2016 Film Essays

Streamless – Off the Subscription Grid: ‘Film’ Starring 1965 Buster Keaton

Mike Postalakis doesn’t have a streaming subscription account, but he does have YouTube. These are his stories.

I wish I were smarter. Lord knows I try. I’ve half-read some of the greatest novels of all time. In college, I signed up for a semiotics course and dropped it mid-semester. But I talk a good game. At parties, I can muster up enough passable “knowledge” on a variety of subjects: art, science, some politics. But every once in a while, I get caught knowing less than I proclaim. Recently, I was involved in a discussion with a few others (a poet, two movie critics and one disgraced magician) about the life and work of Samuel Beckett. Now, I’ve read my fair share of Beckett such as Malone Dies (which I think is about a pencil), Molloy and another book… I can’t remember the name.

Aiming for “blown mind” status, I asked the group if they had ever seen the Sammy B collab with the one and only Buster Keaton. None of them had, nor had they even heard of it. With a boastful smile, I declared it a MASTERPIECE.
“What’s it about?” asked the disgraced magician. I stood there stumped, unable to describe the film, entitled Film. I wasn’t lying… I did watch the short in college. I just hadn’t the foggiest idea what the damn thing was about.

With the party over, I decided that I needed to watch it again. And again. And again until my mind melded with the great Irish playwright — until I unlocked every hidden meaning. Until I got it. Or until Bonanza came on TV Land at 3pm. Now there’s a good show.

First, a little backstory: in 1964, Beckett was commissioned by Barney Rosset, owner of Grove Press, to produce a film script, any length, any genre — as long as it was pure, sweet Beckett. This would be the playwright’s first foray into the realm of cinema. Four days later, Beckett dropped on Rosset’s desk some 40-odd pages, loose leaf, about a man named O. And that’s about it, plot-wise. Rosset couldn’t make heads or tails of it — which was perfect. But who would play O?

Offers were sent out to Charlie Chaplin, Zero Mostel and even Jack MacGowran (a veteran of Beckett productions). They all passed. Beckett then had the hot idea of casting Buster Keaton, as he had enjoyed The Great Stone Face’s films as a child. Only one issue: nobody knew where Keaton was. Broke, near homeless, and suffering from alcoholism, Keaton had been all but forgotten in Hollywood and most of his films were thought to be lost to degradation. Production found him living in a trailer across the street from Paramount Studios. Keaton didn’t even read the script. He would do the film. What else was he doing?

Filming commenced on July 24 in New York City. Directed by Alan Schneider, who had directed “Waiting for Godot” on Broadway, it was a pleasurable shoot (from all accounts). There were script changes made on the fly — mostly by Beckett, who was on set; his first and only trip to the States. Even Keaton was able to keep it together, despite the fact that he was very ill.

Film opens uncomfortably close on an eyelid. The eye slowly opens, closes, then opens again. Viewers may be reminded of the great Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dalí short Un Chien Andalou, but there’s no slicing up eyeballs here. The camera pans away from the eyeball, up towards a wall of some old factory. The camera moves are jerky; the eye is searching. The eye is a character — known in the script as E.

There’s a violent swing to the right and a man (O) emerges, hurrying along the wall. O stops to hug the wall; the eye tries to focus on him, but there’s only a glimpse of his long overcoat and a hat pulled over his face — he’s holding a briefcase. Knowing he’s been spotted, O cowers against the wall and takes pause before running off again. He barges into a couple, mid-conversation. The gentleman’s hat is knocked off, but O is already gone. The couple turns and looks at E, baffled by the proceedings. There’s a cut back to O. He’s found a doorway. He enters.

O goes up a flight of stairs in a dilapidated tenement. O is tired from the chase. He checks his pause. But E returns, and O is met by a frail old woman, a tray of flowers dangling from her neck. She is wildly terrifying. O watches as she falls down the flight of stairs. A close-up of her face changes from terror to the same confused look of the previous scene’s couple (and, frankly, my own look as well).

At this point (it’s 2:45 and Bonanza is on the horizon), Film moves to a small room, occupied with a basket containing a dog and cat, a fishbowl with goldfish swimming around and an unframed picture of the face of “God the Father.” O completely dismantles the room; he covers the fishbowl, pulls the curtains, banishes the cat and dog to the outside — anything that can see him disabled. He sits alone in a chair. He finds a folder, opens it and goes through a series of photographs, all of him, which are in sequence — from infant to child to young man. After closely studying the photos, he rips them up and silently rocks in his chair. Eventually the rocking slows to a halt, and O puts his hands over his eyes. There’s a cut to the face of E — just his eyes — watching O. The screen goes black.

How are we doing here, folks? Does any of this make a lick of sense? What if I told you a story about a family of ranchers, all males, who hire a drunk as a ranch hand — against the better judgment of patriarch Ben. The drunk is soon fired, lazy bastard. Then Hoss, the eldest son, discovers the drunk is actually a famous poet. Those Cartwright boys then help the poet turn his life around. Sound exciting? It was a particularly good episode of Bonanza. Lonny Chapman played the Drunk/Poet. He was always good. I wonder if that magician digs Westerns?

Mike Postalakis (@mikepostalakis) is a writer, director and comedian living in Los Angeles. He doesn’t have a Netflix, Hulu, Amazon or HBO Go account. Instead, he spends his extra money at the Gap.