This paper will probe the exploration of the ontological status of human subjectivity and consciousness in Samuel Beckett’s only film titled Film. The protagonist O (for Object) is in flight of the camera E (for Eye) but eventually discovers that E is not extraneous to self. Beckett deploys Bishop Berkeley’s dictum ‘esse est percipi’ as a motto for Film, which means to be is to be perceived. To Berkeley one exists because the all-seeing Eye of God ensures that everything and everyone are in perception. However, Beckett uses this in a post-Nietzsche world in which there is no God. He has been replaced by human apperception: to be is to be perceived by oneself. O objects to being the object of E’s gaze but in vain, as he discovers in the final unheimliche encounter that E is a projection of himself. The camera metaphor is based on a pun on the homonymic equivocation of the camera I/eye; it is both a perceiving eye but also a projection of the I of O. In the script to Film, Beckett states that O is in ‘Search of non-being’, but the impossibility of escaping his decentred and fragmented ontological status inflicts anxiety.
Chapter four in Peter Brooks’ Reading for the Plot, entitled ‘Freud’s Masterplot: A Model for Narrative’ uses the psychoanalytic notion of the death drive (thanatos) to describe desires in narratives, and this is very fecund to the discussion of alterity in Film; the search of non-being is a movement forward but such a ‘progress may also be […] the narrative of an attempted homecoming: of the effort to reach an assertion of origin through ending, the time before in the time after [or simply] that transcendent home.’ In the script Beckett says that the room O ends up in ‘may be supposed [to be] his mother’s [but that] this has no bearing on the film and need not be elucidated.’ This remark is moving as it has great bearing on the film. What started out as a quest for the tomb also becomes a quest for the womb (Beckett uses this rhyme in More Pricks than Kicks and Molloy). Failure is central to Film (indeed, to all of Beckett’s works) and neither the flight from apperception nor the craving for death and the embryonic pre-life prove successful.
Exploring the theme of otherness in Samuel Beckett’s only film entitled Film, the aim of this essay is threefold: first, I probe the exploration of the ontological status of human subjectivity and consciousness in the movie; this analysis will draw on the philosophies of George Berkeley, René Descartes and Jacques Lacan, and their ideas will, along with Beckett’s own outline of his project in the manuscript, be applied to the reading of the screenplay. The central thesis of this part of the essay is that the protagonist endeavours to eschew the Other of extraneous perception but also the Other of selfhood to achieve a state of non-being. Second, I propose a new reading of Filmwhich focuses on two psychoanalytic themes, the uncanny and the death drive, and their importance to Film; my thesis is that the search of non-being may be seen as a manifestation of a death drive, and that that may furthermore be viewed as a longing for life in the womb (a theme which is often present in Beckett’s works, but which critics to my knowledge have not yet touched upon in relation to Film). Finally, my essay will provide a comment on Deleuze’s reading of the movie. Deleuze has provided one of the most influential and insightful readings of Film, but the implications of my reading will suggest that Deleuze’s understanding of the ending is mistaken.
Film is a silent black-and-white movie and is approximately 24 minutes long. The script was made in 1963; it was shot in 1964 and premiered at the New York Film Festival in 1965. The main character O (played by Buster Keaton, age 68 and 18 months before his death) is fleeing from the camera E who in turn chases O. Beckett has divided the film into three different sections: 1.) ‘The Street’, 2.) ‘The Stairs’ and 3.) ‘The Room’. ‘The Room’ is by far the longest and most important part so my interpretation will focus heavily on this particular section.
As a motto for Film Beckett employs the Irish philosopher George Berkeley’s dictum : ‘esse est percipi’ which roughly means ‘to be is to be perceived’. Berkeley’s main claim is that objects of perception have no knowable existence outside the mind that perceives them. As a consequence of this, one might mistrust the existence of the material world as such; say, if a twig falls off an oak without anyone perceiving it, can one positively assert that it actually took place? To Berkeley, however, the almighty and ubiquitous God keeps everyone and everything in percipi, and hence ensures existence. Beckett does not inherit the dictum without alterations. In the script he says that ‘no truth value attaches to above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience’ (Beckett, 2006, 323). Beckett wrenches it out of its original context and inserts it in a world in which God does not possess the same position as he did at Berkeley’s times.
