Archive for Samuel Beckett

Bedtime for Tantalus

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2021 by dcairns

ONE A.M. is a wild experiment. Chaplin resuscitates his drunk act — he hasn’t been this hilariously incapable since the face on the barroom floor — and is the only one on screen for nine-tenths of the action. Poor Albert Austin is frozen like a wax dummy — I always found him uncanny and a bit disturbing as a kid — so he barely counts as co-star.

I invoke the mythical Tantalus because Chaplin plays a man tormented by his environment and its objects. All he wants is to go home and get into bed, but he’s so inebriated his home has become strange to him (he’s horrified by all his stuffed animals) and the furniture and architecture conspire to prevent him doing anything he tries. Even the matches in his pockets are useless to him since he can’t remember the simple sequence of actions that results in a smoke. Which may be for the best — his mishaps get more and more violent and he could easily set the whole hideous joint ablaze. And you can’t rely on the fire brigade in Chaplin World, as we’ve seen.

The struggle with the taxi door, which is milked for longer than you would think possible, a foretaste of tortures to come, is astounding. The bit that really got me hysterical was the attempt to put away his handkerchief in a pocket, but with his arm through the taxi door’s window, so that the door panel intervenes between hanky and trouser. Charlie — definitely not a hobo, he has usurped Leo White’s topper — finds himself vigorously wiping the door rather than pocketing his kerchief.

I watched my old DVD, then the restoration, which looks much, much better but lacks tinting, which I think we need for the opening exterior. It’s never going to look like night, it’s all too glaringly a bright Los Angeles day, but a hint of blue would at least suggest that’s what we should be imagining.

This is another film that seems to have entered Stan Laurel’s DNA, to emerge when needed. Charlie has lost his door key so goes in by the window. Then he finds his key, so he goes out the window again and comes in by the door. Echoed in THE MUSIC BOX’s broken logic when the boys discover the easy way up to Professor von Schwarzenhoffen’s house, and then redundantly use it. Just as the endless, repetitive journey up the stairs made by Chaplin, calculated to make the audience scream with frustration as well as laughter, is echoed by the struggles with the crated player piano.

The slippery floor, upon which the many little rugs glide like magic carpets, frequently sending Charlie tumbling, occasionally transmitting him to just where he wants to be, like Star Trek transporters, sets up another comparison, with Jerry Lewis’ insanely slidey psychiatrist’s office in CRACKING UP. Lewis was more of a Stan Laurel man, I guess, but he clearly absorbed a lot from Chaplin (including the pathos, which comes out funny when Jer tries it). I’d be fascinated to know what Chaplin thought of Lewis, but we already know he’s a better clown and filmmaker than he is a critic. He liked Benny Hill, if that helps.

The best bit of sliding may be the first, because Charlie is trying to steady himself on the door knob, which is attached to a door which is of course hinged, and swinging wildly, a very unsuitable object to steady yourself with, but all he’s got. A good metaphor for drunken stupor. Attempting to combat treachery from the floor leads you to struggle with treachery from the wall.

Every now and then it’s good to remember that Chaplin’s father died from the effects of alcoholism. It’s getting less and less acceptable to laugh at drunk routines, isn’t it? Back in the day, we weren’t supposed to regard drunks as tragic — the falling-down incompetent kind were funny in a way that disabled people weren’t, because it was a temporary, Tom & Jerry kind of physical handicap, and it was self-inflicted. The vicious treatment of the gouty in Chaplin’s films is similarly “justified” by the sufferer being responsible, it would seem, for his own condition.

Personally I’m very happy I wasn’t “protected” from this film as a child. And I have no problem with laughing at Chaplin’s skill (or Arthur Housman’s, or Foster Brooks‘) rather than laughing at alcoholics or alcoholism. But see also Nietzsche’s “A laugh is an elegy for the death of an emotion.” Chaplin is attempting to kill with laughter his most painful memories, and who has a better right?

Onwards, then, to the parade of stuffed animals. It is admittedly implausible, in literal terms, that our hero, who keeps a set of climbing gear and is therefore a traveler and presumably the man who bagged all these big cats, bear, ostrich etc, has forgotten all about this and is thus horrified at finding what he presumes to be his home occupied by wild animals. But there IS a metaphorical truth about the way familiar things can come alive and be uncanny at night. And so, though Chaplin is playing a drunk magnificently, maybe he’s also playing a child, as usual. Drunks don’t SEEM that much like children, but they have regressed to that stage where they don’t have control of their bodies of their emotions, so there’s a confluence.

