Because he liked to work, Keaton often accepted projects which were beneath his talents. Only once did he work on a film on so elevated a plane that neither he, nor many in the audience, could understand it.
This was Samuel Beckett's Film (1964). We had heard rumours that Beckett was a keaton fan, and that he had written Waiting for Godot and Film with Keaton in mind.
But Beckett was one of the most reclusive characters in literary history. One would as soon get an interview with him as with - well, Irving Berlin. But I dropped him a line anyway, and to my astonishment received a small card, with distinctive, if hard to read, handwriting, which said:
'I could meet you as follows; Thursday October 16, 11.00 a.m., Hotel PLM Bld St. Jacques, Paris - on condition no tape and no photographs. If this suits you no need to confirm. Sincerely Samuel Beckett'
The opportunity was rendered
all the more unusual by an article in London Standard by Sam White, to mark
Beckett's 80th birthday:
'He has, as far as I know, never given an interview even to drama critics and is something of a recluse. His conversation among his own small, tightly-knit group of friends is as monosyllabic as the dialogue in his plays - and when anyone ventures to talk about these works he shuts up like a clam.'
I arrived promptly at eleven at the Hotel PLM and spotted his unmistakable figure leaning nonchalantly against a window. He was tall, grey-haired, his face deeply lined, and yet he looked younger than his 80 years, with a charming smile and eyes of light blue. He led me over to the cafe and we sat at a table where he drew out a packet of cigars called Corps Diplomatique, which he lit in the pauses of our conversaton. His voice was distinctly Irish; there was a slightly metallic tinge to it. As for the monosyllables in which he was said to talk, there was no evidence at all. He spoke eloquently and thoughtfully, and the pauses, which were accompanied by a break in the vivid eye contact and a lowering of the long head with the leprechaun ears - were as much for thought as because the conversation had come to a premature end. It was unsettling when a sentence finished midway, as it did once or twice, but on the whole he was easy to talk to - interesting and interested.
Samuel Beckett: 'Buster Keaton was inaccessible. He had a poker mind as well as a poker face. I doubt if he ever read the text - I don't think he approved of it or liked it. But he agreed to do it and he was very competent. He was not our first choice. Alan Schneider wanted Zero Mostel and I wanted Jack Mc Gowran, but neither were available. It was Schneider's idea to use Keaton, who was available. Of course, I had seen his silent films and enjoyed them - don't suppose I could remember them now. He had a young woman with him - his wife, who had picked him up from his alcoholism. We met him at a hotel. I tried to engage him in conversation, but it was no good. He was absent. He didn't even offer us a drink. Not because he was being unfriendly, but because it never occured to him.
'One of the first things we did was to find the location - driving all over New York, looking for the wall - which we eventually found at the (Fulton Street) Fush Market - near Brooklyn Bridge. It was a building site - the wall was demolished shortly after that. The heat was terrible - while I was staggering in the humidity, Keaton was galloping up and down and doing whatever we asked of him. He had great endurance, he was very tough and, yes, reliable. And when you saw that face at the end - oh!' He smiled. 'At last'
I asked if Keaton ever enquired
what the Film was about?
Beckett laughed. 'No. He wasn't interested.'
'Did you ever tell him?'
'I never did, no. I had very little to do with him. He sat in his dressing room, playing cards - patience or something, until he was needed. The only time he came alive was when he described what happened when they were making films in the old days. That was very enjoyable. I remember him saying that they started with a beginning and an end and improvised the rest as they went along. Of course, he tried to suggest gags of his own.'
'Did you use any of them.'
'No,' he laughed. 'We were depriving him of his trump card - his face.'
At this point, I took a deep breath and asked him to explain the film to the man in the street.
'It's about a man trying to escape from perception of all kinds - from all perceivers - even divine perceivers. There is a picture which he pulls down. But he can't escape from self-perception. It is an idea from Bishop Berkeley, the Irish philosopher and idealist, "To be is to be perceived" - "Esse est percipi." The man who desires to cease to be must cease to be perceived. If being is being perceived, to cease being is to cease to be perceived.'
