Samuel Beckett’s Story Of O… FILM / NOTFILM Reviewed

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BD / DVD Combi. Regions B/2. BFI. PG.

As readers of this blog will no doubt be aware, Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou (1929) contains what is probably still the most audacious sight gag ever played on a cinema audience, in which a woman’s (actually a dead cow’s) eyeball is sliced open beneath an occluded moon. Anything promoting such a visceral reaction as that was always going to be anathema to the Emperor of Existentialist Ennui, playwright Samuel Beckett. Film, the 1965 short which he scripted for theatre director Alan Schneider, finds a gentler (as in “quietly desperate”) way to make a similarly potent gag, namely by casting silent screen icon Buster Keaton and “depriving him of his trump card… his face!” Equally perversely, film neophytes Beckett and Schneider resolutely ignored every suggestion offered by their star, a walking repository of cinematic savvy.

Keaton didn’t have a clue what they were up to but at this point the faded screen legend, depleted by divorce, drink and some bad business decisions, was accepting any paying gig. He hadn’t even been the first choice to play protagonist “O” but the part devolved to him after Chaplin, followed by established Beckett interpreters Jack MacGowran and Zero Mostel, passed on it in their turn. Fourth time turned out to be the charm, indeed it’s difficult to imagine anybody more qualified for what is essentially a chase movie (albeit a forbiddingly cerebral one… could have been scripted by Bishop Berkeley of Cloyne) than Keaton. Hotly pursued by “E” (the eye of the camera / viewer), he staggers rather than races through a drab, entropic landscape to the security of his cell like bolt-hole, where we see him forsaking human and animal contact, abandoning God and the claims of family / the past, resolutely refusing, throughout, to reveal his features… until he has dropped off and wakes to be confronted by his mirror image. Keaton’s deadpan dread, his Caliban cringe at the climatic moment of self discovery suggest the degree to which Beckett must have felt out of kilter with The Age Of Aquarius and everything else that unfolded over the rest of The Swinging ’60s.

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Film lasts about 22 minutes but, ably abetted by Boris Kaufman’s stark monochrome cinematography, it emerges as something more evocative of the Surrealist muse than David Lynch could ever manage even if he made a hundred series of Twin Peaks.  How though, did The BFI parlay a three disc BD / DVD set out of it? Well, much of the package is taken up by Ross Lipman’s 2016 “kino essay” Notfilm, which clocks in at something over two hours. Although one can’t completely shrug off the impression of talent taking a protracted ride on the coat tails of genius, Lipman manages a few thought-provoking insights along the way and his interviews with such Beckett associates as Billie Whitelaw, Haskell Wexler, producer Barney Rosset (his Alzheimer’s both poignant and strangely appropriate to the proceedings), Jean Schneider, Jeanette Seaver and James Karen are inevitably engaging stuff. Overspilling off cuts from these interviews take up much of the balance of the bonus features and in a separate one Karen, interviewed in front of a live audience, proves himself a very droll fellow indeed. After his interlocutor has reeled off a list of his allegedly most prestigious credits, the prolific actor laughingly chides him for not mentioning Return Of The Living Dead.

Other extras include a reconstruction of the abandoned opening section,  out takes from the scene in which Keaton attempts to evict a cat and a dog from his hovel (proving the wisdom of that old adage about children and animals) and David Rayner Clark’s inferior, Max Wall-starring 1979 remake. Somewhere among this embarrassment of bonus riches there’s mention of a stage play about the making of Film, though nobody captured a performance of it for inclusion here. Just as well, perhaps… by the time you’ve worked your way through the stuff already on this set, you might feel more than a little Filmed out. Minimalism blown up to cover three discs. Best consumed in discrete chunks.

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