BOOTLEG FILES 216: “Film” (1965 short starring Buster Keaton and written by Samuel Beckett).
LAST SEEN: Unauthorized duplications are on several online sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: No official release, as far as I know.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Because it was never released commercially.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Who knows?
Irish playwright Samuel Beckett made his only venture into cinema with a strange short movie called “Film.” That fleeting connection should have been enough to warrant “Film” footnote status in cinematic history, but the short is also noteworthy for having Buster Keaton as the star.
Beckett wrote “Film” in 1963. The playwright conceived it as an exercise in silence, with a single word of dialogue and no music score or sound effects. Beckett supposedly wanted Charlie Chaplin as the film’s star, but that proved impossible to secure. Beckett, working with Alan Schneider (the project’s director), debated the value of casting either Zero Mostel or Jack MacGowran in the starring role. Both actors were primarily theatrical stars, not movie stars, but it didn’t matter since neither was available.
As for the fourth choice for the role, Beckett told historian Kevin Brownlow how that came about. “It was Schneider’s idea to use Keaton, who was available,” said Beckett. “Of course, I had seen his silent films and enjoyed them – don’t suppose I could remember them now. He had a young woman with him – his wife, who had picked him up from his alcoholism. We met him at a hotel. I tried to engage him in conversation, but it was no good. He was absent. He didn’t even offer us a drink. Not because he was being unfriendly, but because it never occurred to him.”
“Film” is about a strange, solitary man who is first seen running erratically through a derelict neighborhood. The man is wearing a huge black coat and a flat hat, and he has a cloth covering his face. (You have to wonder if David Lynch saw this, as the conception eerily foretells John Hurt’s presence in “The Elephant Man”). He passes an elderly couple dressed in Victorian clothing, who glare at him with hostility. The woman goes “Shhh!” – the film’s only sound.
The man then goes to a rundown apartment building, where his presence causes an elderly lady to faint when she observes him. The man retreats to his shabby apartment, which he shares with a kitten, a puppy, a caged parakeet and a goldfish. He removes the cloth from his face, but we don’t initially see what he looks like. The apartment is nearly bare, except for a rocking chair, and the walls are decorated with a mirror and a weird Babylonian-style drawing of a man with saucer shaped eyes.
Within the apartment, the man begins to act very strangely. He believes his pets and his artwork are maliciously staring at him, and even his own gaze in the mirror terrifies him. He covers the mirror with a blanket, puts the kitten and puppy outside of the front door, covers the birdcage and fishbowl, and tears up the Babylonian drawing. He then takes out photos and starts tearing them up. However, he feels a presence in the room and discovers his exact double glaring back at him. The man covers his face with his hands and weeps.
Huh? What’s is all about? Beckett defined “Film” to Kevin Brownlow in these terms: “It is an idea from Bishop Berkeley, the Irish philosopher and idealist, ‘To be is to be perceived’ – ‘Esse est percipi.’ 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.”
Frankly, “Film” is strictly of curio value and is merely a blip in Beckett and Keaton’s respective careers. Having Keaton in the film is strange, since the viewer is obviously waiting to see him. But his face is not seen until the end of the movie – and then, inexplicably, he is wearing a black eye-patch. Schneider’s direction is lethargic and the payoff of two Keatons makes little sense.
Beckett claimed that Keaton never understood the concept of the work, and that the great comic suggested ideas for the film that were rejected. But it is obvious Keaton did put something of his style into the proceedings. He was able to get in his trademark sight gag of patting down an object, as if to mollify it, when he places blankets on the mirror, birdcage and fishbowl. Beckett took credit for inventing the bit where Keaton’s character puts the kitten and puppy outside (they keep running back into the room), but from its execution it is clear that Keaton took the concept further with his comic body language and impeccable timing.
“Film” was shot in the summer of 1964 in New York. Beckett made his first and only trip to America for the production. He recalled Keaton’s running about in a heavy jacket during the sweltering heat of the shoot. “He had great endurance, he was very tough and, yes, reliable,” Beckett told Brownlow.
“Film” premiered at the Venice Film Festival in September 1965. Keaton was in attendance and received a standing ovation – for being Keaton, not for his performance. “Film” was not well received at Venice, and it was greeted with boos at its U.S. premiere at the New York Film Festival.
Beckett never made another movie and “Film” has barely been seen over the years. It has turned up occasionally in film society screenings and Keaton retrospectives. I am unaware of any commercial U.S. home video release, either on its own or as part of a larger anthology. Bootleg copies of “Film” have been circulating for some time, and unauthorized DVDs can be purchased on eBay. The production is also on a few Net video sites.
Unless you are mad about Beckett and/or Keaton, pass this one by. Indeed, the work is a bore, and films like “Film” gives avant-garde cinema a bad name.
IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!