Film by Samuel Beckett

by Katherine Waugh & Fergus Daly

"The greatest Irish film"
Gilles Deleuze


1995 marks the 30th anniversary of the première (at the New York Film Festival) of Film by Samuel Beckett. Although remade in Britain in 1979 for the B.F.I. this original version with it's remarkable assemblage of collaborators remains definitive. Few films in the history of cinema deserve renewed attention as much as this little known masterpiece. Ironically, one of the rare gestures made towards its existence within the Irish cultural scene of late was the (admittedly humorous) pastiche of the film in the video for the song 'Glen Campbell nights' by the band 'Bawl'. Despite the recent frenzy of self-satisfied pronouncements regarding the renaissance within Irish cinema, there is little sign of any serious work being created with a similar experimental quality to Beckett's project, which the philosopher and film-theorist Gilles Deleuze has called "the greatest Irish film." Indeed its importance is magnified by the very fact that it is one of the few Irish films of any note which attempts to explore a uniquely Irish intellectual tradition. The problematic which Beckett establishes in the script (which he intended to be read in conjunction with the viewing of the film) is that of the 18th Century Irish philosopher Berkeley: "Esse est percipi" ("to be is to be perceived") or to quote Berkeley in his more detailed formulation "all those bodies which compose the mighty frame of the world have not any subsistence without a mind - that their being is to be perceived or known." Beckett's cinematic venture can therefore be contrasted with the glut of 'home produced' films which, although fulfilling all the criteria necessary to receive the 'Guaranteed Irish' stamp of approval, tend to reproduce the clichéd forms of a Hollywood production rather than attempting to enquire into the history of Irish conceptual peculiarities which resonate through the various media of our present cultural life. Hence, even though it was filmed in America with an American cast and crew, Beckett's film can be seen to deserve the tribute paid to it by Deleuze which emphasises the specifically Irish aspect of its greatness. For Deleuze the entire film is "the tale of Berkeley who has had enough of being perceived and of perceiving. The role, which could only have been taken by Buster Keaton, is that of Berkeley, or rather it is the passage from one Irishman to another, from Berkeley who perceived and was perceived to Beckett who has exhausted all of the 'happinesses of the perceiver and the perceived'."

This film, shot in black and white and lasting 22 minutes, was directed by Alan Schneider under the personal supervision of Beckett whose commitment to the project was demonstrated by his decision to travel to New York and be present throughout the shooting - an effort he was never prepared to make in relation to any of his theatre works, almost all of which Schneider had premièred for him in America. Schneider later speculated as to whether the opportunity to work directly with Buster Keaton had motivated Beckett's unusual decision to travel. It has even been suggested that the inspiration for Waiting for Godot might have come from a minor Keaton film called The Loveable Cheat in which Keaton plays a man who waits endlessly for the return of his partner - whose name interestingly enough was Godot. Beckett's respect for and fascination with the rudimentary silent film and the burlesque tradition of which Keaton was a part (and which undoubtedly had a major influence on many of his dramatic works other than 'Godot') must have contributed to his decision to make his film a silent one. The sole sound present in the film is a sibilant 'ssh' which is heard early on in the work. It is fascinating that the cinematographer chosen for Film was Boris Kaufman, brother of Dziga Vertov (whose original name was Denis Kaufman), a fact which must have added to his value in Beckett's eyes given the writer's well-known preoccupation with the great Russian silent film-makers. Kaufman was the cameraman who had worked on many French silent films prior to his collaboration with Jean Vigo on L'Atalante and who later worked in America with directors such as Kazan (On the Waterfront) and Lumet. The French critic Jean-Claude Biette has stressed the influence of Vertov on Kaufman, especially in his development of a specific lighting technique which in exteriors has the effect of condensing surfaces - for example his known predilection for filming walls and buildings in an expressionistic manner - and in interiors finds its form in a narrowness and verticality which has the effect of heightening the intensities which work on the body in a confined space. Certainly, Kaufman's stylistic techniques contributed greatly to the overall look of Beckett's film. Others have commented on the influence of the Surrealist film-makers, particularly Bunuel and Dali, on Beckett's cinematic imagination and significantly Beckett sets his film in the year 1929, the year Un Chien Andalou was made (and of course the first year of the sound film). In addition the film opens and closes with close-ups of a sightless eye which would seem to refer to the notorious opening sequence of Un Chien Andalou in which a human eye is sliced open with a razor blade. In fact 'Eye' was Beckett's original title for Film.

In Film Buster Keaton plays a character who in Beckett's words is "in search of non-being, in flight from extraneous perception breaking down in the inescapability of self-perception." Beckett explains in his script that he has sundered his character in two: the character played by Keaton is called 'O' or the object who throughout the film is pursued by the subject 'E' or the 'camera-eye'. As long as the camera or 'E' stays behind Keaton (O), 'O' will avoid being perceived. The camera is designated, in Beckett's phrase, an "angle of immunity" of 45 degrees which it must not exceed at the risk of causing 'O' to experience the "anguish of perceivedness."

