Monday, February 5, 2007


by Samuel Beckett

"Buster, if they click the title above our picture, they can watch the entire movie."
"Don't make me laugh, Beckett."

Guest Article!
Jeff Larson, NEW YORK CITY

February 5th, 2007 - World Wide Web

In Samuel Beckett’s Endgame -- Cormac McCarthy fans take note: this is the precursor to The Road -- a character says to the others, “Use your head, can’t you, use your head, you’re on earth, there’s no cure for that!” And what a delightfully accurate summary of Beckett’s works it is. Samuel Beckett: the bromide solipsist, the shit satirist, the despair humorist, the maximum minimalist. The ultimate modernist.

Beckett’s works approach life as a purgatorio, as a tedious affair of rotting flesh, locked limbs, and failing bodily functions punctuated by flatulence and discomfort. For Beckett, death merely is an inconvenience, a release to undergo at the end of life, and while watching it draw near, his characters indulge in complex algorithms to stave off boredom with the hope that this sweet release will seem to arrive that much sooner. Yet, Beckett’s talent for conveying comedy darkly removes us from the tedium of their realities. In his novel Malloy, the titular character, who is starving and suffering from an increased inability to use his legs, focuses on sixteen “sucking stones” which he found at the seashore -- this will be long, but here we go:

I distributed them equally among my four pockets, and sucked them turn and turn about. This raised a problem which I first solved in the following way. I had say sixteen stones, four in each of my four pockets these being the two
pockets of my trousers and the two pockets of my greatcoat. Taking a stone from the right pocket of my greatcoat, and putting it in my mouth, I replaced it in the right pocket of my greatcoat by a stone from the right pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone from the left pocket of my trousers, which I replaced by a stone form the left pocket of my greatcoat, which I replaced by the stone which was in my mouth, as soon as I had finished sucking it.

But this solution did not satisfy me fully. For it did not escape me that, by an extraordinary hazard, the four stones circulating thus might always be the same four.

And repeat ad infinitum: Malloy will, of course, go on. The world, for Beckett, contains only these most simple and devastating minutiae of humanity, completely unlike the overwhelmingly beautiful and complex stream of consciousness found in Joyce or Faulkner. This excerpt occurs 40 pages into an 80-page single paragraph which describes Malloy’s increasing inability to survive and his reluctance to do so, and by the end of his journey, he is reduced to slowly crawling forward at less than 14 yards a day. But even in the most tedious of passages, a hint of darkly tainted hilarity bleeds through the futility and insignificance of Malloy’s persistence. Beckett’s novels exclude such pedestrian foofaraws as plot, arc, and often, traditional treatments of character: in Beckett, the characters are always less than human. Whether they are suffering from failing limbs, going blind, or slowly suffocating, these figures often seem to embody mere faint shadows or whispers of the wind. And yet, paradoxically, it is precisely these shortcomings that produce characters who so profoundly and uniquely display existence, and synchronously, all its failings. This singular combinational talent largely accounts for Beckett’s reputation as an extreme bore – Waiting for Godot was once summed up as a play where, “Nothing happens. Twice.” – and, in contrast, a practically knighted champion of literary experimentation.

Beckett, an Irishman and secretary to James Joyce, spent most of his life in France. His sole journey to the States was to enlist Buster Keaton to star in a short film he had written. (Charlie Chaplin, who echoes throughout Beckett’s works – it seems everyone wears a bowler, was his first choice.) In what would be Keaton’s last silent movie, Film opens with an overused, undergraduate shot of Buster Keaton’s eye opening and closing, and unfortunately, the duration of Film feels decidedly French (in the stereotypical sense e.g. self-referential, pandering etc.). However, since his novels and plays were often first published in French before English, his influence on French film – including its preoccupations, and hang-ups -- is deep: Godard reportedly even wanted to film an adaptation of Waiting for Godot, but Beckett balked. Later, we see Buster, 60 years old, nimbly running -- over piles of bricks and construction debris -- alongside a lower eastside New York wall, and nearly tackling a couple standing in his path. This disgusted couple then notices the camera – or, perhaps, Keaton’s pursuer -- and is shocked and dismayed. References of this sort are on par for Beckett, yet often we are to treat them as simple, yet devastatingly dire, jokes: in Endgame, a character, while searching for a living soul outside of his shack after an apocalypse, exclaims, upon turning towards the audience, “I see…. a multitude….in transports …. of joy. […] Well? Don’t we laugh?”

