The first short to be played was Film (1965), a 24 minute long Samuel Beckett screenplay starring Buster Keston in the main role. Film works in the same way a lot of Beckett’s literary work does. The minimal plot and characters relate highly to numerous Beckett plays, including the infamous Waiting for Godot, eternally bleak Endgame as well as other lesser known works such as Rockaby and Not I, and not only transfers perfectly to the big screen but gives Beckett the chance to experiment with visual elements that are possible with filmwork and not in theatre. One of these experiments is the use of the camera acting as a character.
Film starts with a wavered image in which it is not clear what is on the screen. The camera then focuses and it becomes clear we are looking at a close-up shot of an eyelid blinking sporadically. The view of the camera (named E in Beckett’s original script) then banks to the side and we meet O. O, played by the genius clown Buster Keaton. He is followed by E while he makes his way into an abandoned apartment and prepares his surroundings so nothing can ‘see’ him. The atmosphere of the short resonates as mysterious and slightly creepy but remains accessible due to the slapstick humour. Using E as a hidden character within the film is executed well as it gives the audience an almost point of view element when watching O try to avoid anything (including the camera) from looking at his face. Film is clearly innovative for its time and could be seen as a precursor to mockumentaries and home video style works.
Second to be screened was William S. Burroughs and Antony Balch’s two cut-up films, Towers Open Fire (1963) and The Cut-Ups (1967). Both caused controversy when first screened, with Towers Open Fire being slightly more accessible but The Cut-Ups causing members of the audience to throw up, feel nausea and demand a refund when it was first screened in Oxford Street, London. To your average filmmaker this would be a cause for concern but not to Burroughs and Balch, who claimed they intended to cause a ‘complete disorientation of the senses’. Although The Cut-Ups didn’t cause me to feel ill in any way it does kind of place you at a loss with what is going on. At times it becomes irritating due to the repetition of image and audio but ends perfectly with Burroughs thanking the audience. Towers Open Fire works better in the sense that it has a script, penned by a humourous Burroughs, and is a cut-up of images taken from Burrough’s grim daily routine and shots Balch, a protégé of Kenneth Anger, had collected of ‘a crumbling society’, so is therefore more comprehendable against The Cut-Ups random shots from Paris, Tangiers and New York.
Last to be screened was B.S. Johnson’s comedic tale of a teacher who has an existential crisis after visiting the hospital, named You’re Human Like the Rest of Them (1967). The teacher struggles with his own mortality, very convincingly, and ropes a class of his students into a discussion over whether life is futile or not. The film does well to illustrate the deteriation of the teacher’s mental attitude towards optimism in life and the inclusion of the preaching to his students is ultimately amusing as they, and the audience, believe he has lost the plot.
Innovation seeps through all five of the shorts and I was left feeling optimistic towards the perpetual boundaries of film, something Beckett, Burroughs and Johnson clearly also felt.
By Tom Johnson.