The meeting of minds between Buster Keaton and Samuel Beckett might have been one of the greatest in performing-arts history if their minds had actually met. In July 1964, the silent-comedy legend arrived in New York City to spend three weeks shooting an avant-garde short from a script by the lionized Irish playwright. Beckett was strongly influenced by the great clowns—Vladimir and Estragon, the eternally patient protagonists of Waiting for Godot, are nothing but a pair of baggy-pants comedians—and while the play was first being staged in Paris, Beckett got to see Keaton perform at the Cirque Medrano. Both men pondered the inescapable joke of existence, one trading in the low art of slapstick, the other in the high art of avant-garde poetry. But Keaton was only a hired hand on Film, which is better remembered now for the oddness of the men’s pairing than for its artistic merit.
This weekend director and film archivist Ross Lipman will appear at University of Chicago and the Music Box for screenings of his fascinating video essay Notfilm, which exhaustively documents the conception, realization, and public reception of Film. As a documentary, it could use a tighter edit and a more generous music score, but as a research project, it’s impressive. Lipman has gotten his hands on audiotapes secretly recorded by the film’s producer, Barney Rosset, in which he, Beckett, director Alan Schneider, and cinematographer Boris Kaufman debate how Beckett’s abstract ideas can best be visualized onscreen. Drawing on such varied witnesses as actress Billie Whitelaw, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, filmmaker Kevin Brownlow, and critic Leonard Maltin, Lipman provides vivid portaits of the production personnel who struggled to accommodate Beckett’s rigid vision, and of Keaton, who stubbornly claimed not to understand the story but did more to make it work than anyone else.
Mutual shyness couldn’t have helped matters. Beckett was notoriously reclusive, unhappy to be photographed and unwilling to be recorded or filmed. In fact Film was his attempt to work through a growing preoccupation with the human eye and its object—identified in the script as E and O. The camera would be E, and Keaton would be O, desperate to escape observation as he runs through the city in a heavy overcoat, his face covered. Beckett, as Lipman observes in voice-over narration, had written “a chase film, the craziest ever committed to celluloid.” His screenplay contained no dialogue, and the action was spelled out in minute detail, with diagrams explaining the camera movements he wanted. As O fled, the camera would lag behind, staying just out of his peripheral vision at a 45-degree angle lest he see it and speed up. During the production conference, the others pressured Beckett to drop this idea, but he was adamant.
What separated Keaton from the creative team was lack of education. Beckett had graduated from Trinity College in Dublin and was a protege of James Joyce; Keaton had grown up in vaudeville as part of an acrobatic act with his parents, and according to biographer Marion Meade, people close to him suspected he was functionally illiterate. A decade earlier he had been offered the role of Lucky in the first U.S. production of Waiting for Godot and had handed the script unread to his wife, who advised him to turn down the role. When Schneider visited the 68-year-old comedian in Los Angeles to talk about Film, Keaton seemed baffled by the script and suggested a few gags to liven it up. “I said that we didn’t normally pad Beckett’s material,” Schneider later remembered. That summer, as cast and crew convened in Manhattan, Schneider took Beckett to Keaton’s hotel, but they found the actor drinking a beer and mutely absorbed in a baseball game on TV. (Even Beckett found him standoffish, Brownlow recalls with great amusement.)
Beckett and Schneider were interested in Keaton only as a performer; you have to wonder if they understood they were dealing with a cinematic genius. Actor James Karen, who put Schneider in touch with Keaton and played a small role in Film, remembers his frustration with the writer and director: “Beckett had never made a movie, nor had Alan Schneider ever directed a movie. And there they were, with a master of moviemaking whom they never took into their confidence.” The irony is that Keaton might have latched on to the film’s technical challenges; some of his most brilliant work dealt with tricks of perception and the paradoxes of cinema. In his short The Playhouse (1921), multiple exposures allow him to play every role; in Sherlock Jr. (1924), he leaps up into the frame of a movie and joins the action, stunned when the picture cuts to a new scene and he’s not where he thought he was. A brilliant architect of sight gags, Keaton had a pronounced sense of geometry that might have served Beckett’s idea of a man being continuously stalked just outside his field of vision.
As it stood, Schneider had problems just getting footage in the can. Film was supposed to begin with an elaborate street scene in which six pairs of characters parade past the camera. From Rosset, Lipman has salvaged outtakes in which the camera pans over the wide expanse of a deserted street, recording all six couples in motion; closer shots focus on an old man and his wife, then a woman pushing her baby in a carriage. But when the day’s footage was screened, strobe effects ruined some of the panning shots, compromising the sequence. With no budget to bring back the actors, Beckett decided to cut the sequence entirely and turn immediately to Keaton as O, running along a dilapidated brick wall near the Brooklyn Bridge with the camera in hot pursuit. In Notfilm, Karen peruses a book with photographs of Keaton on location, roasting in his overcoat with his iconic flat hat pasted on his head. “Buster would never complain,” says Karen. “Over 100 degrees in the shade, and there was no shade. I had to fight them to get him a chair.”
Even as a performer, Keaton had his work cut out for him: the overcoat hid his body, and Beckett insisted that his face not appear onscreen until the very end. O, safely inside his cell of a room, contrives to cover up the window, the wall mirror, and even the goldfish bowl, anyplace from which he might be observed. He pulls down a picture of a godlike deity with enormous eyes and tears it into pieces; he sits in a rocking chair reviewing old photographs of himself and shreds them too. At the climax of Film, O finally comes face-to-face with E and stares in shock at his own image. Keaton understood the story perfectly—talking to reporters on location, he remarked, “A man may keep away from everybody but he can’t get away from himself”—yet later he preferred to play dumb. Lipman includes footage of him on a TV show, saying, “It was one of those art things. I was confused when we shot it, and I’m still confused.”
Notfilm necessarily focuses on Beckett, with Keaton as a supporting player. Yet when Film premiered at the Venice film festival in September 1965, Keaton was given a rapturous welcome not as its star but as a filmmaker in his own right. Unlike Film, his great silent work was the product of glorious improvisation; he and his writers, left to their own devices on their own little back lot, would begin with a character in trouble and then dream up gags to get him out until they had a picture. Mentally, this process was every bit as demanding as Beckett’s theater, dealing in practicalities of time and space that a stage dramatist could only imagine. How sad that Beckett and Keaton couldn’t find a way to communicate. Whatever absurdities Beckett might have dreamed up for his plays, nothing could have been crazier than amateurs making a film called Film while one of the greatest filmmakers of all time sat around between takes, his face buried in a newspaper he couldn’t read. v