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  • Writer's pictureS.K. Chishty

Film Review: A film called 'Film' by Samuel Beckett

Today, Beckett's film can be deciphered as a warning against Social Media excesses and surveillance.

Samuel Beckett wrote only one screenplay in his life and like his plays he tried to distill the meaning of the medium in it.

Though 'Film' (1969) was directed by Alan Schneider, it has the discernible authorial stamp of the playwright. Part of the reason could be because Schneider was most well known for interpreting Beckett's works on stage.

In simple terms 'Film' is about a man trying to escape from being watched. The character spends most of the silent film's 22-minute running time trying to evade being looked at, something that cinema is all about - looking and watching.

Film is generally interpreted as the story of a man trying to escape the brutality of an image as is it has the power to reveal our worst aspects. A metaphor for people escaping the thoughts of their own mortality and the fear of facing the toll time takes on human form. The poignant casting of Buster Keaton, a great silent cinema star, only reinforces this.

An artist behind the screen fears the degrading of their mind and the one in front of it, their loss of physical appeal. With the advent of sound in film, many silent film stars lost their livelihood because they could not adjust to the new parameters. It can make a great companion piece with Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard, a noir drama where an old silent film star is waiting in her Gothic mansion to start acting again.

Keaton passed away one year after the release of this film. An act of nature that only cemented this film's meaning as that of a brief, if beautifully dense, essay on the inevitability of the passage of time.

That interpretation still holds today. These themes will never get old and there is a clarity of internal logic here which comes from acute observation. We see stars trying everything they can to stay relevant and attractive - from botox and steroids to physical augmentation.

But if seen in the context of social media and surveillance, the film takes on an even darker and topical meaning.

At the time of its release, there was no internet and since then surveillance has increased leaps and bounds. But the Cold War was at its peak and George Orwell's 1984 was already a literary giant, its paranoia fueling many other fictional narratives. This 'paranoia' is even more justified today than earlier.

Anyone who looks at our unnamed protagonist's pursuer is frightened and disgusted at them.

This is the face of surveillance as we know it today. A phenomenon distilled by Beckett into the image of a one-eyed man (Keaton, again). Significantly, a camera is also 'one-eyed'.

As Keaton's character locks himself up in his ramshackle room, he covers the solitary window and mirror so that he does not see himself. It gradually becomes clear that Keaton is aware of the camera that is following him and has kept his back to it deliberately.

So scared he is of being observed, that he even throws out his pets. This leads to a small 'Keatenesque' set-piece where his pets keep making their way back into the house.

Advertisers and marketers get eyeballs via the natural human tendency to find small animals cute. Cat videos are the most-watched on youtube and many Instagram accounts exist just to display the fascinating behaviors of the feline and their canine counterparts.

This little dance between his efforts to get rid of extra eyes in the house takes a whole new meaning today: How many cute cat videos are you going to delete and avoid before you click on them?

The only other perspective that the film uses is that of this character himself. The world through his eyes is bleary and unclear. Those whose work demands sitting in front of the computer for hours know this effect on their eyes very well and it is uncanny how Beckett and Schneider have been able to capture it so well, if unknowingly.

Later in the film when our character has been able to get rid of all prying eyes (or so it seems), he sits down on a chair that is also designed as eyes. It is here that it becomes clear what Beckett is talking about. Thinking himself free of all invasion, the character opens a folder to take out some photographs. This is what he has left of his memories, at least in physical form. There is a picture of his wedding, his child in his arms, etc. As he is watching these personal artifacts, the One-Eyed Man/Camera sneaks upon him to see what he is looking at. This simple movement evokes the entire nonpareil level of snooping that is going on today. Our protagonist has no option left but to destroy these, probably last, remnants of his life.

The inexorable confrontation is expectedly heartbreaking.

This might seem too bleak for today's audience but there is a glimmer of hope. For a breakthrough can only be arrived at through realization.

There is a moment early on when our hero is trying to go up the stairs and encounters a happy old lady with some flowers. As the lady smiles and whispers, something to the flowers Keaton turns his head and runs to hide below the stairs. Its as if he chooses not to be privy to a private moment. This is where the key to the whole film lies: 

If we are genuinely worried about surveillance and its resulting parade of our private lives & information in public. Or if we truly fear large corporates bidding for our daily online habits, we have to stop being curious about others first. It is this curiosity, this sense of schadenfreude that we revel in that feeds this monster. 

Beckett's only screenplay proves itself to be as timeless in its themes as his other work. Film is a film that needs to be watched and discussed.

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