‘Film’

directed by David Clark and starring Max Wall. British Film Institute, 1979

 

Richard Cave

 

Perhaps the most perplexing detail of the printed scenario of Beckett’s Film is his definition of the final encounter between the two selves, O and E, as ‘the investment proper.’ The noun form of invest has shrunk in common usage almost exclusively to its financial meaning which is clearly irrelevant here. But Beckett often provokes surprise by using words with their older, primary connotations. The O.E.D. lists fit two archaic usages (‘an enrobing’; `an envelope or covering’) which afford no help, and then continues: `the action of investing or fact of being invested with an office or attribute, endowment,’ and then in military parlance: ‘the surrounding or hemming in of a town or fort by a hostile force so as to cut off all communication with the outside; beleagurement, blockade.’ These two meanings have directly antithetical implications: the former has a positive force, the enhancing of an identity by endowing it with distinction or by its achieving of itself new significance; the latter defines a negative intention, the willful entrapping of an objective with a view to destroying it or to causing it of itself to waste away through deprivation.

 

The second meaning more immediately suggests itself as relating to the content of Film, though with some adjustments. The blockade is here self-imposed by O in a bid for total solipsism and with the intent to extinguish all those sensory perceptions that might define his ego. If this is O’s state of mind, then E’s pursuit of O, his desire to corner him and enforce a confrontation is an understandable source of terror to O. Moreover E’s biding his time keeping an exactly measured distance from O, the suave confidence with which he effortlessly slips into O’s sanctum (no storming of the fortifications here), his patience in waiting till O relaxes all his defences and suspicions before he stealthily approaches, have real menace while rendering the final revelation of E’s identity wholly credible. ‘Investment’ in the military sense has a direct application to Film but one which, in that it defines both the state of nothingness O yearns for and his dread of the consequences of achieving it which constantly makes it unattainable, relates to the whole content of the work rather than just the conclusion. The final revelation that E and O are fractured aspects of the one identity is a moment of enlightenment for an audience (‘investment’ in the sense of endowing with meaning) that elucidates the structure and method of the work while defining the experience that the audience has been invited to share, an experience till now apprehended rather than comprehended.

 

The problem for the director lies in making his audience sense intuitively before the final moments of Film that there is a connection between O and E’s ways of seeing. Beckett, as is evident from his notes to the scenario and his introductory apology for the piece, recognises this as a problem but one which he supposes could be resolved by technical means, though with characteristic frankness he admits he lacks sufficient knowledge of cinematic methods to see quite how this could be done. What he stresses repeatedly in his commentary on the scenario is that a climate of unreality should be sustained throughout the film, implying that this would somehow solve the difficulty by showing that E’s as well as O’s viewpoint is in some way unusual and not the reliable, objective recording eye that the camera is conventionally assumed to be. Apparently taking Beckett’s stress as his cue, David Clark in his new version of Film has proved Beckett’s supposition right. To do this he has resorted to an imaginative use of colour which was not, of course, a part of Beckett’s original brief. Given the result, the liberty taken seems triumphantly justified.

 

It must be said at once that unlike Schneider’s version, Clark’s is aesthetically very beautiful to watch and this in time achieves an unexpected thematic bonus. Colour is in fact used by Clark with great restraint. The street scene is shot in predominantly blue-grey tones which give the faces of the young cycling along an exaggeratedly pink freshness and the faces of the older workmen and the elderly couple with the monkey a grotesquely drained quality. With the dark of the stairwell the blue tones which brought a richness to the ubiquitous grey of the street scene are removed; a single beam of light from above creates some excitingly varied effects of vague looming shadows and sudden precisely-defined angles. That near black-and-white chiaroscuro gives way to drab, washed greys in the room that suppress even the brilliance of the goldfish. This use of the medium of colour to evoke an effect of the deliberate deprivation of colour finely actualizes Beckett’s wish for a climate of unreality; it does much, too, to ‘characterize’ E and his mode of perception. Colour-loss is compensated for by a more acute awareness of details of texture: the patterning of the woven threads in O’s tweed overcoat seen against the coarser cloth he throws over the mirror and the peeling shreds of wallpaper. All are uniformly grey but the eye delights in making distinctions. The slow suppression of colour compels one to view the apparently familiar, mundane and drab with the strangeness and surprise of discovery. Some of the sustained shots of the starkly angled treads of the stair, of the tattered wallpaper and the carving on the headrest of the rocking-chair have a disturbing beauty reminiscent of Magritte’s paintings, mixing perplexity with wonder. E’s way of viewing embarrasses or terrifies those who become conscious of the direction of his gaze upon them. Beckett writes that it is ‘impossible to describe’ his expression except as an ‘acute intentness.’ Through his handling of colour and the slow movement of his camera with its lingering focus on detail, Clark marvellously realises that quality of intentness as both obsessive and enthralled.

