When Beckett met Buster and they made Film (updated)

Update: 20 May 2017

Next Monday (22nd) finally sees the release on Blu-ray / DVD of FILM, the collaboration between Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton. In addition, the BFI package comes with a new documentary, NOTFILM.

Pamela Hutchinson extolls the riches of this welcome new release in a Silent London post.

While it is a joy to see Film on film, with the whirring projector providing the only soundtrack, it’s a boon to have this work available digitally too, on DVD and Blu, for the enjoyment of connoisseurs, and no doubt film and theatre students also. Film has been restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and let me tell you, every crease in Keaton’s fabulously craggy face is as deep and sharp as you could wish…

This Film and Notfilm dual-format release from the BFI goes one better than pairing the movie and the documentary. There are outtakes here, including an opening scene thought lost for decades. There’s the haunting British colour remake from 1979, starring Max Wall, interviews, featurettes, photo galleries, and a really very illuminating set of booklet essays by Michael Brooke, Ross Lipman and Vic Pratt (who writes in loving detail about the 1979 version). There’s even the option to download Mihály Vig’s really rather wonderful music from the Notfilm soundtrack.

I especially enjoyed an audio recording of Beckett, cinematographer Boris Kaufman and director Alan Schneider, thrashing out the story…

What a treat!

Original post: 10 March 2012

Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton. At first it sounds like the strangest of collaborations; but quickly begins to feel like the most natural of pairings. In 1964 they made Film, a 20 minute cinematic curiosity.

Tin House recently re-posted a Barney Rosset piece on Film:-

Evergreen Theater were me, Richard Seaver, Fred Jordan (all of us with Grove), and Alan Schneider a seasoned director of Samuel Beckett’s work in North America… We established Evergreen Theater and made up a list of authors we thought would make great film writers.

With Beckett’s Film (a very Beckettian, though confusing, title) we were luckier than with all the other scripts. Samuel Beckett came from Paris to New York for his one and only trip to the United States.

The production staff was a talented one. I prevailed upon an old acquaintance, Sydney Myers, not only a fine director but also a master of film editing, to be our editor. He and Sam quickly became friends. For cinematographer I chose Boris Kauffman, because of his work with Jean Vigo on two feature films, Zero for Conduct and L’Atalante. Though I did not know it then, Kauffman had become a famous cinematographer in this country, for his Oscar-winning work in On the Waterfront and many other big Hollywood films. Even stranger to me was the discovery that Boris’s brother was Dziga Vertov, one of the great filmmakers during the Soviet Union’s creative heyday.

But how was Keaton chosen for the lead?

The first person Beckett wanted for the only major role in Film was the Irish actor Jack McGowran. He was unavailable, as was Charlie Chaplin and also Zero Mostel, Alan’s choice. Finally, Alan suggested Buster Keaton. Sam liked the idea, so Alan flew out to Hollywood to try and sign Buster up. There he found Buster living in extremely modern circumstances. On arrival he had to wait in a separate room while Keaton finished up an imaginary poker game with, among others, the legendary (but long-dead) Hollywood mogul Irving Thalberg. Keaton took the job. During an interview, Beckett told Kevin Brownlow (a Keaton scholar) that “Buster Keaton was inaccessible. He had a poker mind as well as a poker face… He had great endurance, he was very tough, and, yes, reliable. And when you saw that face at the end… Ah. At last.”

And working with Beckett?:-

In his book, Entrances, Alan Schneider discusses working with Beckett: “Sam was incredible. People always assume him to be unyielding, but when the chips are down, on specifics, here as well as in all his stage productions, he is completely understanding, flexible, and pragmatic. Far from blaming anything on the limitations and mistakes of those around him, he blamed his own material and himself.”

In this article Kevin Brownlow decribes Beckett talking about working with Buster:-

I asked if Keaton ever enquired what the Film was about?
Beckett laughed. ‘No. He wasn’t interested.’
‘Did you ever tell him?’
‘I never did, no. I had very little to do with him. He sat in his dressing room, playing cards – patience or something, until he was needed. The only time he came alive was when he described what happened when they were making films in the old days. That was very enjoyable. I remember him saying that they started with a beginning and an end and improvised the rest as they went along. Of course, he tried to suggest gags of his own.’
‘Did you use any of them.’
‘No,’ he laughed. ‘We were depriving him of his trump card – his face.’

What did Buster make of it? In the the same article, James Karen is reported to say:-

‘Buster didn’t understand it. Who understood it? I didn’t understand it I mean, I didn’t find it very great drama, and yet it is an exciting picture to see and a lot of people think very highly of it. Buster did not.’

Whatever the merits of Film (it’s certainly no masterpiece), the image of the cloaked and hatted Buster scuttling along that wall is one that always seems to resonate, though I’m not sure why.


I can’t end without including one of the most remarkable clips on Youtube: a short extract of the notoriously camera-shy Beckett being interviewed in his hotel room:-


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