Buster Keaton and Samuel Beckett

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Last Sunday, I watched Ross Lipman’s film Not Film which documents the unlikely collaboration between Samuel Beckett and Buster Keaton on Beckett’s critically divisive short: Film, made in 1964. Lipman’s self-titled “kino-essay” traces the film’s genesis, production and reception as well as reflecting on shared aesthetic and philosophical connections between this silent film star and avant-garde playwright.

As well as working as a filmmaker, Lipman is a restorationist at the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the documentary includes recently discovered cut footage from Film and covert audio recordings of Samuel Beckett (allegedly the only existing recordings of his voice) in production meetings with director Alan Schneider, producer Barney Rosset and cinematographer Boris Kaufman.

Whilst Beckett’s Film is admittedly not the strongest piece of cinema, nor the most interesting of Beckett’s works, the film has a beguiling quality to it. From the opening extreme close-up of Buster Keaton’s eye –  which foregrounds the contrasting textures of the eyeball with the deep wrinkles of his lid – to the physicality of his walk; at once familiar from his silent movie days but made strange through the weight and slowness that comes hand-in-hand with his ageing body (a physicality that Beckett accentuates by denying us a view of Keaton’s face for much of the film). Although Buster Keaton publicly described his confusion over the film’s meaning (and apparently only signed up to the film because he needed the money) here he is the perfect Beckettian actor.

This connection, between Keaton and Beckett, has been made by performance scholar Sarah Jane Bailes when she discusses the ‘poetics of failure’ in relation to contemporary performance. Bailes brings together the slapstick aesthetics of silent movies with Beckett’s rejection of traditional narrative to contextualise a contemporary preoccupation with failure in the aesthetics of theatre and performance (Bailes 2010).

9 years ago, when I was 21 and in the third year of my undergraduate degree in Theatre Studies, I was also exploring the connections between Keaton and Beckett. I read Beckett’s work looking for the traces of slapstick, identifying the tramps of Waiting for Godot and the cabaret like ‘routine’ of Act Without Words I as some sort of connection between these two forms of performance. I was surprised to learn of Keaton’s collaboration with Beckett and searched the internet for a copy of Film, which I finally got hold of on VHS from a seller on ebay (of course, the film is now readily available on youtube). The following year I devised a performance which took its stimulus from the lost footage of Buster Keaton’s short film Daydreams, a project that continued my interest in the relationship between the fragility of early cinema and live performance.

When I watched Lipman’s film on Sunday 16th April I felt a strong sense of nostalgia, not for the 20s or the 60s but for my interest in these ideas as a young maker and thinker of performance. Coincidentally, earlier in the weekend I had been celebrating a very close friend’s 30th birthday. We had a ceilidh in the Glasgow University Union, we sang songs that were written in my early twenties, I met up with friends from University, some who remain close and others that I haven’t seen for years. We danced, we drank, we laughed.

I picked up my copy of Susan Sontag’s On Photography on Monday evening and was surprised to see her reference Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929). Vertov was Boris Kaufman’s brother and his experimental film on the nature of cinema finds its echo in the themes of Beckett’s Film. In particular in the composite image below of a human eye and a camera lens.

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Man with a Movie Camera, Dziga Vertov (1929).

Lipman’s documentary links the idea in Film, of a fear of being perceived, to Beckett’s unease about being photographed, and recorded. Despite being remarkably photogenic one can read photographic portraits of Beckett for the game that he is playing between hiding and showing – one that is also played by Keaton in Film. In thinking about Beckett’s suspicion of the camera’s gaze I am drawn to Sontag’s writing about the ethics and violence of photography: she states that “there is an aggression implicit in every use of the camera” (Sontag 1977: 17). Linking this to images of suffering during war time, Sontag scathingly argues that these images have “done as much to deaden conscience as to arouse it” (Sontag 1977: 21).

I continue to hold on to these conversations between Beckett and Keaton; early cinema and avant-garde performance; the camera and the eye; photography and ethics; the interests of a 21-year old undergraduate student and his 30-year old double.

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