A twenty-minute, almost totally silent film (no dialogue or music one 'shhh!') in which Buster Keaton attempts to evade observation by an all-seeing eye. But, as the film is based around Bishop Berkeley's principle 'esse est percipi' (to be is to be perceived), Keaton's very existence conspires against his efforts
- Buster Keaton visits the Twilight Zone: a unique, haunting experience
Depending on your willingness to appreciate off-beat movies, you might find the 20-minute experimental short known simply as FILM, which was written by Samuel Beckett, to be brilliant, puzzling, amateurish, fascinating, meaningless, or deeply moving, or some combination thereof. You might also find that your opinion of it may change over a period of time with repeat viewings. When I first saw the film years ago I dismissed it as pretentious, but in a recent re-encounter FILM surprised me with its directness and simplicity, and with the strength of its imagery, which reminded me of Magritte's surreal portraits. Whether you enjoy this movie or not, it's certainly one-of-a-kind, and you won't forget it. My feeling now is that FILM is something of an oddball classic, a beautiful freak.
The situation is simple. An old man returning to his apartment attempts to hide his face from everyone he encounters. [It is soon apparent that, in addition to hiding his face from passersby, the old man is doggedly hiding his face from "us" (i.e. the camera) as well.] Once he is home, he makes every effort to shut out the world. He covers his mirror, removes a portrait from the wall, and reacts against anything that resembles an observing eye, including the decorative circles on the back of his rocking chair, or the circular clasps of a large envelope. The old man even refuses to make eye contact with his pets (a dog, a cat, a bird, and a fish), and either puts them out of the room or covers their cages. Seated, he looks at various photographs, presumably of family members, and tears each one neatly in two. As he dozes, "we" (i.e. the camera) sneak up on him, and get a look at his wizened face. The old man awakens, realizes that he has been caught, and reacts with horror. When last seen, he is covering his face with his gnarled hands.
The actor cast by screenwriter Beckett and director Alan Schneider was not their first choice for the role, but his haunting presence is a key reason why FILM is still remembered and shown today: the old man is 68 year-old Buster Keaton, who at this point in his career was appearing regularly on TV variety shows and in A-I's Beach Party series with Frankie Avalon & Annette Funicello [Aaaarggh!]. Buster is just about the last person we'd expect to find in an artsy, avant garde flick of the '60s, but there he is, and it's a good thing, too. Even with his face hidden, he brings dignity, weight and history to this project, carrying the mantle of the aging, battered but unbowed silent clown. In a sense, Keaton signifies the silent era itself in this all-but-silent movie; FILM was not only recorded on grainy black-and-white stock, but, aside from a single sound effect (a whispered "Sh-h-h-h-h!"), it is entirely silent. Despite the oddity of his surroundings, Buster is somehow right at home, and in a way that no other performer would have been. What happens here is not really suggestive of his own early work (although young Buster was often eluding authority figures), but there is a beautifully characteristic comedy sequence when the old man alternately tries to put out his dog and then his cat, only to have each animal slip back in as he attempts to put out the other. I found too that the old man's efforts to hide his face, and his dismay when he fails, reminded me of Lon Chaney's famous unmasking in the silent PHANTOM OF THE OPERA.
There remain some elements in FILM I find a little irritating. I wish the filmmakers had simply focused on the central situation, the old man and his sense of alienation, without having him repeatedly check his pulse. Or is he checking for Stigmata? Whatever he's doing, it feels forced and beside the point. And while we quickly accept the device of the protagonist avoiding the camera's gaze, I think it's distracting and silly that the three bystanders he avoids also look into the camera and display horror; our focus should be on the old man. Besides, the supporting players come off as amateurish, and in these moments we are reminded of undergrad actors seen in student film projects.
But over and above whatever flaws one may find, Buster Keaton gives a memorable performance in this strange role, and one can be grateful that he took on the project. It's impossible to imagine, say, Harold Lloyd or Stan Laurel agreeing to appear in this sort of thing, but Keaton's willingness to take a chance, whatever his own reputed misgivings about Beckett's script, speaks well of his adventurousness. Or perhaps he was getting a little tired of the Beach Party gig. The result, at any rate, is an intriguing and unique film called FILM.
- Beckett's unique vision
Samuel Beckett's only film--appropriately titled Film--is a short (26 minutes) near-silent piece. Because of that, and because the work invokes the feel of the silent era, albeit in Beckett's peculiar way, it's perfectly fitting that Beckett chose Buster Keaton as the main character (for almost the entire film, the only character). The black-and-white photography, the old furniture, and the peculiar garments of the just-as-old apartment building's tenants all contribute to the mise-en-scene that harkens back to a time when automobiles had only been around for about 20 or 30 years.
There's a perfect link of Beckett's intense focus on the self with Keaton's now-wizened features. When the screen is filled with Keaton's eye alone, you can see the wrinkles surrounding it; you can tell Beckett has more in mind than just doing a close-up. As Keaton arranges and rearranges the things in his sparse living quarters, and goes through pictures of himself, often hiding from the camera, you begin to see what's going on: is he, the character, only who he sees in the mirror, and in pictures, or is he other than that?
For this emphasis on the solipsistic, the length of Film is perfect. Any longer and it could have been a bit tedious. But Keaton lends it a few touches of his by now archetypal humor--wholly improvised--which Beckett found delightful, and Alan Schneider, the director, applauded. This is a unique work that any serious student of film should have in her/his library. It was formerly included in a VHS collection of Keaton's work but now, alas, does not seem to be available any longer.
This is a very odd film. Samuel Beckett's only venture into the motion pictures, oddly enough stars "The Great Stone Face", silent/sound star, Buster Keaton. This film, which is only 20 minutes in length, is Buster Keaton's only venture into the psychological part of the cinema. It has no music, dialogue or sound effects which makes this a truly "silent" film. It is a unique piece of motion picture history.
Buster Keaton .... The Man
Nell Harrison .... Passerby
James Karen .... Passerby
Also Known As:
Runtime: 20 min
Color: Black and White
Sound Mix: Silent