The Films of Samuel Beckett
Following the production of his full-length plays–Waiting for Godot (1949), Endgame (1957), Krapp’s Last Tape (1958) and Happy Days (1961)–and the publication of his sprawling novels–Molloy (1951), Malone Dies (1951), and The Unnameable (1953), Samuel Beckett’s work became more markedly compact, minimalistic in structure as well as form. Concurrently, Beckett’s authorial gaze shifted from thick, multi-layered interiority (the primary locus of action in his preceding theatrical and novelistic works) to stark exteriority, containing its critical action–unseen, unseeable–beneath the surface.
On April 13 of 1965, Beckett’s television drama Eh Joe was released. A television program only in the barest sense, Eh Joe employs the camera as a narrative surveillance tool. The action is framed through the “eye” of the camera, which slowly pans closer and closer toward “Joe’s”–the actor/subject’s–face. A sparse voice-over runs throughout the film, at turns addressing and interrogating “Joe”, remaining ambiguous, questioning its own source. Is this the internal voice of Joe? The external query of the camera’s eye? Some shadowy amalgam of interior and exterior?
You know that penny farthing hell you call your mind? That’s where you think this is coming from, don’t you?
Here’s the beginning of Beckett’s Eh Joe, originally staged at The Gate Theatre in Dublin, screened in July of 2008 at the Lincoln Center Film Festival in New York City. This production featured a performance from Liam Neeson as “Joe” and was conceptualized/directed by filmmaker Atom Egoyan.
Of course, Beckett’s most infamous foray into the cinematic realm was his aptly titled Film, released just after Eh Joe in 1965. As with Eh Joe, Film builds its narrative around the tension between the characters of “O”–“object”–and “E”–the voyeuristic “eye” of the camera.
Beckett’s Film text reads as a series of rough diagrams, lists, theoretical musings and analyses rather than a traditional screenplay. This befits the film’s minimalistic structure, action, and environment, which consists of an open street (deserted but for two people “O” momentarily encounters), a staircase (wherein “O” passes by a frail old “flower-woman”), and a relatively bare, open room at the top of the stairs.
Once inside the room, “O” goes about the process of further obscuring himself from view, covering or ejecting every object he perceives to be an “eye”, including a mirror, a picture, a goldfish, a cat, and a dog. He then produces an envelope containing a series of photos–all of which include himself at various stages of his life, a sort of timeline–that he looks upon, then destroys.
Here, you can view the action of “O” within the room as it appears in Film:
As with Eh Joe, Film plays with the tension between interiority and exteriority, the anxiety of being watched. In keeping with the camera’s slowly inward-panning gaze of Eh Joe, Film‘s eye–“E”–follows “O”, who evades “E’s” view until the film’s end.
“O” looks toward the camera, horrified…
…then averts his own gaze.
For this soundless, wordless Film centered around a dark physical comedy of evasive movement, Beckett wisely cast the former silent film star Buster Keaton as “O”. Though Keaton initially refused the role, he promptly and unexpectedly stated, “Yes, I accept the offer” (Tallmer) when Beckett paid him a face-to-face visit. Beckett later recalled that throughout his visit, Keaton played an imaginary game of poker with three invisible Hollywood moguls. Keaton was less concerned with Beckett’s project than he was with the amount owed him in this imaginary poker game, which he reported to be $2 million (Schneider).
Keaton was old, impoverished, and in very poor health when Film was made. He died only 18 months after the film was released. In a sense, his final days were not incomparable to the atmosphere of Beckett’s Film.
A quiet shuffling dread, like the dealing of an invisible hand.
His form, his gaze, forever caught, now, in the camera’s “eye”.
To learn more about Samuel Beckett’s Film, visit http://filmbysamuelbeckett.com/main/, the site of Notfilm (2015), a recently released “experimental essay” on Beckett’s project directed by Ross Lipman and produced by Dennis Doros and Amy Heller.
To view a variety of early drafts, typescripts, and first-edition books related to Beckett’s Film, visit omeka.wustl.edu/omeka/exhibits/show/mlc50
Tallmer, Jerry. “A Film of Few Words and One Keaton.” Downtown Express. May 2006. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.
Schneider, Alan. “U B U W E B :: On Directing Samuel Beckett’s Film.” U B U W E B :: On Directing Samuel Beckett’s Film. Web. 11 Apr. 2016.