God keeping all in percipi still haunts Film, but it has nonetheless been replaced by human apperception; to be is to be perceived by one self. At this point it is fecund to make use of the philosophy of René Descartes whose thought also had a substantial impact on Beckett. Descartes doubted everything in order to arrive at some truth which was beyond doubt; he ended up with the famous phrase: ‘Cogito, ergo sum’ which means ‘I think, therefore I am’ (whether a person’s thoughts are true or false, he must essentially exist in order to have these true or false thoughts, the argument goes). It is very interesting that this phrase inevitably entails a fragmentation of the subject’s unity: human consciousness is necessarily multiplied, as the one who thinks and the one whois cannot possibly be in the same place. Jacques Lacan has shown this by deconstructing Descartes’ phrase in Seminar XIV titled ‘The Logic of Fantasy’ : Cogito: ‘ergo sum’. He inserts a colon after Cogito and encircles Ergo Sum in quotation marks to indicate the chasm between the two. In addition to this he creates a number of paraphrases to support his point: ‘I am not where I think; either I think or I am; either I don’t think or I am not; I am where I don’t think; I think where I am not’. Hence selfhood is split – not necessarily to indicate a psychiatric diagnosis of mental disorder but – in its very nature. This comprehension of human apperception is fundamental to Film as my interpretation endeavours to demonstrate.
In addition to Berkeley’s dictum, Beckett’s script provides the following general notes about his film project:
General. Esse est percipi. All extraneous perception suppressed, animal, human, divine, self-perception maintains in being.Search of non-being in flight from extraneous perception breaking down in inescapability of self-perception.No truth value attaches to above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience. (Beckett, 2006, 323)
This outline of his project is unique, as Beckett is always reluctant to comment on the meaning of his works of art. One of the salient phrases (in addition to the Berkeley-quotation, of course) is ‘search of non-being’, which is translated into the movie by filming O taking his pulse thrice to see if he is still alive . The main character has been physically divided into O for object and E for eye (the chasing camera eye), to indicate the doubling consequence of being a thinking being. If to be is to be perceived and if O is in search of non-being, then he must strive to avoid perception – to eschew being perceived by Others. In the first and second section of Film, O flees from both human perception and from the camera E (self-perception). For the flight from E Beckett has created a convention of perception: when E is filming O from behind and at an angle not exceeding 45 degrees, the perception is beyond O’s consciousness. This zone is described as an ‘angle of immunity’ and when it is exceeded O experiences an ‘anguish of perceivedness’ (Beckett, 2006, 324, 323). When the couple in the first section, the old lady on the stairs and O at the end look directly into the camera, their facial expression is described as one ‘only […] corresponding to an agony of perceivedness’ (Beckett, 2006, 325). As Deleuze notes (in Cinema 1) this ‘angle of immunity’ is extended to 90 degrees in the room, because O is no longer running next to a wall, so that E can film both to the left and to the right of O. In ‘the street’ and ‘the stairs’ O attempts to avoid human perception. In ‘the room’ O has to suppress animal and divine perception, and finally self-perception (including his memory/life story). The latter turns out to be impossible. In the rest of this paper I will investigate this failure and its implications extensively.
Having successfully fled from human perception (a couple on the street and an old woman on the stairs) and arrived in a closed room, O now presumes that his search of non-being is nearly complete. Therefore, an extra point of view is added, namely that of O’s. In order to distinguish between O’s and E’s perspectives, gauze is put over the camera lens whenever we see O’s vision (in other words indicating that he might suffer from for example cataracts). The camera then cuts between their visions, so that O’s vision introduces items in the room while E continues to follow O from behind. Thus it creates what David Bordwell has termed an intellectual montage, defined as ‘[t]he juxtaposition of a series of images to create an abstract idea not present in any one image’ (Bordwell & Thompson, 2004, 503). The two perspectives reinforce the sense of the subject being split and support the theme of apperception as such.
In the first part of the room, O has to prepare it by removing any means of perception. Hence, a dog and a cat are thrown out of the room (several times) and a fish tank with a goldfish in it and a parrot are covered over, as is a mirror (to avoid being confronted with his phantasmatic image) and a picture of God (to suppress being reminded of a possible divine spectator); in addition to this, the curtain is drawn on the one window in the room.
