Posted by Richard Harland Smith on November 22, 2013
In July of 1963, acclaimed Irish playwright/poet/novelist/weirdo Samuel Beckett traveled to New York City to oversee the filming of his first and only screenplay, a silent two-reeler starring Buster Keaton. Would you like to know how that all came about? Me, too. So let’s get our checkbooks out…
Having already written a play titled PLAY, I suppose it was logical for Sam Beckett to write a film called FILM. Actually, the idea was (if I’m following the story correctly — there are discrepancies) that of Grove Press head honcho Barney Rosset, who commissioned the script with the intention of publishing it himself. Truth be told, I don’t know a lot of the production history, or really in whose brain the idea first sparked to life, but the project became a going concern in the middle of 1963, coincidental with Beckett’s one and only trip to America. Tapped to direct the experimental short subject was Alan Schneider, who had helmed the first, disastrous staging of Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT at Florida’s Coconut Grove Playhouse in January 1956. Schneider had also by this time directed an abridged adaptation of the play for television in 1961, starring Burgess Meredith as Vladimir and Zero Mostel as Estragon, with Kurt Kaznar and Alvin Epstein retained from the vastly more successful, albeit brief, Broadway run (as Pozzo and Lucky, respectively), and FLIPPER’s Luke Halpin cast as Boy. FILM was made in conjunction with the Evergreen Theatre, an Off-Broadway venue soon to be bought by Rosset and Grove Press and later converted from a live performance space to an art house cinema. The project was written by Beckett specifically with Charlie Chaplin in mind to star and a script was sent off to Chaplin post haste.
Long story short — Chaplin never read the script; in fact, he refused to read unsolicited scripts, even if one were to come from someone as renowned and acclaimed as Beckett (at this point five or six years away from his Nobel Prize for Literature — but still!). Beckett and Schneider considered Zero Mostel as a replacement but Mostel, too, was unavailable, starring as he was in the Broadway hit A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM. (Even if he had not been otherwise engaged, Mostel likely would not have been an ideal candidate for the rigors of FILM, having suffered a traumatic leg injury in 1960, which caused him considerable pain and incapacity for the rest of his life.) Also considered was Irish actor Jack MaGowran, who had a history of collaboration with Beckett and had starred in Beckett’s END OF DAY in Dublin in 1962. The history seems to indicate that MacGowran (who went on big roles in Roman Polanski’s THE FEARLESS VAMPIRE KILLERS) and William Friedkin’s THE EXORCIST) was interested in the assignment but had to bow out at the last minute when he was called abroad to play a supporting part in LORD JIM (1965), starring Peter O’Toole. Apparently the notion to cast Buster Keaton came from one of FILM‘s bit players, a young stage actor named James Karen, and here’s where the story gets a little weird.
A graduate of New York’s Neighborhood Playhouse and the Actor’s Studio, James Karen was at the time a reliable Broadway stand-in, having been on tap to replace — if necessary — Karl Malden in the original 1949 production of A STREETCAR NAMED DESIRE directed Elia Kazan and both George Grizzard and Arthur Hill in the 1962 Broadway premiere of Edward Albee’s WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF – directed by Alan Schneider. Anyone growing up on the East Coast in the 70s and 80s will remember Karen as “the Pathmark Guy” (from countless regional commercials) but the Psychotronic crowd has long en-cult-ed him as an integral part of the classics FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE SPACE MONSTER (1965), POLTERGEIST (1982), and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD (1985). So, that guy.
Karen was a big fan of Buster Keaton and became friends with the aging silent screen star. At his urging, Schneider and Beckett considered the possibility. Allegedly, Schneider was against the idea, knowing Keaton primarily from his then-recent appearances in American International Pictures’ “Beach Party” films and from various TV commercials. The party line on Keaton was that he was a has-been, whose once brilliant career as a silent screen innovator had crumbled in the face of advancing age and alcoholism. Beckett’s take on the casting notion is a little more difficult to sort out. Some references claim that Beckett had no idea who Keaton was, requiring Karen to set up a screening of Keaton’s old silents at the Museum of Modern Art; other sources maintain that Beckett saw many of Keaton’s early films while doing his undergraduate studies in Dublin and that the Everyman characters played by Keaton (and Chaplin) were key to the Beckett universe of galloping absurdity. (Further muddying the waters is Keaton’s peripheral appearance in the 1949 film THE LOVABLE CHEAT, which revolves around a man staving off disaster as he waits for the return of his partner, Godeau. It remains a bone of contention whether Beckett was inspired by this film to write his existential farce WAITING FOR GODOT or if the idea came from the source material, a play by Honore de Balzac, staged for the first time in 1851.) But anyway, I did say long story short, didn’t I?
FILM was shot during a typically sweltering New York summer, with Keaton — who didn’t really understand what the hell Beckett and Schneider were on about — running around lower Manhattan in a thick winter coat, playing a man — it seems — in mortal fear of being seen. A meta celebration of cinema and the dialectic of perception (to see and to be seen), the film was given a grand push at the 1965 Venice Film Festival, where Keaton was hailed by Italians as “Caro Buster” and both Schneider and Beckett worried that FILM was being received not as a Beckett film but as a Keaton film. And we could argue that point ad nauseam but it hardly is the point in light of the historic and cultural significance of this project. The film itself can be seen more or less in its entirely on YouTube (though the presentation is, of course, hardly optimal). The reason I write to you today is to inform you that there is a plan afoot to make a feature length documentary about the making of FILM and to put you in touch with the crowdfunding info to help you kick in, if you are so inclined. NOTFILM is a “kino-essay” by Ross Lipman and Milestone Film and Video that uses talking head testimonials (Karen, Billie Whitelaw, Leonard Maltin, Kevin Brownlow, and others) as well as surviving behind-the-scenes materials and outtake footage that was discovered moldering under a sink in Barney Rosset’s apartment!
It’s a hell of a story and I know I need to know how it all came together. The fundraising goal is $95,000, which comprises approximately half of NOTFILM‘s budget. As of this writing, $20,000 has already been raised and there are 28 days left in the campaign. Give what you can. Among the wide range of incentives is a copy of the FILM/NOTFILM DVD for those who contribute $75 (for $85, you get the Blu-ray) and $250 gets you onscreen thanks. $2,500 gets you credit and dinner with James Karen (who turns 90 at the end of the month), so you can have the satisfaction of having made a significant contribution to cinema and whilst yelling “You son of a bitch, you left the bodies and you only moved the headstones! YOU ONLY MOVED THE HEADSTONES! WHYYYYYYYYY?!!! WHYYYYYYYYYYY?!!!” Alternatively, you can ask him about Samuel Beckett or Buster Keaton but, you know, your money your call.
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