Barney Rosset on Beckett’s Film


We continue our remembrance of Barney Rosset with his Lost & Found feature on Samuel Beckett and the making of Film. From our Hollywood Issue (Winter, 2000). To read more about the legendary publisher, click here or here.

Around 1962, as a natural outgrowth of Grove Press (which I bought and began running in 1951), we started a separate film unit called Evergreen Theater to commission film scripts and produce them. The people involved in Evergreen Theater were me, Richard Seaver, Fred Jordan (all of us with Grove), and Alan Schneider  a seasoned director of Samuel Beckett’s work in North America.

I had experience making films. In World War II, I went from the infantry to the Signal Corps’s photographic units. After a short period as a student at the Army Film Unit in New York, where Frank Capra and John Huston taught, I was sent to China and put in charge of a motion-picture and still-photo unit. After the war I briefly studied at the University of Chicago, then returned to the camera world. In 1948, I produced my one feature film, Strange Victory. Directed and edited by Leo Hurwitz, Strange Victory was a semi-documentary about the continuing problems of racism in America after WWII. The film was not a commercial success but it won best film honors at the Marienbad Film Festival around 1949. I left filmmaking behind after Strange Victory, but once Grove was well established and Evergreen Review had begun appearing, it was only natural for me to put film production on my hope list.

So we established Evergreen Theater and made up a list of authors we thought would make great film writers. We asked eight authors to write scripts, six of whom were published by Grove. The two writers I had not previously published were a German, Gunter Grass, and the Austrian, Ingeborg Bachman. I met Grass in torn-up Berlin and Bachman in not-torn-up Zurich, Switzerland. Both very graciously turned down my request for a film script.

Fred Jordan and I met with Jean Genet at the Ritz Hotel in London. Genet was then and later a Grove author, but that did not keep him from angrily (though with a wonderfully comic effect) dismissing our proposal. Using the room’s TV set as a prop, Genet explained to us, or at least to himself,  that the little people on the screen were not really there. He proved this by walking to the back of the set. Where were they? He wanted “real actors.”

We had better luck with the other great Grove authors. Marguerite Duras and Alain Robbe-Grillet both wrote wonderful full-length scripts for us but we were unable to produce either of the two for various reasons. For both scripts the timing was wrong. Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett wrote the other three scripts. We intended their scripts to form a feature-length trilogy. The Pinter script was later produced by the BBC. Ionesco’s script could not be done at the time due to some very complex and very expensive special effects. Today, with computer animation and graphics technologies, those effects could be produced at a much-reduced cost, and maybe someone will do it.

With Beckett’s Film (a very Beckettian, though confusing, title) we were luckier than with all the other scripts. Jason Epstein, the great editor at Random House, introduced me to an executive from a TV production company. Neither Jason nor I can remember his name, though it will surely turn up somewhere. The man knew Beckett’s work well, and financed, as an Evergreen partner of some kind, the production of Film. Samuel Beckett came from Paris to New York for his one and only trip to the United States. He and Alan Schneider stayed with me and my wife in the Village in Manhattan during the film’s making. In the end, there were no monetary receipts to show for these efforts, but we produced Beckett’s film and met with at least moderate success in the opinions of film critics.

The production staff was a talented one. I prevailed upon an old acquaintance, Sydney Myers, not only a fine director but also a master of film editing, to be our editor. He and Sam quickly became friends. For cinematographer I chose Boris Kauffman, because of his work with Jean Vigo on two feature films, Zero for Conduct and L’Atalante. Though I did not know it then, Kauffman had become a famous cinematographer in this country, for his Oscar-winning work in On the Waterfront and many other big Hollywood films. Even stranger to me was the discovery that Boris’s brother was Dziga Vertov, one of the great filmmakers during the Soviet Union’s creative heyday.

The first person Beckett wanted for the only major role in Film was the Irish actor Jack McGowran. He was unavailable, as was Charlie Chaplin and also Zero Mostel, Alan’s choice. Later, Mostel did a marvelous job with Burgess Meredith in a TV production of Waiting for Godot that Schneider directed. Finally, Alan suggested Buster Keaton. Sam liked the idea, so Alan flew out to Hollywood to try and sign Buster up. There he found Buster living in extremely modern circumstances. On arrival he had to wait in a separate room while Keaton finished up an imaginary poker game with, among others, the legendary (but long-dead) Hollywood mogul Irving Thalberg. Keaton took the job. During an interview, Beckett told Kevin Brownlow (a Keaton scholar) that “Buster Keaton was inaccessible. He had a poker mind as well as a poker face… He had great endurance, he was very tough, and, yes, reliable. And when you saw that face at the end…  Ah. At last.”

As to what the film meant, what it was about, Beckett said:

    It’s about a man trying to escape from perception of all kinds, from all perceivers, even divine perceivers. There is a picture [on the wall] 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.

How to distinguish between the modes of being perceived and self-perceiving became a technical problem that Beckett felt was never solved:

…[There are] the two perceptions, the extraneous perception and his own acute perception, that is, the eye that follows that sees him and his own hazy, reluctant perception of various objects. Boris Kauffman devised a way of distinguishing between them. The extraneous perception was all right, but we didn’t solve his own. He (Kauffman) tried to use a filter, his view being hazy and ill-defined. This worked at a certain distance but for close-ups it was no good. Otherwise it was a good job.

Originally, Film was meant to run nearly thirty minutes. Eight of those minutes would be one very long shot in which a number of actors would make their only appearance. The shot was based on Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, wherein Welles and his genius cameraman, Gregg Toland, achieved “deep focus.” Even when panning their camera, “deep focus” allowed objects from as close as a few feet to as far away as several hundred to be seen with equal clarity. Toland’s work was so important to Welles that he gave his cameraman equal billing to himself. Sad to say, our “deep focus” work in Film was unsuccessful. Despite the abundant expertise of our group, the extremely difficult shot was ruined by a stroboscopic effect that caused the images to jump around. Today it would probably be much easier to achieve the effects we wanted to capture. Technology is now on our side. Then, the problems proved too much for our group of very talented people so we went on without that shot. Beckett solved the problem of this incipient disaster by removing the scene from the script.

In his book, Entrances, Alan Schneider discusses working with Beckett: “Sam was incredible. People always assume him to be unyielding, but when the chips are down, on specifics, here as well as in all his stage productions, he is completely understanding, flexible, and pragmatic. Far from blaming anything on the limitations and mistakes of those around him, he blamed his own material and himself.”

Alan went on to say of Film: “I was once told that the British director Peter Brook had seen it and said that half of it was a failure and the other half a success. I’m inclined to agree with him, although I’m not sure we’d both pick the same half. In fact, I change my mind about which half I like every time I see it.”

We showed Film at the New York Film Festival and at many other international film festivals, garnering a number of awards along the way. Perhaps we spent too much money and we got almost no theatrical income, but at least today Film is available on videocassette, as is Schneider’s and Mostel’s fine TV production of Waiting for Godot. Today’s audiences can form their own opinions.