The film is divided into three parts moving from the street to a stairway and culminating in a room. Following the opening shot of the eye, we see Keaton rushing forward and following a horizontal path along a large wall, all the time desperately trying to avoid being seen by the camera. He jostles with passers-by who look at him in bewilderment and then at 'E' the camera with horror. 'O' then encounters an old woman in the film's first 'interior'; she collapses to the ground on seeing 'O' and again looks at 'E' in horror. The final section of the film is set in a run-down room. When 'O' enters the room he systematically expels all that is thought to represent 'extraneous perception'. After repeated attempts he manages to remove a cat and a dog from the room in a sequence reminiscent of many of the early slapstick Keaton films. (Keaton in fact wanted to heighten this slapstick element in the film by inserting an old gag of his whereby a pencil would be pared until it disappeared - Schneider rejected this idea). 'O' next closes the curtains, covers a mirror, a parrot in its cage and a fish in its bowl. He tears a print of 'God the Father' from the wall, and even appears nervous in the face of a headrest which seems to be perceiving him. Finally he settles in a rocking chair and removes photographs from a folder, inspects them (they appear to show scenes from his early childhood right through to adulthood) and proceeds to tear them into pieces. He closes his eyes and begins to rock. This enables the camera to take advantage of his lapse of consciousness and to exceed all previously limiting angles. The character 'O' is for the first time seen from the front and in a reverse-angle shot 'E' is revealed to be 'O's double: Beckett offers us a visualisation of self-perception. We see the same face, Keaton's with a patch over one eye, but with differing facial expressions - 'O's being one of anguish, 'E's one of acute intentness. 'O' closes his eyes and the rocking of the chair subsides. In Beckett's words, it is not "until the end of the film that the pursuing perceiver is not extraneous but the self." Self-perception is unavoidable.

It is important to understand that Beckett's attempt to investigate the perceptual referentiality of cinema as an art form differs quite markedly from the attempts of other film-makers to deal with problems of perception as encountered in this medium. At a time (broadly speaking the '50's and '60's) when directors such as Hitchcock with Rear Window, Michael Powell with Peeping Tom and Antonioni with Blow-Up were all incorporating explorations of the problems of spectatorship/voyeurism into the very structure of their films, and the American avant-garde (through Brakhage, Belson, Snow etc.) was drawing attention to the very materiality of the cinematic process (the frame, screen, projector, grain patterns, the pellicular essence of the medium) Beckett chose a radically different perspective. To appreciate the depth of the cinematic problematic Beckett confronts us with, it is essential to take into account the extent of his immersion in the history of philosophy and in particular in the paradoxes and impasses of 17th and 18th Century European epistemology. Various works of his emphasise the writings of some philosophers over others; Descartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz in Murphy, Locke in Malone Dies, Leibniz again in How It Is, Berkeley and Hume in Watt. Beckett in effect creates his own Burlesque theatre of philosophers in which the intellectual problems which they formulate are presented through his characters often playful gambits. His revival of Berkeley in Film sees him turning to the cinema for solutions to some of the problems of perception which no other medium was perhaps capable of providing him with. It is interesting to note that at roughly the same time other novelists such as Robbe-Grillet and Duras followed a similar route.

In a forthcoming study on Leibniz and Neo-baroque Literature, which is ground-breaking in many respects, Garin Dowd offers clues as to how Film forms part of a whole series of works in the Beckettian oeuvre which are similarly structured. "In Beckett projects are usually subject to an unfaltering errancy: a project is painstakingly pursued until such point as the subject, although 'going on' (as at the close of the The Unnameable) finds all teleology linking it to it's object (the project) broken down. Such fugal projects are those of waiting in Godot, fabulation in Company, rememberance in Krapps Last Tape, inventory in Malone Dies, work in Watt, and death in The Lost Ones." 'O's flight from perception which breaks down in the face of the inevitability of self-perception extends this series.

Ironically, this series might never have been initiated if one of Beckett's own personal projects hadn't also broken down. In 1936 Beckett, at an impasse in relation to his literary endeavours, became smitten with the idea of changing the direction of his life and becoming a film-maker. In that year he wrote to Eisenstein but we have conflicting versions of the contents of and desires expressed in this letter. Whereas his biographer Deirdre Bair claims that Beckett offered to work as an unpaid apprentice to Eisenstein doing whatever he wanted him to do, it is now generally accepted (through the confirmation of the leading Eisenstein scholar Jay Leyda) that Beckett in fact wrote to Eisenstein of his wish to study at the Moscow State School of Cinematography. Unfortunately for the cinema, but providentially for literature, Eisenstein never got to see the letter. It had been a bad year for Eisenstein, mostly due to the fact that the production of his film Bezhin Meadow had to be stopped due to an outbreak of smallpox. The confusion which ensued as Eisenstein, forced into quarantine, began to doubt his original script and desperately tried to rewrite it meant that during the upheaval Beckett's letter was lost.

It is extraordinary that Beckett could have reached a position whereby he actually considered such a plan. It is also interesting to speculate upon what might have influenced such a decision. Whereas Bair claims that Beckett read books by Pudovkin, Arnheim and Eisenstein whilst in Paris in the early '30's and that he in fact contacted Pudovkin when he failed to get a response from Eisenstein, the most that can be said is that, in terms of books on film-making which might have been in print, Pudovkin's book 'Film Technique' would have been widely available in Paris and more than likely would have been read by Beckett because of his passionate interest in the cinema at that time. Moreover one has the impression that traces of Pudovkin's theory and practice of film-making made their way into Beckett's own film, especially the Russian's belief that inanimate objects when related to the human character in a film and shot in a specific way could be as photogenic and resonant with meaning as human faces. Hence one might find Pudovkin's influence in those shots in Film in which 'O' perceives faces or the human gaze in inanimate objects. But of course Eisenstein echoes these ideas in his essay 'Dickens, Griffith and the Film Today' where he repeats Dicken's observation "even the kettle watches me."

But whatever sources Beckett may have drawn upon in conceiving his film - from the philosophy of Berkeley through to the Burlesque and on to those films and theorists we have mentioned - the work succeeds in creating that singularly Beckettian universe which is so recognisable from his plays and novels. For this reason, in a year in which the 100th anniversary of the cinema is being celebrated, and having just commemorated the 5th anniversary of Beckett's death, it would be fitting if his film could be re-viewed in a way which might lead to it attaining to the stature of his highly acclaimed written work.

Katherine Waugh and Fergus Daly

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