Friday, July 10, 2020


First off, I’d like to thank Marcus for letting me guest post again. This time around I proposed that he and I collaborate, I’ll provide the words, he’s got the side-by-sides. I hope you enjoy it:

When I was a burgeoning cinephile, my first ever resource was the 1996 Edition of the Time Out Film Guide. I hardly had access to movies, but discovering films through these pithy capsule reviews, underscoring the titles, gave me prospective films to look forward to seeing, I made my first endless watchlist. One of the best features of the guide was its index that re-sorted the films into subgenres, a couple of my favorites were “Urban Nightmares” and “Experimental”. It was in the latter where I found out about this underground Buster Keaton film, with a self-reflexive and elemental title like Film, and it was purported to be the vision of Samuel Beckett, whom I had no idea who he was. I eventually learned about Beckett, and read his prose, which I ended up preferring over his plays which made his name. Film was difficult to find, so my first experience of it was reading Beckett’s very detailed screenplay. I eventually was able to get a copy of Five Minutes to Live DVD (cinephiles in the early 2000s would be familiar with this label, they also released The Dirk Diggler Story), which looked like a terrible third generation vhs dub, but it allowed me to finally see this hidden gem.

Beckett didn’t decide overnight to try his hand at writing a screenplay, long before he had success in the world of literature and theatre, he had expressed interest in attending film school, and this is evident in the application letter he wrote to Sergei Eisenstein below:

Beckett was known for precision, something he had complete control over in language, which translates well enough in theater, which, for the most part, has control over its setting. But this could not be accomplished completely in Film, it’s exactly the flaws that make it fascinating.

So let’s break down his screenplay. It is not written like a screenplay or a scenario, more like a treatment or outline. It contained very detailed instructions, down to the diagrams of the action and camera placement. Physics and Geometry play an integral part in the piece, leaning on Keaton’s physicality and the way the camera films him. Beckett’s placement of the camera has more purpose than most filmmakers working today.

Beckett works with the idea of “self-pereceivedness”, that Keaton is one character, O, the Object, and the camera, E, the Eye, being the other character. E always views O through a 45 degree angle from behind O, his right side. Every time, E goes even slightly past this “angle of immunity”, it threatens the imbalance. O traverse through three different spaces, not wanting to be perceived.
This rule is only broken when we occasionally see O’s perspective through the distortion of a cloth, blurry lens obstructed by an object too close.
They got Boris Kaufman (who was Jean Vigo’s cameraman, and also shot On The Waterfront and 12 Angry Men) to be the DP, ensuring that Beckett’s precise camera directions were followed, and not a shot or movement was wasted.

Wouldn’t be intriguing to put this side-by-side with Keaton’s own distinct visual style: it was always a conscious decision to shoot and frame him in long shot, rarely ever getting close.

A young Buster Keaton in One Week (above) vs. an older Buster Keaton in Film (below)

Despite being relatively obscure until recently, it seems that Film’s DNA can be found in subsequent films. I am a believer in Jung’s Collective Unconscious, except when it comes to stand up comedy—fuck all y’all joke stealers. It’s hard to imagine what kind of release Film had in 1965—was it screened on its own? Or did it accompany a feature? It makes one wonder if David Lynch had possibly seen it while attending AFI, as the opening scene of Film with O traversing an industrial landscape, stumbling, evokes Eraserhead, when Henry staggers around a similar landscape—and steps into a puddle. And even O’s look with his hat and a handkerchief underneath it, obscuring his face—recalls Merrick in The Elephant Man.

Film /
The Elephant Man

Film / Eraserhead

It also reminded me of the post opening credit scene in Dead Man when William Blake enters the town of Machine, his shock at seeing the blow job out on the street, and a gun being pointed at him, is similar to the shock expressed by the couple that O encounters at the end of the street.

Film /
Dead Man

Film /
Dead Man

The first part of the film was compromised, it was supposed to be a busier street scene with extras bustling, and the couple O encounters at the end of the scene was supposed to have a monkey with them (!). It was Beckett’s realization that film had a lot more compromise compared to Theater, but according to director Alan Schneider, Beckett was open to the changes.

But compromises didn’t begin with the opening, it started with the casting. Beckett originally wanted Chaplin, not Keaton. Beckett had written many of his tramp characters, like Vladimir and Estragon, inspired by Chaplin. I certainly feel Film carries more weight with Keaton, his face cragged, having gone through the wringer in the sound era, living most of his life thinking that all his silent work had been destroyed for its silver elements. He didn’t get what Beckett was trying to do, yet his performance is integral. I’ve always been more partial to Keaton because of the lack of sentimentality, with gags coming from the narrative rather than basing a narrative around gags. There was beautiful imperfection in Keaton’s films because he has so few chances to get it right.