In the second part of ‘the room’ sequence, O sits in a rocking chair, examining pictures from a folder. Their function is analeptic, summarising his life from earliest childhood to his present stage. There is a total number of seven pictures: 1.) he is held in his mother’s arms as an infant, being six months old, 2.) the same motif, now four years old, 3.) he is playing with a dog, fifteen years old, 4.) he is graduating, age 20, 5.) he is pictured with his fiancé, twenty-one years old 6.) He is wearing an army uniform and holding a little girl, and finally 7.) He resembles O in his present situation. The script describes the seventh picture thus: ‘30 years. Looking over 40. Wearing hat and overcoat. Patch over left eye. Cleanshaven. Grim expression’  (Beckett, 2006, 329). Some unspoken event has taken place between picture six and seven. His prospects were looking good; he had an education, a wife, a child and a career. But in the final picture they are all gone and he looks old, despondent and worn out. This missing gap in the story of his life (what Wolfgang Iser calls ‘Leerstellen’ in his reader-response-criticism) may be filled out by various fabulations: perhaps his wife or child have died, or he has been at war and that is what has caused his ‘grim expression’ . All this, however, is mere speculation; all one may conclude is that something has gone seriously wrong. This might provide a psychological motivation for his ‘search of non-being’. Having examined the pictures, O destroys them in reversed order, finally destroying the picture of his infancy (which significantly is more difficult to destroy than the other pictures, which I will elaborate on below). The pictures function as metaphor for his memory, and therefore their destruction is indispensable to his succeeding in his quest.
In the final sequence of the film, E finally exceeds the ‘angle of immunity’ and O is filmed from the front (having fallen asleep in the rocking chair in which he sits). O wakes up and looks directly at E, realizing it is himself; the script describes this encounter as follows:
O half starts from chair, then stiffens, staring up at E. Gradually that look. Cut to E, of whom this very first image […]. It is O’s face (with patch) but with very differentexpression, impossible to describe, neither severity nor benignity, but rather acute intentness. (Beckett, 2006, 329)
Although O has escaped extraneous human perception, destroyed a picture of God and tried to erase his memory, it is impossible for him to avoid human apperception. The word ‘intentness’ which describes E’s facial expression is a noun derived from the adjective ‘intent’, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘having the mind strenuously bent on something; earnestly attentive, sedulously occupied, eager, assiduous; bent, resolved.’ It furthermore designates that this confrontation is deliberate. The camera metaphor is made explicit here, as E has been the chasing camera throughout the film. That E is the camera is also supported by the fact that he has a patch over the one eye, so that he can only see with one eye, like a camera. His name puns on the signifier’s homonymic equivocation eye/I. This also means that E’s (and O’s) one eye symbolises his desire to have just one I, and hence it epitomises the flight from apperception and the doubling of selfhood which this causes in a quite refined way.
Having recognised the inevitability of E’s look of ‘acute intentness’, O buries his face in his hands and stops rocking in the chair, meanwhile the screen goes black. His endeavours have failed. The ambiguity in his name designates this nicely: he is theobject of the story but he also objects to being the object. But as he is the object of the film he cannot evade being perceived; even the visual or graphic shape of his name ‘O’ imitates the shape of the watching eye.
The escape from apperception is not, however, the only thing that goes wrong; the curtain which was drawn to seal O off from the external world is riddled; there is a clear mark on the wall where the picture of God used to hang, a trace in the Derridean meaning of the word: the picture’s absence will always contain its presence as part of its meaning. It is furthermore made clear that human apperception has substituted God’s perception as E is starring at O at the exact spot where the picture of God used to hang. The nail left on the wall might even be a reminder of the crucifixion of Christ – the script even bothers to mention this: ‘A big nail is visible near the left temple (patch side)’ (Beckett, 2006, 329).
