Watch Film, Samuel Beckett’s Only Movie, Starring Buster Keaton

Fresh off the inter­na­tion­al suc­cess of his play Wait­ing For Godot, Samuel Beck­ett made a film, called apt­ly enough Film. It came out in 1965 and proved to be the only motion pic­ture the soon-to-be Nobel Prize win­ner would ever make. As you might expect, it is enig­mat­ic, bleak­ly fun­ny and very, very odd. You can check it out above.

The 17-minute silent short is essen­tial­ly a chase movie between the cam­era and the main char­ac­ter O  — as in object. Film opens with O cow­er­ing from the gaze of a cou­ple he pass­es on the street. Mean­while, the cam­era looms just behind his head. At his stark, typ­i­cal­ly Beck­ettesque flat, O cov­ers the mir­ror, throws his cat and his chi­huahua out­side and even trash­es a pic­ture — the only piece of dec­o­ra­tion in the flat — that seems to be star­ing back at him. Yet try as he might, O ulti­mate­ly can’t quite evade being observed by the gaze of the cam­era.

Bar­ney Ros­set, edi­tor of Grove Press, com­mis­sioned the movie and reg­u­lar Beck­ett col­lab­o­ra­tor Alan Schnei­der was tapped to direct. As Schnei­der recalled, the first draft of the screen­play was unortho­dox.

The script appeared in the spring of 1963 as a fair­ly baf­fling when not down­right inscrutable six-page out­line. Along with pages of adden­da in Sam’s inim­itable infor­mal style: explana­to­ry notes, a philo­soph­i­cal sup­ple­ment, mod­est pro­duc­tion sug­ges­tions, a series of hand-drawn dia­grams.

It took almost a year of dis­cus­sion to bring the movie’s themes and sto­ry into focus.

For the lead char­ac­ter Beck­ett want­ed to hire Char­lie Chap­lin until he was informed by an offi­cious sec­re­tary that Chap­lin doesn’t read scripts. Beck­ett then sug­gest­ed Buster Keaton. The play­wright was a long­time fan of the silent film leg­end. Keaton was even offered the role of Lucky on the orig­i­nal Amer­i­can pro­duc­tion of Godot, though the actor declined. This time around, though, Keaton signed on, even if he could­n’t make heads or tales of the script.

And he was­n’t the only one. Ever since it came out, crit­ics have been puz­zling what Film is real­ly about. Is it a state­ment on voyeurism in cin­e­ma? On human con­scious­ness? On death? Beck­ett gave his take on the movie to the New York­er: “It’s a movie about the per­ceiv­ing eye, about the per­ceived and the per­ceiv­er — two aspects of the same man. The per­ceiv­er desires like mad to per­ceive and the per­ceived tries des­per­ate­ly to hide. Then, in the end, one wins.”

Keaton him­self defined the movie even more suc­cinct­ly, “A man may keep away from every­body but he can’t get away from him­self.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Samuel Beck­ett Speaks

Samuel Beck­ett Directs His Absur­dist Play Wait­ing for Godot (1985)

Rare Audio: Samuel Beck­ett Reads Two Poems From His Nov­el Watt

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

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Comments (5)
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  • Janet Vaughn says:

    hyp­not­ic and weird. I like the added music score–who did it? I believe as orig­i­nal­ly released it was com­plete­ly silent. Buster Keaton is a pro in this.

  • Jon Levin says:

    Who did the amaz­ing mod­ern sound­track? Oops, found the info on Vimeo: Davy G.R Bergi­er.

  • plug your ears says:

    Beck­ett would puke at the hideous sound­track. He was mak­ing a SILENT film, hence his use of Keaton. What nasty noise, what taste­less pre­sump­tion to slip sighs and grunts into Buster’s mouth, and inter­ject slips of cheesy elec­tron­ic anachro­nis­tic rock “music”! Can’t some­one sue this Bergi­er jack­off? Worse than a Dis­ney sound­track.

  • bayonne says:

    No author in his­to­ry val­ued silence more, or used it to greater artis­tic effect, than Beck­ett. To fill his movie with irri­tat­ing squeaky nois­es is worse than putting eye­brow pierc­ings on the Mona Lisa.nnThe whole theme of this work is silence. The only sound Beck­ett want­ed you to hear was the woman on the street shoosh­ing the man with the pince nez, telling him to be quiet.nnThis sound­track is a crime against Beck­ett, Keaton, Ros­sett, and every­one else involved.

  • pee says:

    Yess, the whole work sup­posed to be in silence except for the shhh! shame!

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