When I asked if he had told
Keaton all this - he might have been excited by it - he laughed.
'Barney Rosset was the producer, and he was my publisher at Grove Press. He wanted to make three films - one from me, and one from Ionesco and third I forget. The only one that got made was mine. He lost a lot of money with mine, I know that. Keaton was well paid - more than enough. But he seemed immured in his past.
'I suppose I was in New York three weeks to a month. I flew to New York and the first thing we did was to go to Long Island, where Barney Rosset had a house at Easthampton. Sidney Myers (editor), Boris Kaufman (cameraman), Joe Coffey (operator) - Keaton wasn't there - I talked about the film in the country. The next phase was the location. When he gets in the room, that's in the studio. (I don;t remember where the studio was)'
'Were you pleased with the
way he moved - did he give you more than you expected?'
'His movement was excellent - covering up the mirror, putting out the animals - all that was very well done. To cover the mirror, he took his big coat off and he asked me what he was wearing underneath. I hadn't thought of that. I said "the same coat" He liked that.
'The only gag he approved of was the scene where he tries to get rid of the animals - he put out the cat and the dog comes back and he puts out the dog and the cat comes back - that was really the only scene he enjoyed doing.
'There was one big problem we couldn't solve - the two perceptions - the extraneous perception and his own, acute perception. The eye that follows that sees him and his own hazy, reluctant perception of various objects. Boris Kaufman devised a way of distinguishing between them. The extraneous perception was all right, but we didn't solve his own. He tried to use a filter - his view being hazy and ill defined. This worked at a certain distance but for closeups it was no good. Otherwise it was a good job.'
'Did you approve of the Max
'I couldn't bear that. It was awful. I was there when they were setting it all up and then I had to go with the director - what was his name? - and I was very embarrassed. It was supposed to be silent with just the sound of feet and the one word "ssh" and he had every kind of noise going on.'
Beckett had not seen a film for years. He much preferred television. Beckett was conscious that he did not have a great deal to impart about Keaton, and he was rather apologetic. The idea that he wrote Godot or Krapp's Last Tape with Keaton in mind was incorrect. 'The only play I ever wrote with an actor in mind was Krapp's Last Tape, which I dedicated to Patrick Mc Gee. I'd never even seen him. I had just heard his voice on the Third programme reading something of mine and I thought him so good I wrote this especially for him.'
He kept trying to recall more about Keaton, resulting in long pauses. I was amused that he kept saying that Keaton was 'monosyllabic'...'hardly talked at all' it sounded like people describing him. 'He had a head of granite... he never smiled. He thought we were all crazy. But then he was a seasoned professional in films and we were all amateurs.'
When I put it to him that we
needed eyewitness accounts for the
programmen, and were anxious to film an interview with him, he cut me short.
'I'd hate to do that.'
I wasn't surprised.
'I'll give you all the information you want, but I wouldn't be interviewed.'
'Film was made by Evergreen productions,' said James Karen, who was in it. 'Beckett came over, which was the most extraordinary thing about it, and really was in on the direction and the production of the film. He was a hard task master, he was very difficult - he had an idea, a picture in mind, and he wanted it that way. I remember him saying "Can't you blink five frames less?'
'It was a very difficlut period. The working conditions were abominable. Poor Buster - it was 110 degrees under the Brooklyn Bridge and we weren't under the bridge, we were alongside it, and Buster was running, running, running - it was all broken bricks - and he never complained. I'm not making the man into a saint - it was true, he could just take any amount of pain or travail.
'He had to be talked into it by Eleanor and I remember calling and saying "You know, it could be your Les Enfants du paradis. It could be that wonderful, wonderful thing." I knew Alan Schneider, the director very well. I'd just done Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf in London for him (with Constance Cummings) and it was partly my talking of Buster constantly that got Alan interested in him when Jack MacGowran couldn't do the picture.
'Buster didn't understand it. Who understood it? I didn't understand it I mean, I didn't find it very great drama, and yet it is an exciting picture to see and a lot of people think very highly of it. Buster did not.'