The effect of this final encounter between O and E is unheimlich or uncanny. Freud notes that the word heimlich first and foremost means ‘belonging to the house, not strange, familiar, tame, intimate, friendly, etc.’ (Freud, 1998, 342). However, for some reason it also veers into its opposite meaning ‘concealed, kept from sight, so that others do not get to know of or about it, withheld from others’. So in the very definition of the word heimlich it becomes unheimlich. In Film O had thought that if he eluded all extraneous perception he would attain his desired state of non-being, but in the end he discovers that the chasing camera (of which he has been un- or pre-conscious throughout the film) is not merely something from the outside but also something interior to himself, the Other of himself. Bennet & Royle writes that ‘the uncanny is not simply a matter of the mysterious, bizarre or frightening: […] it involves a kind of duplicity (both doubling and deception) within the familiar’ (Bennett & Royle, 2004, 40). Thus, Film is also about the discovery of a foreign Other body within oneself. E is both apart from O (perceiving his being) but also a part of O, something within O which can never be deleted. The film transfers this uncanny effect to the audience; E’s gaze of ‘acute intentness’ is directed at the audience who sit in O’s position. Furthermore, Film begins and ends with an extreme close-up of an eye , reminding the viewers that we also have an esse est percipi existence, and that maybe this ought to inflict anxiety.
Film is replete with repetitions: the dog and the cat are thrown out of the room several times, the parrot, the gold fish and the mirror all need to be covered twice, O checking his pulse takes place three times, and of course the close-up on the eye beginning and ending the film. In The Uncanny Freud says that ‘anything that can remind us of this inner compulsion to repeat is perceived as uncanny’ (Freud, 1998, 145) and in Beyond the Pleasure Principle he makes it clear that the compulsion to repeat is a manifestation of the death drive . In accordance with O’s ‘search of non-being’, Freud writes that ‘the aim of all life is death’ (Freud, 2001, 38). However, Freud also states that ‘an instinct is an urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things’ (Freud, 2001, 36). The repetitions create a thread in Film, which may take one both forwards and backwards, and the search of non-being may be both a desire for the end, death, but also for pre-life or life in the womb. Peter Brooks writes that such a ‘progress may also be […] the narrative of an attempted homecoming: of the effort to reach an assertion of origin through ending, the time before in the time after [or simply] that transcendent home’ (Brooks, 1992, 110/111). This is also indicated in the photography scene, in which the first picture (O as an infant) is more difficult to tear apart than the other pictures – an act that is impossible in real life. If you read this scene along with Freud’s death drive you might say that O’s ‘search of non-being’ is a consequence of a ‘death complex, arising from a nostalgia for the womb, that makes phantastic death seem luxurious after the discomforts of early life’ (Baker, 1997, 140). In fact the entire section titled ‘the room’ is connected with this longing for life in the womb; in the script Beckett says that this ‘may be supposed [to be] his mother’s room, which he has not visited for many years and is now to occupy momentarily, to look after the pets, until she comes out of hospital. This has no bearing on the film and need not be elucidated’ (Beckett, 2006, 332). This last remark is moving as it has great bearing on the film; and not merely on Film but on much of Beckett’s fiction in general . O is both in quest of the womb and the tomb – or as the title of my talk has it the wombtomb (this condensed neologism is used by Beckett elsewhere). The arbitrariness of signifiers has blessed us with yet another rhyme (other than womb and tomb), namely room. O’s mother’s roommay be regarded as both a regression to her womb and as a progression to the tomb.
O’s appearance supports this reading; his greatcoat (or, in fact, greatcoats, he is wearing two) seals him off from the world and protects him as if he were in the womb (and the action takes place a hot summer day!); and in Beckett, characters wearing a hat may symbolise a birth trauma . And finally the rocking chair is connected with the foetus fantasy: ‘[Nandor Fodor] considers the pleasures of lying in bed, and that ‘We may love being rocked by cars, trains or boats like a child in the cradle without realising that the soothing effect is due to the unconscious identification of the gentle movement with the undulation of the mother’s body in walking while within her we were sheltered and protected’ (Baker, 1997, 66). In sum, Film depicts a character governed by a vehement death drive, which manifests itself as both a longing for pre-life and for beyond-life or death.
