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Someone is Watching–Beckett’s “Film”

Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)In 1965, Samuel Beckett created his one and only effort at film, a seventeen-minute offering entitled, cleverly enough, “Film.” Starring silent-film veteran Buster Keaton, this brief silent plays just as inscrutably as some of Beckett’s minimalist work. (I’m thinking of “Breath” here.)

Happily we do not have to journey to some trendy theater to witness “Film,” but can enjoy it for free on our computer screens thanks to the nice people at Open Culture.

If you don’t want to wade through a quarter hour of Beckett-style squalor, here’s the synopsis. Keaton, seen only from the back for most of the film, scurries through a rubbly urban landscape, nearly knocking over a couple he encounters. They look straight into the camera and are horrified. By Keaton? That’s not clear. Entering his apartment house, he comes upon an old woman. She too is horrified, but again it isn’t clear if he is the object of her shock. He then enters a singularly dismal apartment with a bed that looks as if someone melted on it.

He draws the tattered blinds, covers the cat, the birdcage, the mirror, and other items around the room. Eventually he sits in a rocking chair and gazes at a print of a curious, Assyrian-looking face. After a moment, he snatches the item from the wall and rips it up. Then he sits again and looks through several photos, apparently of his life, that suggest happier days. When he reaches a portrait of himself much as he now appears, he begins to rip these up, moving backward to his infancy. Then he sees a horrifying figure before him. It is…him. He collapses into the chair, covering his eyes. “The horror, the horror.”

I’m not sure how to respond to a film like this. Part of me wants to dismiss it as mid-century French (Irish) posturing. The attitude is not terribly different from that of the gloomy goth kids one sees today: Life is really terrible and bleak and awful, and we’re really clever and hip for realizing that. Is Beckett really no better than a late adolescent? Having read Waiting for Godot, I have to think he was.

A Christian reading of this film is fairly obvious. Who, after all, is the eye that follows our “hero”? Is it society? Himself? Or is it God? I’m not sure that it really matters? We can assert that God sees all, but the key thing in “Film,” whether we interpret it from a theistic or atheistic viewpoint, is the awareness that the character has of himself. I would argue that the other characters, the three who react in horror to something, are similarly aware of the true nature of themselves.

Keaton’s character realizes himself as those Isaiah prophesies against in Isaiah 64:6-7:

All of us have become like one who is unclean,
and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags;
we all shrivel up like a leaf,
and like the wind our sins sweep us away.
No one calls on your name
or strives to lay hold of you;
for you have hidden your face from us
and have given us over to our sins.

Beckett correctly sees humanity in all its depravity. That much is admirable, but how do we respond to that depravity? Do we wallow in despair or reach out to the only source of hope. In Beckett’s universe, that hope is illusory and pointless. I’m pleased, on this Good Friday, to suggest that the light Keaton attempts to block out with his shabby curtains is not just an accusing light but a hopeful light.

Posted in Existentialism, Irish Literature.

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