Critchley on Samuel Beckett's Film

British philosopher discusses Beckett's only motion picture
Buster Keaton stars in Samuel Beckett's 'Film'

British philosopher Simon Critchley takes a closer look at Samuel Beckett's Film:
Samuel Beckett wrote just once for the cinema. Film was written in 1963 and first shown publicly in 1965, forty years ago (Beckett 1986, 321-334). Film was shot in New York in 1964, with the opening external shots in Lower Manhattan close to Brooklyn Bridge and the rest in Greenwich Village, and it was the occasion of Beckett’s one and only trip to the United States. The movie was the idea of Barney Rosset, Beckett’s New York publisher and legendary editor of the Grove Press in its long heyday from the 1950s to the 70s. Film was the movie debut of Alan Schneider, Beckett’s most trusted, long-serving and long-suffering theatre director in the United States. It stars Buster Keaton in his one of his last movie appearances – he made several B-movie beach movies before his death in February 1966. Beckett said of Keaton that ‘he had a poker mind as well as a poker face’ and their relationship did not get off to a good start. Schneider tells a story of their first meeting in Keaton’s hotel room, where Beckett awkwardly tried to engage in conversation with Keaton while the latter replied in monosyllables, drank a beer and watched the baseball game on TV. Beckett was a huge sports fan and considerable sportsman himself – the only winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature to be mentioned in Wisden’s Cricketers’ Almanack, playing first-class cricket for Trinity College Dublin – and went to see the New York Mets at Shea Stadium during his trip to New York and apparently thoroughly enjoyed the game. A little sadly perhaps, Keaton was the fourth choice for the role, behind Charlie Chaplin, Jack MacGowran and Zero Mostel. That said, Keaton is excellently cast and his entire physical presence, in particular the extraordinary face with which the movie finishes, seems to carry the entire tragi-comedy of Film. Ask yourself: what is sadder than the face of an aging comedian? We somehow expect a comic’s face to be eternally frozen in their glory days; think of the late movies of Laurel and Hardy or The Marx Brothers, where youthful elasticity and energy has given way to wrinkles and clichéd, plodding self-parody. [...]
Samuel Beckett stands on the set of 'Film'
There is something oddly and deliberately anachronistic about the period in which Film is set. Beckett laconically and typically remarks, ‘Period: about 1929. Early summer morning’(Beckett, 1986, p.324). What exactly does ‘about 1929’ mean? This is a typical Beckettian elision. Let’s not forget that 1929 was quite a year, with the first presentation of the Academy Awards (Keaton’s 1929 movie, which didn’t win any prizes, was ‘Spite Marriage’), and in October there was a little something down the road from the setting of Film called the Wall Street Crash. Yet, as readers of Beckett will know, many of his novels and plays are set in a comically unreal period between the wars, a world full of bicycles, bowler hats, dark suits, and whimsically anachronistic technology. The other salient feature about the period in which Film is set is that it is silent; well, almost silent apart from a ‘sssh’ in the opening scene. In the original project for Film, Beckett notes, ‘Climate of Film comic and unreal’; and he adds that the Keaton character, ‘should invite laughter throughout by his way of moving’. Is Film funny? It is certainly not very funny and one does not exactly fall about laughing watching it. As one of Beckett’s characters in the Trilogy remarks, ‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness, I’ll grant you that’. We would do well to keep those words in mind as we watch Film. [Read the essay]

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