Beckett, openness and experimental cinema

Buster Keaton in Film (1964-5)
(photo courtesy of Everyman Films)
First written in January 1990, revised in March 1998 for this post:

I was struck by the open-endedness of Samuel Beckett's death last year. It came suddenly, quietly. It was kept secret for several days until a terse announcement informed the world. There was no public funeral or observance. Beckett's life ended like one of his dramas: without catharsis or resolution.

Walter Ong said that the tragedy of mortal existence is "chronic incompleteness". Beckett's work embodies this. His tableaus are sparse, absent, stripped to a minimum of scenery and props. His characters are narrow individuals of uncertain existence, unrealized plans and loss. Their names, if given at all, are fragments: Hamm and Clov, Didi and Gogo, Flo, Vi and Ru.

Incompleteness is characteristic of open systems. And postmodern thought is pervaded by open-ended thinking, from its formulation in physics and mathematics (Heisenberg and Gödel), to its championing in the arts and its influence on applied fields such as modeling and computer science. It represents a radical change from traditional closed system thinking. 1989, of course, will be remembered not only as the year of Beckett's death, but as a year of astonishing international events, driven mainly by movements for greater openness in previously closed societies. What we have seen is the bursting forth of open-ended thought into all sectors of society, including politics.

With Beckett, as with experimental cinema, openness means the dissolution of boundaries. One example of this is in the approach to plot. Plot is a delimiting factor -- it serves to distinguish theater from ordinary life, which is made up primarily of unremarkable events. Beckett's plays emphasize their characters' mundane drudgery, moving away from plot toward a kind of staged théâtre vérité, a concept subsequently extended and refined by the radical theatre movement of the 1960s. At the same time, experimental filmmakers were abandoning plot for more visual forms, emphasizing everyday life in the personal cinema of Stan Brakhage, Jonas Mekas, Hollis Frampton and countless others.

Julian Curry in Krapp's Last Tape
(photo by Porter Abbott, Beckett Endpage)

In Krapp's Last Tape, Beckett's aging protagonist plays back and reflects upon his own tape recorded monologue from 30 years past. Tenses are blurred here in a new way. The on-stage tape recorder challenges theater's traditional use of staging conventions to denote the past, a practice that itself is a form of fiction, since all theatrical action really takes place in the present. This use of modern technology to mix past and present in one tableau is unprecedented in theater. Further complicating the temporal relationships is Beckett's indication that the play takes place "in the future".

Video has a similar capacity for ambiguity through its ability to mix live and recorded signals, a capacity that has been exploited by a long series of video installations beginning with Frank Gillette and Ira Schneider's Wipe Cycle, which combines live camera feeds (of the installation's audience) with delayed feeds and prerecorded images. I am also reminded of Krapp's Last Tape by Ken Kobland's film The Communists are Comfortable, in which Spalding Gray's videotaped monologue is shown on an old television set placed inside a living room set. The entire room, including the TV, is filmed from a fixed wide angle. The shot lasts for several minutes during which nothing happens away from the TV screen. In 1996 Mike Taylor used a similar concept in an intermedia piece she conceived for 77 Hz called Dangerous Moonlight. For this work, we built a miniature set of an empty room with a door at one end. Behind the half-open door was a rear-projection video screen which displayed images from 1950s noir movies. The set was rephotographed by a video camera and mixed with live images of an actor. This in turn was processed in real time to resemble an old black and white television broadcast. The resulting composite of past and present was displayed to the audience on video monitors.

Minimalism, by avoiding the closure of completeness or comprehensiveness, is quintessential open-system thinking. And the parallels between Beckett and minimalist cinema are unmistakable. In Breath, Beckett's shortest play, the curtain opens and closes on a stage occupied only by dimly lit garbage. There is no action, and no sound except a faint offstage cry and a single amplified human breath. The static tableau in cinema is of obvious importance over the past few decades: think of virtually any piece by Bill Viola, for example.

Beckett's work is notable for the frequent disparity between the visual and aural rate of information. At one extreme are his wordless plays (Act Without Words I and II, Quad, etc.), which can be approached from the tradition of mime and dumb plays. At the other extreme are plays that feature extensive monologue or dialogue, but virtually no staged action at all. A good example is That Time, in which a spotlit face is seen listening to its own voice emanating via loudspeaker from different points in the auditorium. The face itself never speaks, and its stage directions consist solely of blinking, breathing audibly and, at the very end, smiling. A cinematic counterpart to this is Mike Hoolboom's wonderful film The White Museum, which begins with 28 minutes of white leader accompanied by a sound collage dominated by a voice-over, and ends with a 7-minute high contrast black and white shot of a forest accompanied by Mozart's Requiem. Another counterpart is Frampton's Zorns Lemma, specifically its visually static but aurally complex beginning and ending sections.

Beckett himself wrote several treatments for film and video. They have received little consideration as models of experimental cinema, perhaps because they are essentially photographed theater, shot in proscenium-style sets (Film, featuring Buster Keaton, is exceptional for using outdoor footage and a fully enclosed interior set). Nevertheless, these works convey distinct formal traits that have since become characteristic of the cinematic avant-garde. Eh Joe, a television play written in 1965, resembles That Time, since the only visible character, a middle-aged man, is silent throughout. Virtually the entire film is spent on a gradually tightening close-up of his face as sits on his bed listening to the faint whispers of an unseen female voice. Although we are not told so in as many words, the voice seems to be that of his dead wife. Periodically the voice pauses, and Joe begins to fall asleep. As the camera moves closer, he is reawakened by her resumed taunts. The process goes on without cutaways for 20 minutes. Finally, the voice becomes inaudible, and the picture slowly fades to black. Eh Joe is not as long as Warhol's Sleep (completed two years earlier), or Snow's Wavelength (completed two years later), but the similarity is clear, and has not been generally acknowledged in writings on early minimalist cinema.

Film (1964-5)
(photo courtesy of Everyman Films)

Like Eh Joe, Not I, a later work for television, exemplifies the fragmentation of the body. The tape contains a single image: a tight close-up of the mouth of a formerly mute woman (played by Billie Whitelaw) who has suddenly begun to talk. It is the most extreme isolation of a body part in Beckett's oeuvre, the culmination of a technique developed earlier in his stage works (Happy Days and the parental characters in Endgame come to mind). The fragmentation of Winnie in Happy Days reminds me of Brakhage's films, with their penchant for detached hands and eyes, arms reaching into the frame, close-ups of body extremities, etc.

Fragmentation is another open-ended concept, because it avoids the closure of the whole body within the frame. I think this is why it appeals so much to contemporary playwrights and cinema artists. I remember a story told to me by Charles Dodge, a pioneer of computer music who created a realization of Beckett's radio play Cascando using a digital speech synthesizer to depict a voice heard in the mind of the protagonist. After completing his setting of the play, Charles met with Beckett in Paris to discuss preparing a performance version. Beckett used the occasion to gush about a new apartment he had just taken. He was particularly excited because its window overlooked the yard of an adjacent prison. Charles asked what Beckett could see out his window. Beckett replied:

"A face,
Sometimes part of one."

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