Film: Beckett Meets Keaton

55 years ago today (January 8, 1966) saw the U.S. premiere of Samuel Beckett’s Film starring Buster Keaton.

Film is one of those projects that is known and discussed by more people than have actually seen it, due to the notoriety of the concept and the circumstances. A populist Hollywood comedian starring in an art film scripted by one of the 20th century’s most challenging writers. It has (almost) NO slapstick. And yet it is also notable for its very RIGHTNESS. Both artists are known for being formal perfectionists, airless, anal minimalists. Thereby lies the disappointment.

I’ve seen Film a couple of times over the years (it’s not the sort of thing one wants to watch a LOT) and to my mind the weak link is the one no one ever talks about, the actual director of the film, Alan Schneider. And when he is mentioned, it is often unfairly. So first let us do him justice by putting him in context. Beckett selected Schneider for a reason. Schneider had directed the American premiere of Waiting for Godot at the Coconut Grove Playhouse, and had also directed the world premieres of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, and Tiny Alice, as well as the U.S. premiere of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr. Sloane. After Film, he went on to direct the world premieres of Albee’s Malcolm, A Delicate Balance, Box/ Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, and The Lady from Dubuque; the world premier of Tennessee Williams’ Slapstick Tragedy (comprised of the one acts The Mutilated and The Gnadiges Fraulein); the American premiere of Harold Pinter’s The Birthday Party, and the Broadway premieres of Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape (on a bill with Albee’s The Zoo Story) and Happy Days. This is…how should I put it? This is short-list, desert island theatre. Historic productions. Schneider obviously specialized in major, world-class presentations of experimental theatre with an absurdist bent at a time when that was the absolute cutting edge. And this is only some of it.

So he wasn’t a slouch. But he also wasn’t a filmmaker. And this is what lies at the crux of what’s wrong with it, I think. Comissioned by Grove Press, there is a literary bias to it, giving short shrift to the visual element. This was during an era, I grant you, when there was a LOT of experimental cinema and theatre being made that was aesthetically anarchistic. There was a lot of turning on a camera and letting it roll to capture…shall we say, inactive events? Naturally, nothingness is Beckett’s jam, and in a certain way, it’s also Keaton’s. BUT. In the cases of both artists, there is a tight, tight lockdown on what is expressed. Of what is in the picture. Beckett later worked in television, btw, and took a much stronger hand, and his video work does not suffer as this film does from a certain visual flacidness. I don’t know how to put it other than that. The shot compositions are LOOSE. They ought to be strictly, rigidly composed within an inch of their life. I think some of this is owing to Keaton’s advanced age, and the limited time the artists had to work on the film. Old Buster is somewhat unsteady and tired and vague where the younger version of himself would have been a precise machine. And there was surely no time to get every shot “just right”…and hence it is not “just right” (as it might have been with either Beckett or Keaton at the helm, not that they would have been or could have been).

Honestly, if you’re the sort of person who has complaints about the existential CONTENT of the film, we’re at cross-purposes here. I put Beckett on a very short list of the 20th century’s greatest literary minds, and I find the film intriguing (or at least, as he himself called it, “interesting”). I’d rather be watching this than Avengers XL: Men in Tights or whatever the hell is passing for “cinema” these days. My criticism is simply that the realization of the product is not up to the standards of the artists involved. It’s on Youtube, by the way. Like most of Beckett’s work it’s a contemplation of memory, and, aging, and death. Probably not the worst thing to do for yourself today: contemplate the eternal verities and weigh them against the follies of the moment.

For over 50 more posts about the films and other work of Buster Keaton go here.