“To be is to be perceived,” wrote the 18th-century Irish philosopher George Berkeley. Some years later, modernist playwright/poet/novelist Samuel Beckett adapted this idea into a six-page script for a film entitled, of all things, Film. Perceiver and perceived are represented by two “characters,” the object (O) and the eye (E). Buster Keaton stars as O, a man who desires to not be perceived by anyone or anything, but cannot escape E, the eye of the camera that doubles as O’s omnipresent “self.” As Beckett explains it, “The perceiver desires like mad to perceive and the perceived tries desperately to hide. Then, in the end, one wins.”
It should come as little surprise that Samuel Beckett’s first and only foray into filmmaking garnered a mixed reception. When shown at the 1965 New York Film Festival as part of a Buster Keaton retrospective, audiences booed, no doubt baffled as to why anyone would cast Keaton in a film yet deliberately obscure his face and include (almost) no physical comedy. Keaton himself struggled to grasp Beckett’s vision, while Beckett called Film “an interesting failure.” It did manage to click with European festival audiences, however, and today, Film stands up as intellectually rich and hardly of its time. Even during a decade as crucial to the rise of independent/avant-garde cinema as the 1960s, how many other amateur filmmakers would have thought to make a silent-era throwback infused with heady philosophizing? Zero is my wild guess.