Samuel Beckett’s ‘Film’: Power, Perception, and Paranoia
“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.” Ralph Waldo Emerson,“Nature” (1836)
The above excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” presents an ideal that Buster Keaton’s character in Samuel Beckett’s Film (1965) cannot achieve. In opposition to Emerson’s transcendental idealism, Beckett’s avant-garde film suggests that human beings can never escape the confines of the intruding eyeball, and they can never eradicate the boundaries of judgment and fear.
Film stars Keaton as an everyman who goes through his day as if he is being judged, stared at, and invaded. He seeks refuge in his vacant apartment, shielding himself from anything that resembles an eyeball. This includes any eyes on a wall illustration and those of a puppy, a kitten, a parrot, a gold fish, and inanimate objects like an envelope and a chain.
We never see the face of Keaton’s character until the very end when it is captured by the camera in a full close-up. Keaton’s character has finally escaped the judgmental looks of others (or things), but he cannot hide from his perception of himself, and this is visually illustrated in the final moments when he stares at a version of himself and subsequently covers his eyes in fear. It’s this gaze that haunts the individual forever, Beckett implies. In solitude, there is no tranquility to be found, and this counters the transcendentalists who believe that people can achieve a spiritual awakening when they’re alone.
On the one hand, Beckett suggests that the eyeball communicates to its subject, and its subject perceives this communication to be negative, thereby giving rise to feelings of judgment, invasion, fear, and shame. Notice the scene early in the film when Keaton’s character bumps into two strangers on the street, and they stare at him as if he’s a creature from another planet. This, of course, causes Keaton’s character to return to his apartment.
On the other hand, Beckett shows that human beings can never escape these feelings of judgment, invasion, fear, and shame because they always have to come to terms with their perception of themselves. The final scene that I discuss above demonstrates this, as Keaton’s character encounters who he is and cannot bear it. Even in seclusion, Beckett claims, individuals have to look at themselves and they might not like what they see.
So much of cinema studies scholarship focuses on visual perception with an emphasis on the gaze and the power dynamics between the one who looks and the one who is looked at. Beckett’s Film is significant, then, because it forces us to consider what happens when the one who looks and the one who is looked at are the same person. In addition, Beckett asks us to confront issues of technology, surveillance, and privacy that are especially relevant today.
Film was released before the advent of social media and the internet, but in many ways it speaks to the fears of contemporary digital culture. Is there such a thing as privacy anymore, and if so, how do we obtain it? Beckett investigates the power of perception and paranoia, and it’s appropriate to assume that many individuals today fear that they are constantly being looked at in private spaces, just as Keaton’s character does.
Unlike Keaton’s character, however, who is afraid of the quiet, private moments in which he must face himself, individuals today are more likely to be concerned with others who might be watching. The leaked private recordings of Justin Bieber and Donald Sterling, as well as the “Fappening” scandal, should give us pause, at the very least, that the distinction between public and private isn’t as easily made today. Surveillance technology has made it simpler for institutions to monitor our every move, and what might be intended as an innocent textual conversation between two people quickly becomes fodder for the public gossip mills. Everything we say and do, indeed, can be used against us.
Like most avant-garde cinema, Film is self-reflexive in the sense that it calls attention to the cinematic apparatus. The cinematic experience is inherently voyeuristic, and much of its magic derives from the pleasure of gazing at people in a darkened movie theater. Some scholars like Laura Mulvey have been critical of this scopophilia, or love of looking, and Beckett is fearful of it as well. Not only does Beckett challenge us to consider why we love to look–to be voyeurs–he forces us to question how we’d react if the camera was turned on us.
Film isn’t the only cinematic work to criticize the medium. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) demonstrate the dangers of voyeurism, and remain to this day fascinating psychological thrillers. However, Film stands out for taking things a step further. Whereas the former films always show us who the voyeurs are, the latter leaves us in the dark. In this regard, Film has much in common with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), which directly taps into the paranoia of post-Watergate America.
This paranoia, I argue, has only increased over the years. Corporations are in control, but few of us know who the leaders are. We store our information on services like Dropbox or the iCloud assuming that we’ll be protected, but an anonymous authority figure has access to our data. It’s best to look the other way and assume that everything will be okay. However, another headline-grabbing leak occurs to remind us that we’re always at risk.
In a perfect world, we’d love to simply live off of the internet and do things the old fashioned way, but as institutions require us to have an online presence, this becomes more difficult. Most of us need to exchange information online for school or work, and many of us take advantage of the seemingly convenient online banking system. I’ve never been one for conspiracy theories, but I can’t help but take a step back and wonder why we’ve all just accepted this without considering how the powerful institutions may benefit when it all comes crashing down.
The power of Beckett’s prophetic film after nearly 50 years is the literal realization of the character’s fears in the 21st century. Today, many of us similarly believe that someone somewhere is invading our privacy and watching us, and it’s discomforting to know that someone somewhere probably is.
What do you think? Leave a comment.