ON FILM: The unreal 'facts' in cinema history

Posted: May 12, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Samuel Beckett (left) and Buster Keaton confer on the Manhattan set of Film, an experimental short imagined by Beckett and directed by the playwright’s longtime collaborator Alan Schneider in 1964.

You have to be careful with unreal "facts." You can verify that Reno is indeed west of Los Angeles, but be careful when you quote Isaak Teneromo on the subject of his "friend" Leo Tolstoy.

For while Teneromo certainly knew Tolstoy in the 1880s, a lot of his contemporaries believed he was something of a parasite who exaggerated his closeness with the author for his own gain. In Russian, to teneromo came to mean to exploit a subject, to take advantage of one's tangential connection to greatness.

Still, Teneromo wrote the screenplay for Yakov Protazanov's 1912 silent film Departure of a Grand Old Man, a sort of documentary (complete with archival footage and re-enactments) about the last days of the great man's life, and was considered enough of an expert on Tolstoy that, in 1937, The New York Times printed a story in which Teneromo related in some detail Tolstoy's thoughts on cinema.

That Count Leo thought about the movies at all seems an ­unreal fact. But Teneromo reported that on the occasion of his 80th birthday he told a gathering of his friends:

"You will see that this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life -- in the life of writers. It is a direct attack on the old methods of literary art. We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine. A new form of writing will be necessary .... But I rather like it. This swift change of scene, this blending of motion and experience -- it is much better than the heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed. It is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness."

Tolstoy's daughter was skeptical when the story ran in the Times. She didn't believe her father said these things on his 80th birthday. But she allowed that he might have said some of these things at some point. The Times let the Teneromo-supplied quotation roll on:

"When I was writing [the play] The Living Corpse, I ­tore my hair and chewed my fingers because I could not give enough scenes, enough pictures, because I could not pass rapidly enough from one event to another. The accursed stage was like a halter choking the throat of the dramatist; and I had to cut the life and swing of the work according to the dimensions and requirements of the stage. I remember when I was told that some clever person had devised a scheme for a revolving stage, on which a number of scenes could be prepared in advance. I rejoiced like a child, and allowed myself to write 10 scenes into my play. Even then I was afraid the play would be killed.

"But the films! They are wonderful! Drr! and a scene is ready! Drr! and we have another! We have the sea, the coast, the city, the palace -- and in the palace there is tragedy .... I am seriously thinking of writing a play for the screen. I have a subject for it. It is a terrible and bloody theme. I am not afraid of bloody themes ... Some friends of mine returned from Kursk recently and told me a shocking incident. It is a story for the films. You couldn't write it in fiction or for the stage. But on the screen it would be good. Listen -- it may turn out to be a powerful thing!"

Sounds like Tolstoy really wanted to direct.

It is interesting to imagine the sort of movies he might have made, to imagine them more visceral and lurid than the respectful, respectable movies that have been made of Tolstoy's work. (Robert Bresson was more of a Fydor Dostoyevsky man -- his masterpiece Au Hasard Balthazar was inspired by The Idiot, and he adapted three other of Dusty's plays into features -- but he might have made the best film based on Tolstoy's work with the bleak 1983 drama L'Argent, based on the novella The Forged Coupon. After that, it's a fairly big dropoff to King Vidor's 1956 abridgement of War and Peace.)

On the other hand, making a movie and writing a novel involve completely different skill sets, and there's no reason to believe that fluency on the page would translate to fluency on the screen. I recently rewatched two of Norman Mailer's improvisational films, 1968's Wild 90 and Beyond the Law, and found cinematographer D.A. Pennebaker's casual documentation of these events the only genuinely intriguing thing about them.

"He didn't mind people being confused," Pennebaker says of Mailer in a video recorded for the Criterion Collection's DVD edition of Mailer's films. "It was like he was going to have his imprint -- whatever. It didn't have to be accurate."

...

Leo Tolstoy never made a film, but Samuel Beckett did.

Unlike Mailer's movies, it might be interesting even if you didn't know its intellectual provenance.

Titled simply Film, the 24-minute short was shot in New York in 1964 when Beckett was near the peak of his literary success. Beckett had been a movie fan since his college days, particularly of silent films, and his first choice to play the lead role in his movie -- a character called O (for "object") was Charlie Chaplin. But Chaplin never saw the script, and the filmmakers -- Barney Rosset of Grove Press commissioned and produced the project -- moved on, considering Zero Mostel and Irish character actor Jack MacGowran (who'd worked extensively with Beckett on productions of Waiting for Godot and Endgame) before settling on another icon from the silent era, Buster Keaton.

The other main character in Film is called E and is played by the camera, or by the audience watching from the camera's perspective. Almost the entire film is seen from E's point of view, although there are a few shots from O's perspective.

Even though Beckett wrote a detailed 40-page screenplay, there's no dialogue (there is sound) in Film. It follows O -- after opening with a remarkable close-up shot -- as he rambles through city streets to a dim room in a boardinghouse where he examines a few old photographs of himself. While Beckett didn't formally direct the film, he was there during the shooting, at the shoulder of nominal director Alan Schneider.

The point of Film may be obscure, but it seems to be about the act of moviemaking. E is stalking O, who determinedly hides his (famous "Great Stone") face from the camera. Beckett seems to be commenting on the predatory nature of the chase.

Besides Keaton and Beckett, other talents were involved in this curio. Schneider was a renowned theater director who directed not only Waiting for Godot but Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?; the American premiere of Joe Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane; and Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party. Cinematographer Boris Kaufman -- the younger brother of Dziga Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman (who collaborated on the 1929 classic self-reflexive study Man With a Movie Camera) -- had won an Academy Award for his work on On the Waterfront.

It's not completely successful. A fair contemporary review was filed by Ted Sludds in Film West magazine. He said, "it strikes me as being ... a poor attempt by a genuine writer to move into a medium that he simply hadn't the flair or understanding of to make a success."

But failed films can make fascinating material. The story of the unreal fact of Film is now recounted in Not Film, a new feature-length (128-minute) film essay by Ross Lipman. It's an affectionate but unfawning mix of history and criticism that, through archival clips, stills and interviews with a few survivors of this odd but serious project, delves earnestly into the ideas that compel moviemaking. Lipman, a film historian and preservationist by trade, is a witty and discursive narrator who makes even the often forbidding Beckett accessible.

At least I hope it does. I'm probably going to screen it for my Lifequest class this summer.

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MovieStyle on 05/12/2017