captures the existential implausibility of the historical moment. Beckett is last glimpsed “on the scaffolding, peering shyly and profoundly, and even a little inscrutably, down.” After a two-week visit, which took him to a Shea Stadium double-header, a weekend in the Hamptons, but never outside New York, he returned to France and never came back. Film was Beckett’s first film, and his only film.