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Samuel Beckett’s Only Cinematic Project: A Silent Film from 1965

What a cinema history anachronism has to do with Chaplin’s replacement and the psychology of voyeurism.

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989), the great Irish avant-garde playwright who gave us Waiting for Godot, turned himself into a screenwriter once during his literary career. In 1963, Grove Press commissioned Beckett to write a screenplay for a film — called quite simply Film — and Beckett knocked out the first draft in four days. Another draft soon followed, and it went to the director Alan Schneider, who later recalled:

The script appeared in the spring of 1963 as a fairly baffling when not downright inscrutable six-page outline. Along with pages of addenda in Sam’s inimitable informal style: explanatory notes, a philosophical supplement, modest production suggestions, a series of hand-drawn diagrams…

[Then came] almost a year of preparation. Reading and rereading the “script,” which, of course, had no dialogue (with the exception of that one whispered “sssh!”); asking Sam a thousand questions, largely by mail and eventually in person at his Montparnasse apartment; trying to visualize graphically and specifically the varied demands of those six tantalizing pages. Gradually, the mysteries and enigmas, common denominators of all new Beckett works, came into focus with fascinatingly simple clarity…”

When it came time to line up the cast, Beckett pushed for Charlie Chaplin, but the actor declined. So Beckett and Schneider turned to an aging Buster Keaton, another Hollywood icon from the silent and sound eras, making him an apt pick for a modern silent film. (Several of Keaton’s early films, along with many Chaplin classics, appear in Open Culture’s list of free movies online.) Scholars and critics have since had a field day trying to interpret the 17-minute film eventually completed in 1965. But when The New Yorker asked Beckett to explain the film in a way that “the man in the street” would understand, the writer offered this:

It’s a movie about the perceiving eye, about the perceived and the perceiver — two aspects of the same man. The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide. Then, in the end, one wins.”

If you’ve never seen footage of Beckett, you can catch the publicity-shy playwright speaking in the American documentary Waiting for Beckett.

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University. You can find Open Culture on Twitter and Facebook

Published August 16, 2011




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