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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Stories, empathy and THE PEARL BUTTON [Patricio Guzman, 2015]

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The poetry of Patrico Guzman’s latest cinematic essay – THE PEARL BUTTON – reminds me of Grant Gee’s superb film PATIENCE (AFTER SEBALD), itself about W.G. Sebald’s book THE RINGS OF SATURN.

The film retraces a walk through Suffolk taken by the book’s author, and mirrors the discursive nature of the narrative in its own approach to the journey – a conscious use of digression, repetition, aural/visual layering, and the discovery of chance connections which find unexpected significance.

A different kind of wandering journey –  despite it’s apparent waywardness, a carefully planned one –  is described in another book, which I recently finished: THE FARAWAY NEARBY by Rebecca Solnit.  It’s a journey via tales: trying to understand and come to terms with the troubled relationship with her mother, Solnit explores stories and incidents, labyrinthine in their metaphorical interconnections, taking in subjects as disparate as Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN, leprosy, Antarctica, Napoleon, and decaying apricots.

The importance of stories has cropped up before in this blog; Solnit describes them as:-

…compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their place, we say, which is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story. Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller’s art, and then a way of traveling from here to there.

However, we must also be wary:-

We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to question them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller.

Grant Gee’s film, and the books by Sebald and Solnit, lead me back to THE PEARL BUTTON. Guzman’s beautiful language of film navigates its path via metaphorical connections that stimulate the intellect, touch our emotions, and unlock our imaginations.  It is the cinema of engagement, what Mark Cousins calls the ’empathy machine’.

As Solnit writes:-

Kindness, compassion, generosity are often talked about as though they’re purely emotional virtues, but they are also and maybe first of all imaginative ones. You see someone get hurt…and you feel for them. You take the information your senses deliver and interpret it, often in terms of your own experience, until it becomes vivid to you. Or you work harder and study them to imagine the events you don’t witness, the suffering that is not on the surface. It’s easier to imagine the experience of people most like you and nearest you—your best friend, the person who just slipped on the ice. Through imagination and representations—films, printed stories, secondhand accounts—you travel into the lives of people far away. This imaginative entering into is best at the particular, since you can imagine being the starving child but not the region of a million starving people. Sometimes, though, one person’s story becomes the point of entry to larger territories.

Guzman, with his gentle, soft-voiced narration (surely the Chilean equivalent of the mellow toned voice-overs of Mark Cousins), together with striking imagery and sound design, weaves together a cinematic poem that opens our minds to new stories and possibilities.

The central question of THE PEAL BUTTON (as in his other films) is how do we connect with our past and face up to what happens.  As light was the dominant metaphor in his previous film – NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT – so water is the central images of THE PEARL BUTTON.  The film begins with a tiny drop of 3,000 year old water trapped in a block of quarz, and then moves to the stars and atmosphere, and the seas and rivers around Chile.  Water holds secrets but also reveals the past – as when the drowned body of one of the disappeared from the Pinochet regime is discovered.  Water links other stories: the indigenous peoples whose lives were so bound up with the rivers and sea; the tale of Jemmy Button who was taken to Europe to be ‘civilised’; the horrors of the Pinochet era; and the personal loss of Guzman’s brother who was swept out to sea.

The accumulation of poetic associations is incredibly moving.  Hearing the almost lost spoken language of the indigenous peoples becomes as evocative and relevant as a Bach partita.  Loss and pain and joy become so close you can touch them.

At one point, a large thin map of Chile is rolled out on the floor.  The camera is only able to capture it as a whole from a high vantage point directly above.  Guzman remembers that he never saw a complete map of his country is school – it was so long it had to be split up into regions.  The film’s poetry helps to bring together some of the Chile’s historical and cultural fragments, to speculate on broad themes without reducing the complexity to a trite simplicity.  It offers a different narrative.

It asks us to think and feel, to expand our imaginations, and to find empathy.

Reminded of Laugharne

The Boathouse Laugharne

The Boathouse, Laugharne

Last year my wife and I had a very enjoyable holiday in the Welsh town most famous for its association with the great poet Dylan Thomas: Laugharne. I was reminded of this when I came across two items related to Thomas.