After a scene in which an elderly lady carrying flowers looks at the camera and dies, Keaton rushes into a bare room which contains a cat, a parakeet, a fish, and a dog – plus a mirror, a window, a photo of a statue, and a rocking chair. Over the course of the rest of Film, Keaton will cover up – with the multiple coats that he is wearing – destroy, or remove from the room each of these objects. All the while the camera floats, lazily behind his back and only at the very end do we see Keaton’s face. His goal, we soon realize, is to cease being perceived, for, here, being perceived is to exist. “What a folly! What a boring metaphor for film!” I hear you say. But, there is magic here, if only for the briefest of moments. Keaton is in his element: he has a profoundly difficult time removing the cat and dog -- whenever he throws one out of the room, the other runs back in – and when his coat falls to the floor, he dives to the ground a little too forcefully. And all we can do is laugh, for what a foolish endeavor it is to try to cease to exist and to try this hard. Unlike in Keaton’s other silent films, in this desolate place there is no one left to save, no goal to accomplish. Of course, his project fails, the camera can see him, we can see him, and it turns out he can see himself (in a twist, finally, Keaton observes his pursuer, who is not the camera, but himself).

Film is a spectacular failure, mostly because of its incessant pandering to the theory crowd; it ends with the shot of the eye from the opening sequence, for Christ’s sake. Yet, the dog and cat episode, the sickness-inducing camera movements, and Keaton’s efforts not to be seen are deliciously fun. We celebrate his refusal to live in the present tense, to take place in the here and now, because of his dedication to the cause. And because such blind dedication strikes the rest of us as foolish, the results, through Keaton’s anarchic grace, tremble a tinge of delight and sympathy deep within us. In short, these are complicated and contradictory themes being expressed here, both Keaton’s determined perseverance and his utter failure to accomplish any sort of sane outcome display an exhausting plea for human reality, however fantastic its manifestation may be.

Within this portrayal, Keaton’s determination not to exist contains a distinct odor of heroism – in the classic, and fantastic, sense. This sort of Heroism-through-dedication has its roots everywhere from Odysseus to Hamlet to John Wayne’s Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. All are spectacular failures: Odysseus fails to return to his wrecked home for 19 years while cavorting with a sea nymph, Hamlet pines for the majority of the play only to kill his family and friends, a
nd Ethan Edwards spends 5 years searching for his nemesis only to have the film’s fool find him. And so it is with Keaton, but no one is around to help this hapless hero. His doomed project is merely his own.

(For a more modern, and more successful, take on the themes expressed in Film, check out Matt Larson, directed and shot by the Shuffle’s own Kalen Egan. The similarity between them both is coincidental: we had no knowledge of Film when we made Matt Larson. For all of you out there who insist that the coincidence is too significant, and that we must have been aping, and conversing with, Film: why don’t you just take your salt-and-pepper beards and sweater vests and shove off?)


Spencer Owen said...

Finally, a guy on here that brings some book-readin' to the table. Too bad it's that jerk Beckett.

(oh wait, I mean one of my favorite playwrights, Beckett)

jeff said...

If you think the plays are great, wait until you read the novels. Beckett once said something like he writes plays when taking breaks in between novels. Something to that effect anyway.... Endgame's my favorite. What's yours?

Spencer Owen said...

Well, I'm sort of a novice, despite loving what I've read and seen. I'm a big fan of Godot, boringly. What's more, though, I have the entire DVD set of his filmed plays burned, and I haven't watched more than Endgame... which was great. I should try to watch one a week or something like that.