Save for one surprising (and ironic) moment of a character saying “Sssssh”, the entire 22 minute film (about the length of an old Keaton two-reeler) is completely silent (no musical accompaniment, no sound effects). It’s premise is simple enough, but it’s the fact that it is without words, you left to figure it out as the film moves on. Another filmmaker known for making completely soundless films was Stan Brakhage, and he said that you’re actually able to see more without sound. Maya Deren’s At Land intentionally came with no accompanying score. One of my all time favorite filmmakers, Peter Hutton also made films without sound.

Another Maya Deren connection: Film / Meshes Of The Afternoon

Beckett himself was no stranger to wordlessness, 3 short plays: Act Without Words I&II and Breath (to the point where it didn’t even have characters).

Look, I get it, watching Film in complete silence might be challenging, but think about the other activities you do in your day to day in silence. I browse the web in silence, how about you, are you reading this in silence? You have more quiet moments in your life than you imagine.
I remember the first time I ever saw Man with a Movie Camera at Anthology and it had no accompanying score, it creates a 4’33” effect, wherein incidental sounds outside of the screen become part of the experience. I’ve had similar experiences watching the films of Peter Hutton.
It’s gotten to the point that I frequently mute scores on DVDs of silent films, finding most the scores grating. One of my more recent whims has been to put on a record to match the silent film, I’ve found Alessandro Cortini’s Risveglio and Sonno to be quite effective.

So if you can’t imagine sitting in silence for 22 minutes watching Film, I would recommend playing Mogwai’s My Father My King alongside it, if you time the start of the Mogwai track after the opening credits, it aligns nicely.

Following behind a character, seeing the back of their head, has been a common shot in cinema, in fact, in 2017 it became de rigueur in World Cinema, but rarely has it been done with as much purpose as in Film. Hal Hartley also used it to great effect in Flirt, when Bill Sage is retelling an encounter with a married woman.

Film /

The Hartley connection goes beyond the visual. He has expressed admiration for Beckett in interviews, saying he felt a kinship in the work being about “the word”. Graham Fuller, interviewing Hartley as a preface to his published screenplays for Simple Men and Trust, made the comparison to Keaton, both in the precise framing (Hartley apparently shot all of Simple Men with a 50mm lens, which gave the film a consistent look with almost all the shots being medium-range), the deadpan humor, but more importantly, the lack of sentimentality, that Hartley’s characters express self-abnegation rather than pity.

O’s journey leads us to a room, that bare room where he rids himself of reflections of his existence. I imagine this approximates what Keaton must’ve felt, like his existence was erased when a studio head told him his silent films were melted down for their silver elements.

I’ve always been predisposed to characters who find themselves alone or in isolation, Lisandro Alonso has practically made a career on films about this, but it’s his first three, the trilogy of La Libertad, Los Muertos, and Fantasma. We are witnesses to evidence of these characters' existence being filmed, and an awareness of this (in the now deleted ending of La Libertad) and in the entirety of Fantasma.

Film /

Another thing that fascinates me about Film is that it’s Beckett and Keaton meeting at a crossroads of their careers. This was when Beckett’s work really to get interesting for me, he had just published the English translation of How It Is around this time, and in prose he really begins to narrow down his work to voices in closed spaces, narratives whittled down to their very essence, a voice telling a story that may or may not have happened.
Despite making a posthumous appearance in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, I consider Film to be Keaton’s final performance, the same way I consider Love Streams to be Cassavetes’ last film, not Big Trouble. Keaton passed away a year after Film was released, and we get a sense that the character O is dying, too. Film culminates with a look directly into the camera (E), expressing “The agony of perceivedness”, the same look that the couple in the street and and the lady in the staircase had.

And with Keaton’s passing it was the end of an era: black and white was becoming rarer in the 60s, and Film could be considered the last silent film.

There is a note at the beginning of Beckett’s screenplay which states that “no attempt has been made to bring into line with the finished work.”, but who would even attempt it today? Film could never be remade with the same circumstances, it will just feel like a cheap pastiche or homage. Probably only Guy Maddin could get close, but who could he cast who would have the same weight and magnitude as Keaton?

Beckett is now rightfully credited as director on imdb, even if he isn’t in the restored version’s credits. His screenplay is directing, Alan Schneider was the intermediary. Ultimately, Beckett was gracious with the result, stating that Film acquired "a dimension and validity of its own that are worth far more than any merely efficient translation of intention."


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