Firstly, I was reminded by this short article that Stan Tracey’s quartet are playing Stan’s latest Thomas inspired piece – A Child’s Christmas Jazz Suite – at the Dylan Thomas Festival in Swansea tomorrow. I’ve already written about the suite elsewhere on this blog; it’s great to hear that it will now feature in a festival dedicated to Dylan Thomas.

Secondly, I came across a more direct link to Laugharne in the form of this nice piece by Chris Moss, an interesting personal portrait of the town. It’s well worth a read in full.

It includes the following:-

Anyone with a passing interest in poetry knows about Dylan Thomas’s association with Laugharne, the township he called a ‘legendary lazy little black magical bedlam by the sea’. They know about his writing shed with its view over the ‘heron priested’ shores of the Taf Estuary. And about his drinking, his dark moods, his death in America.

 

He’s buried at the main church here beneath a simple white cross. His ghost lingers and his admirers come to smell the musty living room in the Boathouse, where he lived, and to look for characters from his masterpiece, Under Milk Wood.

 

But as literary birthplaces go, Laugharne is no Stratford-on-Avon, Haworth or Chawton. It remains an enigma. This small, steep-sided, village-sized town has retained the curious character — and, perhaps, some of the characters — that beguiled the Swansea-born bard six decades ago.

 

A path follows the foot of the red sandstone cliffs to two steep staircases leading up to a narrow road. Here is Dylan Thomas’s writing shed — once a garage built to house Laugharne’s first car (a green Wolseley)… A few steps along is the Boathouse — the third and final property the Thomas’ occupied in Laugharne. It has some of the loveliest views of the estuary and beyond and is the most photographed spot in Laugharne.

 

Out on the terrace, away from the memorabilia and the booming voice of Dylan reading his verse, spare a thought for Caitlin. She left Laugharne for Italy in 1957, describing it as a ‘permanently festering wound’. This might not fit neatly with the fantasy version of Dylan and Wales, but it remains the truth; the words came through drink and darkness and despair, and Laugharne and the Boathouse are part of that reality.

Zero Degrees of Empathy: A New Theory of Human Cruelty by Simon Baron-Cohen

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A fascinating book.

The opening sentence:-

When I was seven years old, my father told me the Nazis had turned Jews into lampshades.

This book tries to…

…examine why some people become capable of cruelty, and whence a loss of empathy inevitably has this consequence. This book goes deeper into the subject than I have gone before, by drilling into the brain basis of empathy and looking at its social and biological determinants, and it is broader too, by having a close look at some of the medical conditions that lead to a loss of empathy.

Importantly:

My main goal is to understand human cruelty, replacing the unscientific term ‘evil’ with the scientific term ’empathy’.

The term evil is just lazy – it says nothing, and worse, it seeks to close down discussion. It’s tabloid explanation. And, of course, a term at the heart of religious philosophy:-

Religion has been singularly anti-enquiry on the topic of the causes of evil. For most religions, the existence of evil is simply an awkward fact of the universe, present either because we fall short in our spiritual aspirations to lead a good life of because such forces (e.g., the Devil) are in constant battle with divine forces for control over human nature…

 

If I have an agenda it is to urge people not to be satisfied with the word ‘evil’ as an explanatory tool, and , if I have moved the debate out of the domain of religion and into the social and biological sciences, I feel this book has made a contribution.

Baron-Cohen makes a good argument for loss of empathy as the route to understanding a range of extreme behaviours, including Borderline Personality Disorder or are Psychopathy. He demonstrates the following main points:-

We all lie somewhere on an empathy spectrum. Part of what science has to explain is what determines where an individual falls on this spectrum. I have pointed to some of the genetic, hormonal, neural and environmental contributory factors…

 

At one end of this spectrum is zero degrees of empathy…

 

Bowly’s remarkable concept of early secure attachment can be understood as an internal pot of gold… When we fail to nurture young children with parental affection we deprive them of the most valuable birthright we can give them, and damage them almost irreversibly…

 

There are genes for empathy…Environmental triggers interact with our genetic predispositions, and scientists are starting to discover particular genes that in far-reaching ways influence our empathy…

Finally, a bold statement that…

Empathy itself is the most valuable resource in our world. Given this assertion, it is puzzling that in school or parenting curriculum empathy figures hardly at all, and in politics, business, the courts or policing it is rarely if ever on the agenda.

This is a book which raise profound and sometimes uncomfortable questions. The reviews highlight some interesting issues. Alasdair Palmer in the Telegraph, for instance:-

This fascinating and disturbing book is an examination of why some people are viciously, violently cruel to others.