One of the most prominent critics to comment on Film is the French philosopher, Gilles Deleuze; for all his insights, I will diverge from his reading and deliver a polemic comment on a couple of his conclusions . Deleuze does note that ‘Nothing is ever finished in Beckett, nothing ever dies’ (Deleuze, 1997, 26) , but in Cinema 1 he seems to disagree with himself: ‘Will it die out and will everything stop, even the rocking of the rocking chair, when the double face slips into nothingness? This is what the end suggests – death, immobility, blackness’ (Deleuze, 2002, 68); and in The Greatest Irish Film he says that ‘The room has lost its partitions, and releases an atom into the luminous void, an impersonal yet singular atom that no longer has a Self by which it might distinguish itself from or merge with others’ (Deleuze, 1997, 26). Hence, he indicates that O succeeds in achieving his state of non-being in one way or another. However, the end clearly indicates the opposite – thinking that he has succeeded, he finally is confronted with the inevitability of self-perception. The extreme close-up on the eye beginning and ending the film supports this suggestion: O is eventually maintained in percipi.
Beckett’s characters are almost always thrown into a liminal world, kept in limbo, always on the threshold of going somewhere, but never actually making it. Beckett’s poetics is essentially a poetics of failure; the goal (using his own words) is to ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail better’ (Beckett, 1996, 89). To try again indicates that even the beginning is repetition. To fail again designates that all attempts are bound to fail (which, as I have shown, can be observed throughout Film). And finally, as Gontarski has noted, it is of course impossible to determine whether to ‘fail better’ means that one makes tiny improvements or that one closer approximates a complete fiasco.
- For a more exhaustive discussion of Beckett’s use of Berkeley, consult Sylvie Debevac Henning’s article in The Journal of Beckett Studies no. 7, Spring 1982titled ‘Film’: a Dialogue between Beckett and Berkeley.
- To my knowledge, this seminar has not been translated into English. My source is:http://www.nosubject.com/Seminar_XIV (12-12-07).
- In my opinion this is a weak and unsuccessful translation; it oversimplifies the notion, and the solution must have been chosen by Beckett and Alan Schneider (the director) for lack of a better one.
- This description shows how indispensable the script is to the interpretation of Film: how could we possibly know that O is 30 years old on the picture if he looks over 40 and is played by the 68 years old (and perhaps looking over 70) Buster Keaton!
- Phil Baker (in Beckett and the Mythology of Psychoanalysis) has suggested that a trauma is at the core of almost all of Beckett’s fiction.
- This is possibly also an allusion to Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s movie Un Chien Andalou, which opens with an eye which is cut through with a razor. This allusion is sustained by the fact that the script specifies that the story takes place in 1929, in other words the year in which Un Chien Andalou premiered.
- The Uncanny and Beyond the Pleasure Principle are written roughly at the same time. Freud mentions the compulsion to repeat in The Uncanny, but the notion of the death drive is not introduced until Beyond the Pleasure Principle.
- In Molloy the main character sets out to find his mother; in Murphy it reads: ‘back to the cell, blood heat, next best thing to never being born.’ (Beckett ( 2003),Murphy, 29); Endgame says: ‘the end is in the beginning.’ (Ackerley & Gontarski ( 2006), The Faber Companion to Samuel Beckett, 62); and Waiting for Godot: ‘They give birth astride of a grave.’ (ibid.); The Unnamable: ‘some people are lucky, born of a wet dream and dead before morning.’ (ibid., 61); A Piece of Monologue: ‘Birth was the death of him’ (Beckett ( 2006), The Complete Dramatic Works, 425); and the list goes on…!
- I might add that in Beckett, closed spaces may also symbolise a solipsistic entrapment in the skull; that is, the impossibility of escaping one’s existence as what Descartes calls res cogitans, the thinking being. This reading is supported by there only being one window in the room (O sees with one eye!), and by the fact that the curtain is riddled symbolising that the attempted escape from the outer world fails and hence the relation to Others remain intact.
- As is the case in for example Murphy: ‘Murphy never wore a hat, the memories it awoke of the caul [‘the amnion or inner membrane inclosing the foetus before birth’, according to Oxford English Dictionary] were too poignant, especially when I had to take it off.’ (Beckett ( 2003), Murphy, 45).
- Deleuze has written about Film on at least two occasions: in Cinema 1 and in his essay The Greatest Irish Film (Beckett’s “Film”).
- I completely agree with this (for example even in Malone Dies, Malone, in fact, does not die, because he turns out to be a figment of The Unnamable’s mind).
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