Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Film by Samuel Beckett (1965)

Berkeley, G., Beckett, S., Keaton, B., Schneider, A.,
Rosset, B., Evergreen Theatre, Inc., & Applause Video Productions. (1997).
Film. New York, NY: Applause.

Samuel Beckett's only venture into the medium of the cinema, it was written in 1963 and filmed in New York in the summer of 1964, directed by Alan Schneider and featuring Buster Keaton. For the shooting Mr. Beckett made his only trip to America. The film, which has no dialogue, takes as its basis [Bishop George] Berkeley's theory Esse est percipi, that "to be is to be perceived": even after all outside perception—be it animal, human, or divine—has been suppressed self perception remains. Film has been awarded many prizes including the Film Critics Prize at the 1965 Venice Film Festival, the Special Jury Prize at the 1966 Tours (France) Festival, and the Special Prize at the Oberhausen (Germany) Festival in 1966. Film was edited by Sydney Meyers and the cinematography was by Boris Kaufman, both of whom were preeminent in their fields. Film was produced by Barney Rosset and Evergreen Theatre.

(From the VHS box description)
Many thanks to Frank Wilson at Books, Inq. for linking a post by Mark Bowles at the blog Piccolo. In a recent book acquisition, Mr. Bowles found a 1964 New York Times article about Buster Keaton working with Samuel Beckett on a film. Knowing nothing about this collaboration I began poking around and found there is a ton of information (or would be a ton if the webpages were printed) on Film. I'll limit myself on the links:
  • Tin House's Web Extra: Barney Rosset on Beckett’s Film (the movie's producer talks about the making of Film)
  • The Wikipedia entry, which contains several interesting links. One of the listed UbuWeb links shows the film was removed due to copyright issues. There are versions of the film available for viewing at other video hosting sites, though.
  • Life magazine's August 14, 1964 issue, containing an article and pictures during the filming of the movie

Picture source

Beckett's own description of the film (from the Tin House link):

It’s about a man trying to escape from perception of all kinds, from all perceivers, even divine perceivers. There is a picture [on the wall] which he pulls down. But he can’t escape from self-perception. It is an idea from Bishop Berkeley, the Irish philosopher and idealist: “To be is to be perceived”, “Esse est percipi.” The man who desires to cease to be must cease to be perceived. If being is being perceived, to cease being is to cease to be perceived.

After watching it, my initial response was "Well, that was different," falling into the camp preferring the written version to the movie. R.C. Lamont's quote on the Wikipedia page may seem tongue in cheek (If Beckett were Shakespeare he might well have written: “To be seen or not to be seen, that is the question”), but it captures a large part of the movie and is consistent with Beckett's paring down of Shakespeare in his plays. As an aside, I wonder if some of the appeal of a silent movie for Beckett was not having to choose a language for the dialogue.

I warmed to the film a little bit during the second viewing, coming close to director Alan Schneider's feelings about it (also at the Tin House link):

“I was once told that the British director Peter Brook had seen it and said that half of it was a failure and the other half a success. I’m inclined to agree with him, although I’m not sure we’d both pick the same half. In fact, I change my mind about which half I like every time I see it.”

I would guess the appeal will be mainly for film students, fans of Keaton, or admirers of Beckett (especially since there are several touches that appear in some of his plays). My appreciation of Keaton's performance and some of the technical aspects increased with additional viewings. It helps that some ambiguities (and only some) are cleared up on repeated viewings. I would say my main complaint is that a movie (or play, or book) of ideas can be very uneven in its execution. Even with those caveats, it is an interesting way to spend twenty minutes—guardedly recommended.

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