'Film' And 'Notfilm' Showcase The Collaboration Of Buster Keaton And Samuel Beckett

Jul 18, 2017
Originally published on July 19, 2017 6:43 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Nobel Prize-winning playwright Samuel Beckett wrote the screenplay for only one film and made his only trip to the U.S. to shoot it. It's a short silent film called "Film," released in 1965 and starring Buster Keaton. "Film" has now come out on DVD along with a documentary called "Notfilm," by film restorer Ross Lipman about the making of "Film." Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz is a passionate admirer of both Beckett and Keaton. Here's his review.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: We all know the image of the tragic clown. From the beginning of silent movies, the great comedians - Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd - seem to understand the inextricable connection between hilarity and pathos. Yet by the 1950s, audiences seemed surprised when veteran comic actors began playing serious roles. This trend seems to have started in 1955, when Arnold Stang, beloved for his cheeky puncturing of the ego of Milton Berle on Berle's weekly comedy show and the what-a-chunk-of-chocolate commercial, gave a heartbreaking performance as drug addict Frank Sinatra's loyal sidekick in "The Man With The Golden Arm."

A year later, Ed Wynn, known as The Perfect Fool, appeared in the original TV version of Rod Serling's "Requiem For A Heavyweight." And soon, Jackie Gleason, Red Buttons - who won an Oscar - and Berle himself were also proving they could act. In 1964, Buster Keaton was offered the most serious role of his career. Samuel Beckett was working on his only screenplay, a short film called "Film" depicting a character who, like a cockroach, seems terrified of being seen. Beckett calls this character O for being the object of E, the eye of the camera, that's obsessive like following him. Beckett first wanted Chaplin but finally turned to Keaton, whose great stone face and hapless-but-intrepid character have often been compared to Beckett.

The playwright had previously asked Keaton to play the beleaguered slave Lucky in the American premiere of "Waiting For Godot," but Keaton, bewildered by the script, turned him down. The new DVD also includes the memorable 1961 television version of "Waiting For Godot" directed by Alan Schneider with two great comic actors, Zero Mostel and Burgess Meredith performing Beckett's existential vaudeville.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PLAY OF THE WEEK")

BURGESS MEREDITH: (As Vladimir) You must be happy too, deep down, if you only knew it.

ZERO MOSTEL: (As Estragon) Happy about what?

MEREDITH: (As Vladimir) What about being back with me again?

MOSTEL: (As Estragon) Would you say so?

MEREDITH: (As Vladimir) Well, you said, even if it isn't true.

MOSTEL: (As Estragon) What shall I say?

MEREDITH: (As Vladimir) Say, we are happy.

MOSTEL: (As Estragon) We are happy.

MEREDITH: (As Vladimir) So am I.

MOSTEL: (As Estragon) So am I.

MEREDITH: (As Vladimir) We are happy.

MOSTEL: (As Estragon) We are happy. What do we do now, now that we are happy?

MEREDITH: (As Vladimir) Wait for Godot.

MOSTEL: (As Estragon) Oh.

SCHWARTZ: Ironically, Keaton, down on his luck, had played a small part in a minor 1949 movie based on a Balzac play in which everyone keeps waiting for a character named Godeau. Eventually, Keaton got talked into doing "Film." For most of this 22-minute-virtually-plotless silent movie, Keaton's back is to the camera. And a kerchief under his trademark pork pie hat covers most of his face, yet his expressive body, even from the back, projects human isolation, fear and misery. At the end, the camera stares into Keaton's worn, tragic, inscrutable face, and it's one of the most powerful close-ups in all of movies.

From Ross Lipman's revealing and poetic documentary "Notfilm," we learn that Beckett and his American stage director, Alan Schneider, had to keep stopping Keaton from adding funny bits, though an element of Beckett's humor underlies and maybe even intensifies the claustrophobia. In one sequence, Keaton, wanting total isolation, keeps trying to lock out his pet dog and cat, yet they keep slipping back in.

It could be a bit from one of Keaton's 1920s silent comedy shorts. In the crushing silence of film, the only sound we ever hear is, ironically, a woman saying sh. But what stays with us most is the bone-chilling sense of despair as when the Keaton character coldly tears up all his surviving family photos. I've been watching "Film" over and over, and each time, it gets even more mysterious and disturbing. The combination of Keaton and Beckett seems both uncanny and inevitable. Keaton himself had mixed feelings about it.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "NOTFILM")

BUSTER KEATON: Well, it's one of those art things. I was confused when we shot it, and I'm still confused.

SCHWARTZ: In Ross Lipman's documentary, we can now look at once-thought-lost outtakes and hear Beckett himself, recorded without his knowledge, discussing how to film "Film."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "NOTFILM")

SAMUEL BECKETT: Well, the space and the picture is a function of two perceptions, both of which are diseased.

SCHWARTZ: Two perceptions, both of which are diseased. Beckett's "Film" captures that same unsettling mixture of tragedy and comedy underlying all his plays and books. This little film and its history make up one of the most fascinating artistic projects of the 20th century.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz teaches English at the University of Massachusetts Boston. His latest book of poems is called "Little Kisses." He reviewed Samuel Beckett's "Film" and Ross Lipman's documentary "Notfilm," both just released on DVD by Milestone Films. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Billy Bragg brings his guitar and play some old and new songs. And we talk about his new book, "Roots, Radicals, And Rockers," a history of skiffle, the British adaptation of American blues and folk music that became popular in the '50s and influenced the Beatles, Pete Townshend, Van Morrison and other British rockers. I hope you'll join us. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.