One can sympathise with Charlie’s dismay at discovering this wretched undead Stouffer lurking at the foot of the stair. This film also features numerous examples of Charlie’s intimacy with the camera. A fresh taxidermic outrage… a wary glance to his chums in the audience — “Can you see it? Is it as bad as it feels?” Yes, Charlie. Yes, it is.

The sawdust atrocity comes into its own when Charlie kicks it and its curving body causes it to banana round and counter-attack. Brilliant comedy physics.

Then the rotating drinks table. A loooooong bit here. Brilliantly extended by having the victim recognise that his snagged cape is the trouble, then having him doff the cape, but tread in it, so his foot drags it along and it’s STILL snagged and so off we go again. I always assumed that Beckett’s Act Without Words and its sequels were primarily Keaton-derived, but a case could be made for Chaplin exerting an influence through this film, or at least mining similar terrain.

Fiona observed that a lot of what happens here would work well for Keaton, and is the kind of thing we associate more with him. Keaton, in fact, rarely played drunk, but in the thirties often was drunk. But he certainly struggled with objects which sometimes seemed imbued with a malign consciousness. The line between alive and inert is blurred, erased. Chaplin is usually more in command of this, can get away with treating people as objects, objects as people. Keaton transforms one thing into another without conscious choice, simply thinking with his body and adapting. Chaplin seems to generate a protean field around himself which allows things and people to swap qualities. A dangerous thing to mess around with — look what happens when he gets drunk.

“Familiar objects seem to stir with a writhing furtive life.” William S. Burroughs.

And enjoy the sight of Charlie in tight trousers for once. The black-sheened spider legs become more expressive — the baggy pants actually robbed us of many possibilities, but gave us an indelible outline.

Failing to light cigarette after cigarette, or the same cigarette multiple times, leads Charlie to climb atop the spinning table and try to reach the chandelier, a doomed effort. A little later, it will turn out he has another match after all, which is the way of these things, isn’t it?

Incidentally, I don’t much like the intertitles, which try too hard to be “witty.” Replacing them with inarticulate grunts and swearing would emphasise the basic miserable reality of what we’re facing.

Now to the stairs. After throwing his silk hat onto a stuffed ostrich with perfect finesse — the hostile universe will allow Charlie the occasional, purely trivial triumph — our adventurer sets off upstairs. He’d used a wire to allow Eric Campbell to hold him aloft by the throat in THE FLOORWALKER and it’s possible he uses one to let him lean back at the top of the stairs, another to let him slide down feet first on his belly each time he loses his balance. The stairs look to be heavily padded, anyway, which is a kind of relief.

The further up he goes — in Freudian terms, into the higher conscious — the more vicious the house gets. The clock with the Poe-esque pendulum is completely impractical, a literal health and safety nightmare. It guards the bedroom door like Cerberus. Playing it safe, Charlie slides along the wall like Cesare the somnambulist and is biffed on the chin by the clock’s pugilistic upswing, sending him downstairs again.

Many, many attempts later, Charlie tries the other stair, is terrified by a stuffed bear, and eventually makes it — twice — using the coat stand which had proved useless for hanging coats but makes a neat if precarious climbing frame. A tussle with a stuffed bear, and he gains the bedroom, after adding concussion to inebriation via a round with the killer clock.

The Murphy bed is the boss villain of this fever-dream game. Fiona points out that no rich drunken hunter/mountaineer would have a Murphy bed, something Chaplin might have encountered in cheap rooming houses during his Karno tour of the States. Anyway, this bed is possessed. It’s main desire seems to be to prevent Charlie sleeping in it, or perhaps to destroy him. Starting gradually, it displays more and more independent action, and more complex movements, being able to flip like a YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN secret panel, lower like a drawbridge, then pull up from the head, reversing itself. It has the alarming, unnatural flexibility of Linda Blair’s neck.

Fiona, having laughed harder at this than anything in Chaplin apart from THE CIRCUS’ monkey attack, which reduced her to breathless narration, as if by describing what was happening she could lessen its side-splitting agony, began to grow tired of the bed, but then laughed when Charlie leapt onto it as it rose, ripping the bed from the frame.

“Oh well, at least it can’t hurt him now,” she said, and on cue the bedframe viciously tripped its victim.

