Buster Keaton meets Samuel Beckett

The first public screening of a film took place in 1895, when Auguste and Louis Lumière hired the basement of Le Grand Café on the Boulevard des Capucines, Paris, to show La Sortie des Ouvriers de l’Usine Lumière (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory). That same year, one of the great comedians of cinema was born in the tiny settlement of Piqua, Kansas, USA.

On a relentlessly hot day in July 1898, Buster Keaton, not yet three years old, lost part of a finger in a clothes wringer, had several stitches after a stone thrown into the air gashed his forehead, and was carried off by a cyclone. Keaton’s parents were appearing in vaudeville in Kansas.At the climax of the act the auditorium door burst open and a voice yelled “Cyclone! Cyclone! Hit for cover!” The theatre emptied. Joe and Myra Keaton ran back to the boarding house where they had left their son. Up to the bedroom, no Buster. Down to the storm cellar, no Buster – only the landlady, shivering with fright. Rudi Bleshi described the scene in his biography Keaton (1966):

“At that moment, Buster was sitting in his nightgown in the dusty middle of unpaved Main Street some four blocks away… Just as his parents were scrambling in the front door, the vast vacuum of the tornado’s eye had sucked him bodily right out of the second-story window. Before Joe and Myra were halfway up the stairs, their son was sailing high over trees and houses, too amazed to be afraid, and then coasting down a slow-relaxing ramp of air to land gently in the very centre of an empty street.”

The incident is legendary. It set its stamp on a man who literally tumbled into the lives and affections of millions. As a child star Buster Keaton went on stage with his father in a “roughhouse” act in which he was bodily thrown into the wings and against the stage backcloth without ever coming to harm. He learnt how to trip and fall and do all the visual gags that later served him so well in his films. Early on he discovered that a deadpan face – never smiling, never blinking an eye – would get the audience’s attention. It was the mask of the tragic clown.

One year before Keaton died, Barney Rosset of Evergreen Theatre invited Eugène Ionesco, Harold Pinter, and Samuel Beckett to write the scripts for a feature length trilogy. Beckett wrote Film. His first choice for its lone protagonist was Irish actor Jack McGowran, who was unavailable. So were Charlie Chaplin and Zero Mostel. Finally, Beckett agreed that Buster Keaton would be ideal. Film was shot in black and white and directed by Alan Schneider under the personal supervision of Samuel Beckett, who may only have been there in person because of his admiration for Buster Keaton’s work. It has even been suggested that the inspiration for Waiting for Godot might have come from a minor Keaton film called The Loveable Cheat, in which Keaton plays a man who waits endlessly for the return of his partner – whose name interestingly enough was Godot.

In Film, the camera follows Keaton through the streets from behind so that the audience never sees his face. People in front gasp in horror as they catch sight of him. The character eventually reaches the apartment where he lives and goes inside. He shoos his cat and dog from the room and covers up the goldfish bowl. The camera finally traps Keaton into looking into the lens and two points of view are revealed: Keaton’s look of sheer anguish (at being seen) and the camera’s (transformed into Keaton’s alter ego) look of intent curiosity. Asked what Film is about, Beckett said:

“It’s about a man trying to escape from perception of all kinds — from all perceivers — even divine perceivers… But he can’t escape from self-perception. It is an idea from Bishop Berkeley, the Irish philosopher and idealist, ‘To be is to be perceived’. The man who desires to cease to be must cease to be perceived. If being is being perceived, to cease being is to cease to be perceived.”

The first European screening of Film took place at the 1965 Venice Film Festival. At 75 years old Keaton received a standing ovation and was visibly moved. Fighting back tears he told a correspondent, “This is the first time I’ve been invited to a film festival, but I hope it won’t be the last.” Sadly, it was. Plaudite, amici, comedia finita est.

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