Samuel Beckett’s Prophetic ‘Film’ on Perception and Paranoia

“Standing on the bare ground, — my head bathed by the blithe air and uplifted into infinite space, — all mean egotism vanishes. I become a transparent eyeball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part and parcel of God. The name of the nearest friend sounds then foreign and accidental: to be brothers, to be acquaintances, master or servant, is then a trifle and a disturbance. I am the lover of uncontained and immortal beauty. In the wilderness, I find something more dear and connate than in streets or villages. In the tranquil landscape, and especially in the distant line of the horizon, man beholds somewhat as beautiful as his own nature.”

~ Ralph Waldo Emerson,“Nature” (1836)

The above excerpt from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Nature” portrays an inner peace that Buster Keaton’s everyman in Samuel Beckett’s Film (1965) cannot actualize. In contrast to Emerson’s transcendental idealism, Beckett’s avant-garde experiment suggests that human beings can never escape the intruding eyeball’s presence.

Film stars Keaton as an everyman who goes through his day in fear of being watched. The eyeball communicates to its subject, and its subject perceives this communication to be critical.

Notice the scene early in the film when the flustered everyman bumps into two strangers on the street, and they stare at him as if he’s a creature from another planet. Then, in a moment of pure brilliance, the camera lingers and the strangers stare at us. They shriek in terror and turn away.

This occurs again when the everyman enters his apartment and passes an old lady in the hallway. When she looks into the camera at us, her eyes widen in fear and she falls to her death.

Once in his apartment, the everyman is still uneasy. There are eyeballs everywhere, including an illustration hanging on the wall.

We don’t see the everyman’s face until the end. He has fled the judgmental looks of others, but there is one last gaze he cannot evade. This is visually illustrated in the final moments when he stares at what appears to be his reflection, or doppelgänger, and subsequently covers his eyes in horror.

But does he see himself or us?

The sneaking suspicion that we’re being surveilled stops us in our tracks. In solitude, there is no tranquility to be found, and this counters the transcendentalists who believe that humans can achieve a spiritual awakening when they’re alone. The final scene makes good on this point, as the everyman cannot bear isolation, and the lingering presence of himself — or indeed an unknown other — unsettles him.

Beckett challenges us to confront some discomforting questions. Film was made before the advent of the internet and social media, but it speaks to the fears of contemporary digital culture. Is there such a thing as privacy anymore, and if so, how do we protect it? Beckett investigates the power of perception and paranoia, and it’s appropriate to assume that many individuals today fear that they are constantly being looked at in private spaces, just as the everyman does.

Like most avant-garde cinema, Film is self-reflexive (the title alone!) and calls attention to the cinematic apparatus. The cinematic experience is inherently voyeuristic, and much of its pleasure derives from gazing at people on screen in a darkened room. Some scholars like Laura Mulvey have been critical of this scopophilia, or love of looking. Beckett is fearful of it. Not only does Beckett want us to consider why we love to look, he forces us to wonder how we’d react if the camera was turned on us.

Film isn’t the only cinematic work to interrogate the art form. Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom (1960) demonstrate the dangers of voyeurism, and remain to this day fascinating psychological thrillers. However, Film is more ambiguous. Rear Window and Peeping Tom always show us who the voyeurs are, but Film leaves us in the dark.

Our paranoia has only intensified over the years. Sure, most of us comprehend that corporations are in control of our information, but it’s increasingly more difficult to determine who the people behind the computer screens actually are. We store our information on cloud services assuming we’ll be protected, but anonymous figures can easily access our data. It’s best to look the other way and assume that everything will be fine, but another headline-grabbing hack reminds us that we’re always at risk.

In a perfect world, we’d love to simply live off of the internet and do things the old-fashioned way, but as institutions require us to have an online presence, this becomes more challenging. Most of us need to exchange information online for school or work, and many of us take advantage of the seemingly convenient online banking system.

Beckett’s prophetic Film is still powerful 55 years later. Today, many of us similarly believe that someone somewhere is invading our privacy and watching us, and it’s frightening to know that someone somewhere probably is.

The article has been modified from a previous version published in The Artifice.

Follow Instagram @jonalexandernyc

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store