To the bathroom. The film MUST be ending soon. The attempt to fill a glass of water from the shower drew laughs of anticipation, then bigger laughs when the reaction to a drenching exceeded all anticipation, and when the shower’s exit could not be found, owing to the camera angle concealing it. Charlie performs a full circle of the interior without locating it, and so attempts to climb out…

Finally he beds down, sodden, in the bath, with a wet towel for a blanket, his deep stupor finally coming to his aid by making him oblivious of his miserable, wet, freezing, hard-surface discomfort. The End — of a comedy of frustration beyond even Bunuel.

The Sunday Intertitle: Not Notfilm

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 10, 2020 by dcairns

It feels mean to have a go at NOTFILM, Ross Lipman’s documentary about the making of Samuel Beckett’s FILM. Lipman has all the right materials and a potentially great subject and has spoken to some of the key people, but he is not the right person to be making the film.

When he says “Barney Rosset conducted his last interview,” he means, “I conducted Barney Rosset’s last interview.” Maybe this is modesty. But it’s also misuse of the word “conduct.” And a person who uses words sloppily cannot make a satisfactory film about the precise Beckett.

“One can file these works, almost in sequence, before and after FILM.” I have no idea what this means, or why Lipman says it so portentously. Actually, I can file Beckett’s work absolutely in sequence, before and after FILM.

“Beckett’s was the only that would be completed.” This is just a horrible sentence, the missing word “one” giving the feeling of climbing a flight of stairs and imagining there’s one more step, and having that lurching feeling when it isn’t there.

I liked it when he cut between Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN and Vertov’s MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA in such a way that it felt continuous, but I didn’t like it when he did absurd 1980s video effects, where the image puckers up and shrinks into a ball, etc. I felt that a person who uses images so sloppily couldn’t possibly make a film about the precise Keaton.

There are a lot of great stills and documents… Both the subject, and the fact that the key personalities are dead and have left limited documentation, seem to invite an experimental approach, but apart from the intrusive Kenny Everett Video Show effects, the piece unfolds like the most standard-issue documentary. The default film.

However, within that constraining frame, there is plenty of good stuff — the fact that Boris Kaufman, cinematographer of FILM, was Dziga Vertov’s youngest brother produces not only historical connections but trapdoors into philosophical pondering which Lipman plungers down, investigating the points of contact between Vertov’s all-seeing camera eye and Beckett’s.

This is a two-hour film about a twenty-minute film, but oddly that’s not a problem. If the material were handled more deftly, I can imagine it flying by, and it still manages to trundle fairly effectively.

But asides from the philosophical trapdoors, Lipman also drops down some sinkholes of cliché, devoting line after line to Keaton’s “expressionless stone face.” All wrong. Keaton’s face is not expressionless and it does not leave itself open to interpretation, as Lipman asserts. And FILM has some of the more overt facial acting of any Keaton film, so this is both a failure to observe and willingness to be led by received wisdom.

The most useful interviewee is James Karen, the man who was there — he seems to have been responsible for getting Keaton into the film, something he had cause to regret.

Another really useful person to have spoken to — and one who would have fitted right in with the doc’s pattern of catching people right before they checking out — Barney Rosset and James Karen and Haskell Wexler are no longer with us, alas — would have been Karen Black. I can’t blame Lipman for not tracking her down — her involvement in this tale is only a random fact adrift in my brain like an earwig in a cup of coffee. In some old issue of films & filming magazine, a profile, which also mentions her performing Bowie’s Time while dressed as a Nazi stormtrooper in her cabaret act — Black recalls witnessing the NYC location shoot of FILM, and being horrified by Alan Schneider’s yelling instructions to Keaton during a take. “How can you do your job with someone yelling at you?” she asks, reasonably enough.

But I think Schneider was (a) being a silent film director of the old school, something Keaton probably didn’t mind, and (2) cueing Buster for the moment where, as indicated in the script, his character, O, senses without seeing, the approach of E, the film’s other major character, played by the camera itself. What doesn’t work, though, is the end result: in the film, it looks as if Buster is waiting for the word “Action,” and then takes off on command. Buster, of course, could play anything he could understand, like Ginger Rogers. He didn’t understand, or particularly like, Beckett’s script, though his eventual guess as to its meaning is not a bad one: a man can hide from everyone except himself. Beckett wouldn’t have put it like that, but it comes close enough to the authorial intent to be playable.