 

Zero Degrees of Empathy is a strange amalgam of scientific sophistication and philosophical naivety. The detailed findings on which Baron-Cohen bases his conclusions about which parts of the brain do what, and his identification of the particular neurological pathways on which the capacity for empathy depends, are as dazzling as they are surprising.

 

But the basis for his insistence that a lack of empathy is the root of all evil is curiously crude. He claims that if you can fully recognise others as having feelings like your own, then you must empathise with them, and this will mean that you are as incapable of harming them as you are of harming yourself.

 

…Baron-Cohen seems committed to denying the existence of that particularly nasty form of sadistic cruelty that depends on the perpetrator recognising his victim’s feelings and homing in on those that he knows will hurt his victim most.

This criticism, though, downplays an important point which Baron-Cohen makes:-

Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion. There are at least two stages in empathy: recognition and response. Both are needed, since if you have the former without the latter you haven’t empathised at all.

Certainly, the book does not have – nor claim to have – all the answers. However, it does provide a useful and potentially productive reframing of our understanding of human cruelty.

Well worth a read.

Charles Dickens: A Life – Claire Tomalin

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This is one of a number of books about the great author published in this bicentennial year of his birth, and the latest in a long line of Dickens biographies.

Tomalin’s depiction of Dickens is a fascinating one: a man with prodigious talent and enormous energies (it’s exhausting just to read about his multiple, overlapping workschedules); someone who was enormously compassionate to those in poverty and hardship (often personally offering practical assistance); someone who was warm and funny, but could also be unbelievably cruel and dismissive; and someone who’s output could be brilliantly imaginative and insightful, but also unashamedly sentimental. Tomalin manages to weave together the different strands of Dickens’ character and talents into a convincing, revealing, and coherent portrait of a particularly gifted but flawed individual.

William Boyd, writing in The Observer says:-

Tomalin’s biography – always scrupulous about what we can know, what we can deduce and what is mere speculation – paints a portrait of a complex and exacting man. He was at once vivacious and charming, charismatic and altruistic and possessed of superabundant energies… But he was also, equally – to an almost schizoid degree – tormented, imperious, vindictive and implacable, once wronged.

These matters are particularly focused when it comes to the story of Dickens’s marriage and his long affair with the young actress Nelly Ternan. Dickens, aged 45, fell for Ellen Ternan when she was 18… Dickens had long been unhappy in his marriage – a union that had produced 10 children by this time – and his infatuation with Nelly brought out the worst in him. He publicly separated from Catherine, humiliating her in the cruellest manner, and, after a form of courtship with Nelly – who did not yield to his importuning immediately – set her up as his mistress in a series of houses on the outskirts of London. This was done in the greatest secrecy, and it’s something of a miracle that we know about this side of Dickens’s life at all.

What is so valuable about this biography is the palpable sense of the man himself that emerges. Tomalin doesn’t hesitate to condemn Dickens when his behaviour demands it, yet she writes throughout with great sympathy and unrivalled knowledge in the most limpid and stylish prose.

Tomalin is also very good at analysing Dickens’ writing, though I, like Judith Flanders writing in The Telegraph, am perhaps more forgiving of his sentimental side:-

And when it comes to analysing the novels, she is magisterial: Dickens’s villains are walking contradictions, viciously cruel characters who are also outrageously funny; Great Expectations is “delicate and frightening, funny, sorrowful, mysterious”, magically creating a tenebrous world of failure, as Pip fails to understand others, fails to win love, fails to save his benefactor, fails, ultimately, to become a man. However it is also the case, of course, that when she dismisses something – and she has no tolerance at all for the more sentimental side of Dickens’s fiction that many (myself included) genuinely enjoy – she can be devastating. Edwin Drood, she tells us briefly, is “perfectly readable”. Ouch.

This is a biography which is well worth reading, both for its insights into Dickens’ life and works, and the times in which he lived. As Boyd Tonkin writes in The Independent:-

Tomalin’s biography Charles Dickens: A Life of course enters a crowded field. But she brings to it all the peerless ability to match scholarship to storytelling that won acclaim, and honours, for her lives of Mary Wollstonecraft, Samuel Pepys, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Katherine Mansfield – and of actress Ellen Ternan, The Invisible Woman, Dickens’s later-life mistress. As a biographer, Tomalin remains (as her subject called himself ) “inimitable”.