 

The different quality of O’s perception is suggested by shooting the objects that provoke E’s intent gaze from the same position but in video, so that the images appear to break down, losing their clarity of definition and richness of texturing. The horror of O’s myopia is communicated instantaneously together with the awareness that it is a further stage in the process of suppression that is practised by E. It is very fitting now that the religious print of God the Father, the all-seeing Judge, should be the first ‘face’ in the room to provoke more than cool dissociation in O. He knows no anger when the cat and dog refuse to be put out of doors or when the rug fails to stay tucked around the mirror, but the picture elicits the most rapid response in the film, a clawing, tearing and grinding under foot. Beside the calm deliberation with which later the photographs are destroyed, the moment has a passionate fury. It was fitting because E stood in exactly the same physical relation to O seated within the rocking-chair for the climactic investment, as it were a woebegone, mutilated representative of the Almighty, and the confrontation became a pathetic dialogue of self and soul, the voices silenced ages ago, the looks only remaining to define the nature of the encounter. In Clark’s handling, Film comes to express the tragi-comedy of a failed artist. The gift of seeing steadily and seeing whole has set him apart from other men who resent his scrupulous observations because they cannot appreciate how his penetrating gaze, far from being ruthless and destructive in its desire to be all-seeing and allknowing, is searching for the grounds on which to invest accuracy of vision with beauty, to hallow and transform the mundane. Within the very intensity of purpose lies a source of compassion. But this is a fact that even the artist as fallible man cannot accept, dreading that discovery of self which is a concomitant of rigorously pursuing an artistic ideal; he prefers to seek a studied anonymity, attempting to divest himself of all the qualities of perception that constitute his unique personality. Investment as a hounding and trapping alone is experienced and feared; its creative, enhancing potential is never realized, though its possibility is intimated through Clark’s method of direction. His way of at once distinguishing yet relating O and E’s modes of perception carries his audience right inside that strangely disorientated state of mind which Coleridge termed ‘dejection,’ where the gaze of vision is obsessional and relentless because it is with ‘how blank an eye!’ that sees but cannot feel beauty. Clark’s interpretation of Film has an impressive poetic sensitivity.

 

But, despite its excellences, this version of Film is not wholly satisfying. While the use of colour brings its rewards, the same cannot be said of the inclusion of a soundtrack. Beckett demands but a single sound, a soft admonitory ‘sssh!’ from the elderly lady with the monkey which shocks the audience into an awareness that the film is not a silent one in the technical sense but that a soundtrack is deliberately lying waste. To augment this direction as Clark does—with an array of noises that attempts to distinguish the greater decline of O’s aural perceptions from E’s—is oddly irritating, because intrusive on one’s near-mesmerized concentration on O’s rituals to extinguish his ego. Beckett’s conception is both more subtle and more astonishing.

 

The film also lacks tension in its early sequences. It is right that the human activity against which O directs his way should have a leisurely pace, but if O is in flight his progress should surely be more rapid and agitated (‘a comic foundered precipitancy’); and the movement of the camera representing E should have a more ‘devouring’ quality about it (this is the adjective that Beckett uses to define the nature of the mother’s regard for her child in the photograph of O as a baby). E is ‘searching’ for O from above; sighting him, the camera should surely swoop with delight to its target. The image to be evoked is presumably that of a hawk and its prey and indeed that degree of intensity of gaze which characterizes E is often described as hawk- or eagle-eyed (the epithet is frequently applied to Beckett’s own eyes). There must be a marked change in the movement of the camera to parallel a psychological change to an acute alertness after the initial state of Olympian detachment. Another problem here is that Max Wall’s O appears at first too shambling. If Beckett’s hope had been that the part would originally be played by Chaplin, his idea of O’s ‘precipitancy’ must have been influenced by Chaplin’s highly accelerated tottering, which would introduce a different dimension of unreality into the scene, heightening rather than disrupting the prevailing style of the piece. Sadly the opportunities for comic stylisation here are missed by both Clark and Wall. Of course one of the hallmarks of Chaplin’s screenpersona was his idiosyncratic gait viewed from behind and, had Chaplin played the part of O, a rich comic irony would instantly have obtained with so unmistakable a figure attempting to obliterate his identity. Max Wall’s strengths as a performer lie in the comic incongruities he can achieve between his tone of voice and the cast of his features; the play of his eyes and brows is his particular hallmark (they made his performance of Krapp at Greenwich so memorably poignant). O requires a performer with a versatile physique; the line of his full body, since it is largely viewed from behind, must convey the comic intention and in this respect Max Wall is somewhat limited. Admittedly in one of his funniest music-hall routines his limbs in turn—arms, hands, buttocks, feet—seem to acquire an independent and manic life of their own, but even here the comedy is generated and controlled by the panic in his eyes at this apparent disintegration of his person. Eh Joe, That time or Ghost trio rather than Film would seem more certain vehicles for Wall’s particular genius.

 

The comedy, then, is somewhat muted in this performance. But there are compensations. One is left with the memory of the disturbing beauty of much of the photography and impressed in subsequent viewings with the way Clark uses this to enhance one’s appreciation of the thematic structure of Beckett’s scenario. With a work in which Beckett is so continuously apologetic about his lack of the right kind of expertise in the medium to define as precisely as he usually does how the effects he is aiming for are to be realized, that is no mean feat of imaginative sympathy.