Described by Samuel Beckett himself as an “interesting failure”, the 21-minute Film is the Nobel Prize winning playwright’s only work for cinema, an almost completely silent, black and white experimental short on the theme of perception and self. It’s now available from the BFI in a three-disc set which includes a crisp, remastered version of the 1965 film, plus a host of other extras for the Beckett enthusiast. It’s a very impressive set, but one with limited appeal beyond devotees of the playwright’s work or aficionados of abstract cinema.
Film is the story, such as it’s a story at all, of O (Buster Keaton), a man haunted by his aversion to being noticed. We begin on the street and follow O – literally follow; the camera remains behind Keaton at all times during the production – as he creeps close to the wall at the side of the road, making his way towards the small stark room wherein the rest of the film unfolds. What we are seeing is that childhood fear of somebody being right behind you and yet always out of vision, made flesh. Here the camera is O’s nemesis, and after he bundles a pair of strangers out of the way in his haste to escape the camera’s all-seeing eye, they too become the objects of its focus; their response to its gaze foreshadows the reaction O will have when he finally comes face to face with it in the film’s dying moments.
As an exercise in maintaining the purity between Keaton’s O (or rather, “I” as in “me”) and the camera’s lens (or rather “Eye”), Film compromises itself slightly in order to establish the denouement, a moment that is obvious in its inevitability yet still quite chilling when it arrives. Rayner Clark’s 1979 colour remake is less ascetic in its aesthetic; Beckett wasn’t involved in its production, whereas he’d been on set with Buster Keaton and director Schneider for the original. There is comedy in both, the ostentatious silent film ambience particularly of the original, plus the use of Keaton (and later Max Wall) lending itself to allowing a little fun into the expressionist environment that Beckett had been developing on the stage and would later fine-tune on television. The sequence involving the dog and cat (out-takes were saved and appear on the discs) is classic pre-talky movie fare.
Lipman’s 2015 NotFilm is on the other hand an elegy to both Beckett and his collaborators, and to the interface between silent movies and the unconventional artistry of the writer, and stands up as a work of art in its own right. The comprehensiveness of this set makes it an absolutely essential purchase, but not one for the uninitiated.
Special Features: The Street Scene reconstruction / The Dog and the Cat out-takes / “What if E’s Eyes Were Closed?” audio recordings / Buster Keaton and FILM / Memories of Samuel Beckett / Memories of Alan Schneider, Beckett and Godot / galleries / trailer / booklet
FILM / NOTFILM / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR: ALAN SCHNEIDER, DAVID RAYNER CLARK, ROSS LIPMAN / SCREENPLAY: SAMUEL BECKETT, ROSS LIPMAN / STARRING: BUSTER KEATON, MAX WALL / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW