GFF 2010: Theatre, Film and Samuel Beckett

A rare chance to see one of Beckett's forays into cinema provides fertile ground to discuss the relationship between film and theatre.

Feature by Gareth Vile | 23 Feb 2010
  • Comedie

Samuel Beckett, perhaps surprisingly for a writer who demonstrated a mastery of both script and novel, never made a successful foray into cinema. His single screenplay, Film, was a six minute silent movie that enjoyed an uneven critical reputation. His plays have been adapted for television, yet his powerful voice, articulating a strangely intimate nihilism, feels more comfortable on stage and certainly does not seem to suit the larger gestures of cinema.

Comedie fits nicely into a Tramway double bill. Matched with a documentary about visual art, it captures the twin strands of Tramway’s tradition and Beckett’s works (interpretations of the latter by Peter Brook, Stewart Laing and Cryptic have been staged at the south side venue in the past with acclaim). Yet film versions of Beckett’s plays loose as much as they gain: the wit of his dark surrealism never settles as simplistic despair, and without the physical presence of actors there is little to establish an audience’s sympathy for what could otherwise be disturbing alienation.

Beckett was renowned for the taut precision of his language and effective use of repetition: his characters are frequently caught in conversational loops, his plots minimal. Despite occasional flashes that suggest silent comedies influenced his work- in Krapp’s Last Tape, the hero goes for a tumble over a banana skin, like an existentially tormented Harold Lloyd - his writing avoids the wide-screen scale of cinema and forces the audience into a close relationship with a limited cast. Unlike Faulkner, Mamet or even Shakespeare, it is unlikely that Waiting for Godot will be troubling the multiplexes.

Beckett’s short Film might explain why versions of his work on film are more like documentations of a play than art in their own right. It might have been filmed in the 1960s, but it eschewed contemporary film strategies for a Buster Keaton slapstick, referencing Bunuel's Un Chien Andalou and infusing the humour with pessimism.

However, Beckett is not alone in presenting difficulties for transfer. Even David Mamet, who found success with Glengarry Glen Ross, has struggled with adaptations, and Shakespeare is frequently heavily cut or interpreted for the screen. Part of this problem is the assumptions of respective audiences. Cinema is increasingly seen as entertainment, with art films and experimentation marginalised, even slipping into visual art categories; contemporary arts festivals like Kill Your Timid Notion deliberately frame their film selection as experimental art rather than cinema.

The internal relationship between realism and artifice also differs between film and theatre. Even in its earliest shots, film controlled the representation of mundane scenes - an approaching train, a poor mother - through camera trickery. It carefully manipulates the viewer’s gaze, in a way beyond theatre’s capacity. Guiding the audience in theatre becomes far more a matter of language, perhaps explaining why the script is so much more central.

Then there is the matter of scale. Film can go anywhere and has special effects. Plays on film often have a stilted intimacy, limited in their action by the original setting and dwelling on a smaller area. And the Hollywood star system makes the experience of watching a film very different to catching the latest three hander down the Tron. The iconic presence of Johnny Depp has a more universal flavour: even big names in theatre are often famous because of their film work, as in the production of Godot starring Professor Xavier and Magneto.

It is telling that the GFF has used Tramway as the venue for this double bill. Its huge spaces have encouraged artists to use screens - Barbara Kruger broke off from her traditional feminist slogans to create an enclosed movie theatre, and the recent production of Beggar’s Opera by Vanishing Point situated a screen at the centre of the drama. Both of these articulated an unease at the power of the two dimensional image, a distrust that might underlie the relationship between film and theatre. And by going to an arts venue, the GFF is signposting the nature of Comedie.

Of course, it is a rare treat to catch this film, and it is a tribute to the GFF that they are including something that sits outside of the accepted idea of cinema. For fans of Beckett, it is a chance to experience his wonderful dark vision: at the same time, it throws up questions about the purpose of cinema and documentation.

Comedie & Here is Always Something Else, The Disappearance of Bas Jan Ader is showing at Tramway, Wed 24 Feb, 19.00 as part of Glasgow Film Festival 2010.