Film, written by Irish playwright and novelist Samuel Beckett, is one of the greatest American films of the 1960s. The nominal director is Alan Schneider, the stage director of Edward Albee plays, and it’s doubtful that he made the slightest artistic contribution to the film apart from the considerable one of suggesting the casting of the film’s star. One presumes that Beckett’s script prescribed each camera placement, each camera movement, and each piece of mise-en-scène. This is Beckett’s film from start to finish.
And Buster’s. In his penultimate film, which was released posthumously, Buster Keaton gives a marvelous performance as an old man in a tenement apartment, mutilating keepsake photographs and dodging the eyes of his puppy, kitten, parakeet and lone goldfish. In fact, Buster dodges everything in his uninviting place that resembles an eye, including the ornate design at the top of the back of his single piece of furniture, a rocking chair. Buster dodges even his own gaze, covering the wall mirror with a drape.
There is one eye, though, that poor, beleaguered Buster, despite his best efforts, can’t escape: that of the camera. He hides his face from it, too, throughout the film, but the camera dogs him and finally exposes his face to us. This causes Buster to cover his eyes in defeat.
The narrative, such as it is, is framed by closeups of an eye—Buster’s eye, down which a very heavy, wrinkled lid slowly closes. This closeup of an eye, which is the first thing we see in the film, signals the film’s experimental nature, with its allusion to the woman’s eye that, in closeup and intercut with the full moon beyond the veranda, is slit with a razor blade in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s surrealistic Un chien andalou (1928). At first, we might think that the eye we see is watching us; then we realize, when the lid lowers, that it is instead avoiding our gaze and the camera’s. In this film, we ourselves become the camera. It becomes our extension as we peer over Buster’s shoulder as he rocks hard in his rocking chair, examining old photographs of himself and family, and as we strain to see the face that will confirm what his signature porkpie hat suggests to us: that it’s Buster.
After the opening closeup of the eye, we are in the street as a small figure, all covered up, including his face, steals his way to the dilapidated apartment building where he lives. We cannot miss the allusion to Ivor Novello in Alfred Hitchcock’s silent The Lodger (1926)—this, a couple of years before Lindsay Anderson revived the image, by way of young Malcolm McDowell, in If . . . . (1968). (Novello, British actor and composer, would be one of the characters in Robert Altman’s 2001 Gosford Park.) Along the way, whoever-this-man-is bumps into a couple, whose faces express horror: horror at the secretive man, we presume at first, until we realize that the couple are reacting to their discovery by the camera, the same camera—us—from which the solitary man is attempting to hide. We are intrusive; there’s no getting away from us.
Inside the building, at the foot of the stairs, Buster hides from us and from the elderly woman who is descending the stairs carrying flowers. Our gaze—the camera’s gaze—shocks her heart, and she either faints to the floor or drops dead. If the latter is the case, the flowers are fortuitous; this may be the only funeral the poor woman gets. Stepping around his neighbor’s body, Buster steals up the stairs to enter his apartment.
Once he is inside the apartment, Buster’s ritual of hiding himself away begins. Although he unwraps his face, Buster keeps his back to us and the camera, replacing his hat on his now bare head. To keep out the gaze of the sun, he pulls down the window shade, which is more holes than shade: a sign of his losing battle. In a basket on the floor are Buster’s kitten and puppy—all eyes for their owner. He puts the kitten outside the door, but when he does the same thing with the puppy the kitten steals back in. When he puts the kitten back out again, the puppy steals back in. When he puts the puppy back out, the kitten steals back in. When he puts the kitten back out again, the puppy steals back in again. Finally, Buster succeeds in manipulating the animals and the door so that both pets are outside the apartment. Now his bird is looking at him. Buster covers the cage with his overcoat.
Beckett himself thus explained his protagonist: “He is in search of non-being, in flight from extraneous perception breaking down in the inescapability of self-perception.” Buster destroys his past-in-photographs in pursuit of this “non-being,” but there he is, in one of the film’s most sublime instances, facing a facsimile of himself—an allusion to a funereal moment in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr (1931). This occurs, of course, after the camera has circled the rocking chair to reveal Buster, sending a riff of recognition throughout our mind and senses. While we pursue the corroboration of our sense of our own reality by confirming the suspected identity of this soul in our midst, Buster is imaginatively moving in the opposite direction, getting down to his bare essentials, the reality he hopes to find divorced from what he has meant to us, his audience. In other words, he is preparing for death.
A few times throughout the film, the camera shows Buster checking his own pulse, as though which side of life he is on were a continual question. What Buster is pursuing, surely, only death can deliver; but Buster’s very busyness suggests he is as much withstanding death, and fearful of it, as he is inviting and preparing for it. At one and the same time, he is lonely in his aloneness but wedded to it existentially, hoping against hope to keep our attentions and our scrutiny out of his life. The camera follows him around and around in the confined space of his old, unadorned apartment, giving us the sense, by his agitated activity, that Buster is incapable of rest. He is as determined to flee us as we are to catch him. We, the camera, by perceiving him cause him to exist—for us, thereby confirming our own existence (implying the degree of self-doubt that requires this confirmation) by subordinating his existence to ours. Our perception of Buster intrudes on his existence, clouding the event of his self-perception. He exists for us; he needs to exist independent of us and of our gaze, no matter how adoring that gaze might be. Beckett’s theme is very much in keeping with the concern in the 1960s for self-determination—a concern regrettably sentimentalized in some quarters as a feckless pursuit of freedom for its own sake. Nevertheless, the claims and demands of life make perfect self-determination illusory. Only non-being can secure the end of our being determined by others.
One Irishman was drawing inspiration from another: in this case, the eighteenth-century philosopher and Anglican cleric George Berkeley, who famously theorized the principle Omne esse est percipi—To be is to be perceived. Beckett again: “The man who desires to cease to be must cease to be perceived. If being is being perceived, to cease being is to cease to be perceived.”
Jack MacGowran, the brilliant Irish stage actor whose last film performance, both wry and innocent, was as the Fool in Peter Brook’s King Lear (1971), was Beckett’s first choice for the role of the old man in Film, but he was committed to Roman Polanski’s Cul-de-sac (1966) and other projects, and Charlie Chaplin and Zero Mostel also proved unavailable. Schneider suggested Keaton, the perfect choice because Keaton’s concentration, as epitomized by that effortless stoneface of his, implies a lifelong pursuit of non-being. Although it wasn’t, the role might have been written with Keaton in mind.
Film, about twenty minutes long, is a silent film with but a single shhhhhhh to break the silence*—and even this one sound has been erased from the soundtrack of the current DVDs in the States. (Surely the single sound in this silent film alludes to Chris Marker’s 1962 La jetée, which consists of stills except for the opening of an eye.) The film is in black and white. The cinematographer is Boris Kaufman, whose other credits include Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934), Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (for which he won an Oscar; 1954), Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men (1957) and Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962), and Otto Preminger’s Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970). Kaufman is the brother of the great Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov, that is to say, Denis Kaufman.
* I see, or hear, this differently now. Buster’s one shhhhhhhh doesn’t break the silence, but, rather, by punctuating it, helps define the silence and make it vivid and most compelling for us.
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