Karen complains that the filmmakers didn’t let Buster in on their thinking, and in Schneider’s published reminiscences (quoted too sparingly here), he makes it clear he found Keaton uncommunicative, closed off (Keaton was fairly deaf by this time, which Schneider seemingly didn’t know). Beckett was partially blind, Keaton deaf, and Schneider was a complete novice to cinema. I think Beckett’s notes about “the angle of immunity” wouldn’t have meant anything to him — Keaton isn’t likely to be open to learning a new concept of film terminology, one personal to Beckett, at this late stage in his life. But a direction like “you don’t SEE the camera, but you sense it’s there suddenly, and you want to escape it,” would have worked and even with his back to the camera, Keaton could have TOTALLY have acted that.

I should say that the doc has some tremendous material: recordings of Beckett in conference, outtakes, and clips from a pin-sharp transfer of a film I’ve only ever seen in fuzzy form.

Oh, and THE LOVABLE CHEAT! This is a 1949 film in which Keaton appears, alongside Charles Ruggles, Peggy Ann Garner and Alan Mowbray. It’s based on a play by Balzac which Beckett denied having read (lying bastard), in which a bunch of characters await an unseen figure named Godot. In the Balzac play and the film, however, Godot finally arrives, and everybody’s really happy. Personally I think Lipman missed a trick here — opening with the jubilations about Godot’s arrival, which are funny only because of their absurd resonance, without any explanation of how this sequence came to exist, would have been really striking. Lipman, by taking us through events in a more rational order, has spoiled the surprise. It’s still really funny, though.

Oh, and I think he should have compared the scene in SHERLOCK JR where Buster struggles to get himself incorporated the film within the film (he uses plenty of clips from that one but not this bit) with Beckett’s Act Without Words I, which seems to be telling the same story. (If Beckett denied the influence, again, he’s a big fat liar.)

Don’t Let the Bastards Grind You Down

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on December 17, 2010 by dcairns

A student of mine once revealed that a friend of his dad’s was some kind of a film director. “His name’s Karel Reisz. I know he did something called SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING. Is that any good?”

I told him it was, and filled him in slightly on the movie, including the catchphrase quoted above. “That came from his movie?” asked the student. Well, really it came from Alan Sillitoe and his book, but it’s great that Reisz helped popularize it, make it part of everyday philosophy like that.

Reisz’s last work has been lurking in my unwatched pile for quite a while — Samuel Beckett’s Act Without Words I, directed by Reisz (who hadn’t worked for some years, and may already have been ill) for a compendium of Beckett adaptations (Atom Egoyan’s Krapp’s Last Tape with John Hurt is rather good).

Maybe I was too influenced by the knowledge that Beckett was influenced by Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK JNR, but I had trouble adjusting to the look and feel of Reisz’s version. In a blue-skied studio desert, a nameless, wordless man (Sean Foley) is tormented by his environment, which dangles a bottle of water just out of reach, offers him boxes to help him to climb to the suspended drink, then raises the drink further up. He’s a silent comedy version of Tantalus, imprisoned in a Hell of eternally frustrated desires. Even suicide is denied him, a hangman’s branch folding up uselessly when he approaches with an improvised noose.

Foley is quite good, throwing himself around the set with some athleticism, his face a mask of suffering — comedy is undercut. But the framing and cutting don’t have Keaton’s absolute clarity. In a world where objects shift about in obedience to some malign disembodied whim, it’s no good for Reisz to allow the hanging beaker of water to slip out of frame for long periods — we can’t assume it’s still there if we can’t see it. When the narrative point is that the water is unreachable, including a little dune in the foreground which makes it look as if the man could leap from it to catch the water, is a serious compositional blunder.

Even the dayglo sky, which I found not too attractive in itself, betrays some visible wrinkles in one shot. If they’d been like the creased diorama of FRANKENSTEIN’s blasted heath, I might have liked them, but they just seem like a flaw in something that’s already ugly. Compared to the lovely low-res video of Beckett’s own German TV work, this wasn’t what I’d call pretty.

For Reisz at his best, try the above-mentioned Albert Finney kitchen sink drama, as well as MORGAN: A SUITABLE CASE FOR TREATMENT, with a superb David Warner, and THE GAMBLER, a really strong James Caan piece, epitomizing 70s New Hollywood despair, written by James Toback.

UK: Morgan, A Suitable Case For Treatment [DVD]

Beckett On Film [DVD]