A Supremely Strange Short

Jonathan Crow calls Samuel Beckett’s only movie – titled, simply, Film – “enigmatic, bleakly funny and very, very odd”:

The 17-minute silent short is essentially a chase movie between the camera and the main character O  – as in object. Film opens with O cowering from the gaze of a couple he passes on the street. Meanwhile, the camera looms just behind his head. At his stark, typically Beckettesque flat, O covers the mirror, throws his cat and his chihuahua outside and even trashes a picture — the only piece of decoration in the flat — that seems to be staring back at him. Yet try as he might, O ultimately can’t quite evade being observed by the gaze of the camera. …

Ever since it came out, critics have been puzzling what Film is really about. Is it a statement on voyeurism in cinema? On human consciousness? On death? Beckett gave his take on the movie to the New Yorker: “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.” Keaton himself defined the movie even more succinctly, “A man may keep away from everybody but he can’t get away from himself.”

Meanwhile, Tim Martin reviews Beckett’s recently published “lost” short story Echo’s Bones. He sees a young writer still struggling to cast off the burden of James Joyce’s influence:

The story’s plot is deliberately staccato and unhinged. [The character] Belacqua is cast up from the grave, “up and about in the dust of the world, back at his old games in the dim spot”, and finds himself sitting on a fence smoking cigars. He has a brief philosophical assignation over garlic and rum with a prostitute (sample dialogue: “Alas, Gnaeni, the pranic bleb, is far from being a mandrake. His leprechaun lets him out about this time every Sunday. They have no conduction”), before being kidnapped by the grotesque Lord Gall, an impotent golfing aristocrat of monstrous proportions who carries Belacqua on his shoulders up a tree, where he persuades him to impregnate his wife and meet his pet ostrich. … Several characters from the book’s earlier stories arise from the bay aboard a submarine, and watch him crossly from afar. The grave, once uncovered, is empty. “So it goes in the world,” the story concludes.

Perhaps Godot or Happy Days might appear similarly ridiculous in summary. But Beckett’s linguistic approach here stands in fascinating opposition to his subsequent progression towards what he called a “lessness” of language and object. Speaking to James Knowlson in 1989, he described his eventual realisation that Joyce “had gone as far as he could in the direction of knowing more… I realised that my own way was in impoverishment, in lack of knowing and in taking away.” That epiphany lay far in the future, but the sterile, spasmodic prose in “Echo’sBones” already shows him trying to pass his Joyce influence like a kidney stone.