FILM, BECKETT AND FAILURE

by Ted Sludds



The appearance in the last issue of Film West magazine, of an article devoted to Samuel Beckett’s only excursion into movie making, was a welcome sight. In typical Beckettian style, the film is simply entitled Film and centres on an old man who says nothing and rambles nervously from a street, to a house and then to a dingy room. The title role ‘O’ or object is played by Buster Keaton and we the audience play ‘E’, the camera eye which follows Keaton around for the twenty two minutes of the film’s duration. Beckett applies his usual precision to the project, writing a detailed script which was later published under the film’s title (which I won’t repeat as it gets confusing!). Though he didn’t formally direct the movie, Alan Schneider who was given the task, admitted that Beckett’s presence on the set (remarkably he bothered to travel to New York) was so powerful that he might as well have been.

The film was made in 1964, by which time Beckett was, of course, a huge success in the literary world. After Godot, Endgame, the novel trilogy, radio plays and a revival of his poetry, it seems, looking back, that a venture into film was almost inevitable. As Waugh and Daly point out in their article, Beckett had a long-time interest in movies, which stretched right back to his early college days. He was a fan, most particularly, of the silent movie genre and many of the actions and movements of ‘O’ seem to come from this first great period of cinema. The film’s central theme apparently owes its conception to another Irishman, George Berkeley, who is one of a very rare breed, a ‘famous’ Irish philosopher. It is at this point though, that matters can often become pompous, long-winded and downright pretentious, as commentators strive to reveal the true message that lies behind Beckett’s work. Like so many existential thinkers, his writings have become fair game for any number of interpretations that one wants to put on them. His notoriety is now such, that a fart or comma issues forth an automatic round of applause and a book of analysis explaining the deeper meaning behind flatulence and punctuation.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against a bit of in-depth analysis every now and again but when one reads of the amount of ‘meanings’ that are supposed to be present in Beckett’s every word, one becomes a bit sceptical. Resisting the urge to condemn out of hand I had another look at some interpretations. I opened, at random, two collections of essays on Beckett’s work, the titles alone told a sorry tale:

"Subjectivity as the Autogenous Cancellation of Its Own Manifestations", "Naming the M/inotaur", Moribunds in their courses". "Farrago of silence and words". My worst fears had been realised. I allowed myself a little cynicism. Is the idea behind such essays really to enlighten or is it the construction of a wall to protect the elite from the commoners who might roar "The king has no clothes!".

You see, even in such a magazine as Film West, I’d noticed from the article on Film, that a touch of elitism had crept in. Not that the piece was unduly wordy but it contained enough in it to suspect the writers of having too frequently indulged themselves in articles that use words like ‘farrago’ instead of mixture. But before I upset too many lexicographers and Beckett scholars, I’ll move on. Film is first and foremost a movie and as such it must work as a movie. It may have been intended to communicate a profound message but intention alone is not enough. For many the film is simply confusing, for others, such as Dilys Powell (the Sunday Times journalist) it is a "load of old bosh". The expression of "acute intentness" which Beckett hoped for from ‘O" at the end comes across more as the expression of a baffled and bemused actor. Keaton later admitted to having no notion of what Beckett was after and something of that confusion makes its way onto the screen.

A film needs to entertain before it can enlighten, it needs to win an audience over, to convince them that what has been produced is worth watching. Beckett’s Film, as with so many of his shorter plays and prose scrapes after about 1960, fails to infuse its audience with any degree of enthusiasm. Due to his rather heavy handed attempt to deliver a message, the profundity of ‘O’s’ silence becomes merely the shuffling of an unsettled audience and the fretful movements of an old man are watched dubiously by viewers who fail to understand why self-perception should be so terrifying. Despite all of this, I have to admit to being a fan of Beckett's but I am a bigger fan of common sense and gut reaction.

I’d like to say Film is a "masterpiece", as Waugh and Daly believe it to be, but it strikes me as being far more a poor attempt by a genuine writer to move into a medium that he simply hadn’t the flair or understanding of to make a success. Part of the blame may be laid at Schneider’s feet, but we should remember it was his first venture into movie making also. No doubt, Beckett learnt much from the experience and used that knowledge to greater effect in the seventies to make some excellent TV drama for the SDR (Suddeutscher Rundfunk). But in the end, of Film, we can only say that it fails to excite and fails to communicate at any real level. It is an uninspiring first effort into film making and not the "greatest Irish film" ever made as Gilles Deleuze has called it, however much we would like it to be.

FW 21