Playwright Samuel Beckett’s only foray into filmmaking, the aptly titled Film is a 1965 silent short starring the famed movie clown, Buster Keaton. Before anyone makes any assumptions, no, this is not a comedy that made Keaton famous during the golden age of silent cinema along with Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd. This is a short of a very different ilk as it is experimental by nature and unusually avant-garde for Keaton – but it isn’t for Beckett.
Beckett based his premise on research from the philosopher, George Berkeley, which is on vision itself and when translated, basically means “to be is to be perceived”. So when putting this theory into practice, Keaton plays the lead of “O”, the human “object” and attempts to evade the role of the camera labelled “E” at all costs, the all-seeing “eye” that watches him. Keaton constantly has his back turned to the camera throughout much of the short, he meets some strangers out on the rundown street before hightailing it back to an apartment for cover. The couple then gawk at him and just as the husband is about to say something, the wife shushes him, the only piece of audio found, there is no music, sound design or dialogue other than this, it is literally a silent short.
Film does have interesting ideas, but it is extremely flawed. Firstly, the idea of being watched by an all-seeing eye is disposable, not clichéd or lacking originality, but hollow and far too simple to be considered a philosophical debate, movies have pushed this concept, whether intentionally or unintentionally, from its origin with the Lumiere Brothers to the Soviet montage movement made clear by filmmakers such as Dziga Vertov and Sergei Eisenstein. So the message of Film becomes redundant by the first ten minutes. Secondly and unfortunately, this marked one of Keaton’s final performances before his death in 1966. And Beckett or director, Alan Schneider, sadly doesn’t bring out the best in him. Since his face is hidden throughout up until the last five minutes, one could not even recognize Keaton – he performs either hunched over, clambering against a wall or nervously rocking in his chair. The spectator needs that facial detail for the emotional attachment between them and the characters. Anyone could have filled out his role and it would still get the same results. And thirdly, considering that the premise came from an obscure quote from a philosopher who operated between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, isn’t this approach just a little pretentious? However, it is pretentious on an acceptable level considering it lasts for just under half-an-hour. It is an eerily made work since it has next to no sound. It is an intriguing experiment for those wanting something outside of the norm or fans of Beckett’s previous work.
Also featured on this BFI release is Ross Lipman’s 2015 kino-essay, Notfilm, a sort of making-of documentary behind Film, from pre-production to its initial release, all provided in analytical detail by Lipman’s dry narration. Notfilm boasts some interesting stories that occurred during production of Film such as critic, Leonard Maltin, convincing a friend to go meet Keaton after reading about the production in a local newspaper. But to understand Notfilm’s chief problem, one has to compare the runtime of both the main feature and the making-of in order to find it. As stated, Film runs at just under half-an-hour. Notfilm runs for about two hours and ten minutes. Whilst Lipman goes into wondrous amounts of detail, analysing Beckett’s work from top to bottom, an approach that would make Adam Curtis proud, the way he presents these facts both visually and audibly make it feel like such a trek to sit through, especially considering if someone falls outside the niche audience that the film is so obviously aiming for. Lipman brings up document after document on-screen for everyone to see, but it totally kills the pacing since it is just that glued together with Lipman’s voice-over for minutes on end. Any filmmaker could summarize this subject within an hour easily.
Speaking shortly after the production of Film wrapped up, several reporters interviewed Keaton about his time working with Beckett and Schneider. Keaton’s response was that he was completely clueless about what he was doing and what the work was about. And inevitably, this would also affect the outsiders looking in. Both Film and Notfilm are incredibly difficult to watch if there is no understanding of Beckett’s plays or Lipman’s previous documentaries. For the target audience, this BFI release comes with a healthy amount of bonus features such as a rare remake of Film by David Rayner Clark and a couple extended interviews from Notfilm. But as is, if this isn’t interesting you, then it’s advised to agree with Buster and nod your head and say yes.