Geoff Dyer’s ‘Zona’

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My short review of the book published online in One Hundred Words Magazine [no longer available]:-

For anyone interested in Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s classic art-house film ‘Stalker’, Geoff Dyer’s fascinating book ‘Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room’ is a must read.

Dyer takes the reader through the film, scene by scene. It’s a rather meandering kind of journey, perhaps, with numerous interesting digressions en route – the author frequently discussing at some length any subject which the film brings to mind.

This strategy works to a degree, but is undermined by Dyer’s tendency to use an irritatingly flippant tone. Nevertheless, it’s still a book I would recommend to cinema lovers.

As I say, the one thing which doesn’t entirely work for me is Dyer’s ‘tendency to use an irritatingly flippant tone’. However, a number of other reviewers think otherwise. For instance, Killian Fox writing in The Guardian:-

What makes him a pleasure to read, particularly here in the inner sanctum of high cinema, is that he isn’t oppressed by the need to be reverential. On the contrary, he’ll crack as many bad jokes as he can about Stalker’s nagging wife, or the granting of innermost wishes, en route to the transcendent truth. As the Camus quote at the front of the book says: “The best way of talking about what you love is to speak of it lightly.”

Vadim Rizov writing in avclub is also happy with the style of the book:-

[Dryer is] a serious viewer whose lightness of tone shouldn’t be mistaken for glibness.

Whatever my reservations, I would agree with Fox when he says:-

That said, I’m glad he undertook the journey. Even if you have zero desire to experience Tarkovsky’s film first-hand, it’s worth keeping company with Dyer for the tangents it sends him off on: an explanation of why the horror film Antichrist, which Lars von Trier dedicated to Tarkovsky, is “nonsense”; or the funny and poignant footnote about how Natascha McElhone in the remake of Solaris looked uncannily, at the time of its release, like Dyer’s wife.

But if you’ve never seen Stalker, I’d urge you to watch it for the final scene alone. I agree with Dyer that it brings us to “a realm of loveliness unmatched anywhere else in cinema”. It casts a miraculous light back across the rest of the film and makes the effort of scaling this great rock of cinematic art utterly worthwhile.

The danger of the single story…

It’s thanks to Rich Pollett on Google+ that I watched the TED talk given by novelist Chimamanda Adichie. It is an eloquent and moving account of the power of stories.

Adichie sets the scene by illustrating the power of stories in her childhood:-

I was an early reader, and what I read were British and American children’s books. I was also an early writer, and when I began to write at about the age of seven…I wrote exactly the kinds of stories I was reading. All my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked about the weather and how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now this, despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria – had never been outside Nigeria; we didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather because there was no need to.

What this demonstrates, I think, is how impressionable and vulnerable we are in the face of stories, particularly as children.

Now I loved those American and British books I read, they stirred my imagination, they opened up new worlds for me. But the unintended consequence was that I did not know that people like me could exist in literature. So, what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: it saved me from having a single story of what books are.

She goes on to describe how stories have a powerful effect on how we see others:-

[An American] professor once told me that my novel was not authentically African. Now I was quite willing to contend that there were a number of things wrong with the novel, that it had failed in a number of places, but I had not quite imagined that it had failed in achieving something called African authenticity. In fact, I did not know what African authenticity was. The professor told me that my characters were too much like him, an educated and middle class man; my characters drove cars, they were not starving, therefore they were not authentically African.

Show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become. The single story creates stereotypes and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity; it makes our recognition of an equal humanity difficult. It emphasises how we are different, rather than how we are similar.
Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanise. When we reject the single story; when we realise that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise.

For me, this is a beautiful description, and one which goes some way to explaining why I think cinema – that is, a diverse cinema which reflects the experiences of people from all corners of the world, from every walk of life – is such a potentially important, enriching, enlightening, and empowering force. If, for example, you have seen the films of Abbas Kiarostami, or Asghar Farhadi’s recent A Separation, it is difficult to read or view news reports about Iran in quite the same way; to interpret these reports without being reminded of the humanity of Kiarostami’s and Farhadi’s characters, to be reminded of the many people just like us who are going about their daily lives in that country.

We are reminded of our ‘equal humanity’.