Samuel Beckett’s Adventure in ‘Film’
Samuel Beckett wrote plays and poetry, novels and short stories, criticism and nonfiction, TV scripts and radio teleplays. But despite coming of age alongside the art of cinema, he was not a filmmaker. With one notable—largely forgotten—exception: in 1964, seven years after the premiere of Endgame (which plays the Kirk Douglas Theatre through May 22, 2016) and near the height of his fame, Beckett collaborated with silent film star Buster Keaton on a short fittingly titled Film.
Los Angeles-based film preservationist Ross Lipman, a longtime Beckett fan who has seen many of Center Theatre Group’s stagings of the Irish playwright’s work, recently released a documentary about the making of Film called Notfilm that is currently screening at festivals and theatres around the world. We asked Lipman for the story surrounding Beckett’s lone foray into the world of cinema, and what insights it can give us into Beckett’s writing for the theatre as well as his development as an artist.
“Beckett was interested in cinema from an early age,” said Lipman, and even considered studying film in Moscow. Film came about in 1963. Beckett’s publisher, Barney Rosset at Grove Press, commissioned him to write a screenplay that was meant to be the first in a series of short films written by playwrights including Harold Pinter. Beckett had been approached about film adaptations of his work before, and by this time, there had already been at least one television adaptation of Waiting for Godot. But presumably, this “was a very nice opportunity,” said Lipman, “to have a film fully produced and funded in which he could explore this vision which had been laying quietly in the background for decades.”
Lipman first came across the script for Film as a teenager. He was inspired to start making his documentary after he began restoring the movie and uncovering different archival materials, including “long-lost outtakes” and “wonderful audio recordings of Beckett in production meetings,” said Lipman. “It’s quite exciting to hear how his mind is working, how he’s trying to explain his conception to the technical crew, who have to rise to challenge of meeting a somewhat abstract vision in the medium of cinema.”
To make Film, Becket collaborated with a group that included not just Buster Keaton but also director Alan Schneider (who also directed the American premiere of Waiting for Godot) and cinematographer Boris Kaufman (who shot films including On the Waterfront and 12 Angry Men). Despite all the talent on board, Film was not deemed a success, and Beckett never made another movie.
“Film was originally intended to begin with an opening scene of about eight minutes, with lots of characters and assorted incidents,” said Lipman. “They failed to complete the scene; they shot a lot of footage for it, but it didn’t quite come together. And Beckett decided to change it because it didn’t come out the way he intended.” Outtakes of this process are featured in Notfilm.
In some senses, that scene, and the process of making Film, “might be seen as a turning point” in Beckett’s work, said Lipman. “His writing seems to get more and more minimal as he progresses in his career.” Beckett did not write “a lot of exterior scenes after that one scene in Film,” added Lipman. “Most of his writing was confined to interior spaces or even inside one’s head.”
Beckett “retained his interest in moving images,” said Lipman. But he channeled that into television instead of the silver screen. His TV works are “all much more restrained in their aesthetic,” said Lipman. “One gets the impression that there was a conscious choice to work with a more limited palette, a small scale production, and the technology of television,” said Lipman. “In the intimacy of a television set he was more able to control all the aesthetic components, and that tied in with the more restrained aesthetic of his work from then on.”
Endgame, which shortly preceded this phase of Beckett’s career, is considered one of the playwright’s minimalist masterpieces, and has appeared on television a number of times. A 1985 BBC production featured Stephen Rea playing Clov, and Beckett himself directed a 1992 production by the San Quentin Drama Workshop.
And since Beckett’s one adventure in film was never to be repeated, the closest thing to seeing him on the big screen just might be onstage at the Douglas, a former movie theatre, in Downtown Culver City, “the Heart of Screenland.”