Buster Keaton, the twentieth century’s greatest comic, and Samuel Beckett, its most naked and unillusioned writer, once collaborated on a short silent film, based on Beckett’s only film script. I hadn’t realised this till yesterday. Or maybe I did know at one time, but forgot long ago – a common enough Beckettian condition.
It was filmed in black and white in New York in July 1964 and shown at the Venice Film Festival in September 1965. It lasts seventeen minutes. Its title is Film. Which is a clue that you’re in for something fairly elemental.
It’s a distinctly odd production (Beckett called it ‘an interesting failure’). Partly because the American director, Alan Schneider, though an experienced theatre director – he was responsible for the American premiere of Waiting for Godot – was a novice in making films (as was Beckett). And partly because it’s not only set in an earlier time – ‘around 1929’, according to Beckett – but is also filmed in the style of the silent 1920s movie. This is apt, because the 1920s was the heyday of the film’s ‘star’, Buster Keaton.
Keaton was not Schneider’s first choice, who was Charlie Chaplin (surely inconceivable in retrospect), or even his second or third. But he was available, and agreed to take part. Beckett was an admirer of his classic silent films. But by now Keaton was 68 years old, broke, and ill – as it turned out, fatally. He seems to have been even more laconic than usual on set, but his figure, topped with his trademark flat, brimmed hat, injects a suitably comic element into what is otherwise a film of unremitting gravity. ‘Buster Keaton was inaccessible’, said Beckett in an interview, ‘he had a poker mind as well as a poker face. I doubt if he ever read the text – I don’t think he approved of it or liked it. But he agreed to do it and he was very competent … He had a head of granite… he never smiled. He thought we were all crazy. But then he was a seasoned professional in films and we were all amateurs.’
Film begins with a close-up of a human eye, which inevitably calls to mind the shocking beginning of Luis Buñuel’s film Un chien Andalou (1929) – though this eye blinks and there’s no razor in sight. It’s a rather obvious signal, like a spoken stage direction, that the eye of the camera is the other character in Film (it’s called ‘E’ in Beckett’s script). For the rest of the film it concentrates its gaze almost entirely on the Keaton character, named ‘O’ in the script. In the first scene it locks on to him as he scuttles furtively along the foot of a tall urban wall, then chases after him, as in a silent comedy of the 1920s. He wears a long coat and hat and conceals his face from view with a handkerchief or cloth. Part way along the wall he collides with a man and a woman, but ignores them and rushes on. They look after him, but when they notice E staring at them they react in alarm and astonishment. The camera catches up with O in the hallway of a block of flats. As he tries to hide and look inconspicuous an old woman descends the stairs with a basket of flowers, but collapses in horror when she sees E. O scurries upstairs and enters a flat (his own?). It’s a bare and impoverished room with pock-marked walls, ragged curtains over the only window, and a single wooden rocking chair (an article that had already appeared in Beckett’s novel Murphy (1938) and would again in Rockaby (1980)). The camera E follows him – O doesn’t reveal his face to it – as he extinguishes or conceals in turn each eye in the room that observes him: the window and a mirror are covered, a picture of a bearded man’s face hanging on a wall is removed and torn up, a chihuahua and a cat are shown the door, and cloths are placed over a budgerigar’s cage and a goldfish’s bowl.
Next O sits down in the rocking chair, still perturbed by the ‘eyes’ in a carved face in a finial on its back, and opens an envelope containing seven photographs of himself at various stages of his life, from baby to older man with eye-patch. He examines them, then tears each in turn into quarters. Finally E circles the room, ending directly opposite E., who wakes from a doze. O now confronts E directly – and to his horror sees that E is none other than the man with the eye-patch – his other self. Appalled, he covers his face with both hands and starts to rock. But soon the rocking ceases. The final image is another close-up of the open, then closed eye, before the film fades to black.
The epigraph of Beckett’s script is a quotation from the philosopher George Berkeley, ‘esse est percipi’ – to be is to be seen. Beckett gave this explanation:
It’s a movie about the perceiving eye, about the perceived and the perceiver – two aspects of the same man. The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide. Then, in the end, one wins.
O has three aims: to escape the attention of others, to escape himself, and to cease existing. If he has read his Berkeley he knows that if an object can be known to exist only if it is perceived, then if that same object can contrive to escape all perception of itself then it will not exist. His final horror in the rocking chair is the realisation that his mission is impossible. Not only does E, the camera, finally succeed in confronting him face-on as a seeing eye, it presents him not just with a lens but with an image of himself – almost the same image as the one he wears on his face, eye-patch and all. Escape from the self is impossible, short of a final fade to black. The ‘eye-patch image’ at the end is a terrifying vanishing point: into it collapse four elements: E the pursuing character, E the camera lens, O himself and ourselves the spectators.
Another realisation of O’s is that this is no illusion, but the naked truth, despite the possibility that the whole tale is a bad dream. The story has some of the features of a dream, especially repetition. O’s comic attempts to eject the dog and cat are thwarted several times: the first animal races past him back into the room as soon as he opens the door to throw the second one out. On several occasions O checks the pulse on his wrist to reassure himself of his living status. But in the end reality is inescapable.
An alternative way of viewing O’s story is as a deliberate attempt to strip away the external world in all its aspects, including the externalities of the self, leaving only the core, undefiled being. But Beckett harboured no more illusions about spiritual enlightenment and rebirth than he did about religion in general, and Keaton hardly approximates to any Buddhist adherent.
Though he’s in bad shape and maybe not wholly engaged in the film’s making, Keaton is still recognisably the figure he was in his great films of forty years earlier: inscrutable but ridiculous, lost and alone, pitiable but wholly without pathos. Once again all his efforts to succeed seem to come to naught. He seems in retrospect to be the only possible O actor.
The cinematography is similarly in-period, jerky and faux-naive. Behind the camera was Boris Kaufman. Unlike Beckett and Schneider he was no newcomer to film. In fact he began his cinematographic career in the late 1920s and was responsible for the two classic French films directed by Jean Vigo, Zéro de conduite and L’Atalante. His elder brother was none other than Dziga Vertov, the man behind the Soviet film Man with a movie camera (1929) – a film of which it might be said the camera is the main, or indeed the only, character.
Film hardly merits some of its harsher criticisms it has attracted – Dilys Powell called it ‘a load of old bosh’ and David Thomson ‘a turgid exercise’. It will never rank as a great movie, but on the other hand it is worthy of interest, if only for the unique pairing of two great artists who shared a common outlook on humanity and its fate.