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Mechanisation and the Mechanised Eye in Samuel Beckett's Film

Katherine Weiss
Department of English
University of Reading
United Kingdom

In the early part of the twentieth century, new innovations in technology transformed the nature of entertainment industries and led to philosophical changes in perception. The camera became for many modernist writers and artists* a mechanical prosthetic eye that brought the image closer and commodified it in the ever-lasting media of photography and cinematography. The use of the camera and the photographic image triggered concerns over the mass re-production and commodification of art.

Sigmund Freud, in his 1929 book Civilization and Its Discontents, explores technology as the human attempt to perfect motor or sensory organs. Freud claims that using technology to enhance and perfect themselves, humans became increasingly aware of their 'lacks and limits' [11, p.43]. Consequently, modern discontent is, at least partially, the result of the knowledge of one's failings and the reality that one's auxiliary organs are not biologically a part of oneself.

Two years later, Walter Benjamin wrote the first draft of his now-famous essay 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' [5, pp.217-251]. In this essay, revised in 1935 and 1939, Benjamin expresses his concerns over the status of the artwork in the modern age and the dangers he thought would result from the mass reproduction of art. Howard Caygill explains that Benjamin's arguments were formed on the basis of a philosophy of experience that was vision-centred and vision-generated. The mass reproduction of photographic images troubled Benjamin because he believed that objects and surfaces lose authenticity and aura through the ease of reproducibility. As his primary example of this phenomenon, Benjamin analyses the 'impact of film on contemporary culture' and contrasts cinematography to painting and cinematic acting to theatrical performances [9, p.103]. In his critique of film images, Benjamin argues that as culture becomes increasingly commodified, the individual's perception becomes less critical. While Freud recognised that new technology provides humans with the tools to destroy each other as well as their natural and constructed worlds with ease, Benjamin feared that the camera makes 'human misery an object of consumption' and that technology aestheticises war and destruction [6, p.96].

In his sole venture into the cinematic genre, which bears the self-referential title Film, Samuel Beckett does not merely reproduce the modernist critique of and anxiety over technology and the reproduction of art; he attaches 'no truth value' to his critique of technology and the reproduction of the gaze [2, p.323].** Instead, he creates a dialogue that awakens and revitalises the uncritical perception of his audience. Linda Ben-Zvi notes that for Beckett 'the work not only is predicated on the form but invariably becomes a critique of its form' [7, p.24]. The title of the film supports Ben-Zvi's reading. It is a film about cinematic technology. Hence, the use of the movie camera and photographic images are essential to understanding Beckett's Film.

According to his manuscript notebook for Film, Beckett contemplated setting the piece in 1913, but in this same notebook, the date is crossed out and replaced with the later date of 'about 1929' [4]. As many scholars have pointed out, Beckett's choice of the late twenties links his Film to biographical details, the Surrealist avant-garde and the French New Wave cinematic movement [8, pp.123-124; 12, pp.134-136; 14, pp.42-44].

While Beckett was teaching in Paris, 'movie theaters of the Parisian Boulevards were bustling with an unprecedented number of projections' [8, p.123]. During this time and throughout the thirties, Beckett was very interested in the history of and developments in cinema. In his letters to Thomas MacGreevy during the thirties, Beckett shows an interest in filmmakers such as Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Fitzgerald [3]. During this time, he also read articles by these filmmakers in back issues of the film journal Close-Up. And, in 1935, he wrote to Eisenstein, asking to be his student for one year [8, pp.123-124].

Jonathan Kalb notes that in addition to the biographical details, Beckett's Film, written in 1964, displays 'many of the same formal obsessions as the French New Wave, just burgeoning in the early 1960s . . .' [12, p.125].


See, for example, Walter Benjamin's essays 'On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,' 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction' [5, pp.155-200, pp.217-251] and 'The Author as Producer' [6, pp.85-103], the 'Camera Eye' sections of John Dos Passos' novel USA [10] and Virginia Woolf's essay 'The Cinema' [15, pp.166-71]. Tim Armstrong [1, p.226] and Miles Orvell [13, pp.173-174] discuss the use of the camera in American literature.

In the opening directions of Film, Beckett wrote 'No truth value attaches to above, regarded as of merely structural and dramatic convenience' [2, p.323]. Beckett steps away from assigning any truth to Berkeley's maxim esse est percipi (to be is to be perceived) or to any of the assertions about the mechanised gaze in Film. However, this statement produces an awareness in the readers to the dramatic structure of the work. The readers, in essence, are asked to examine the work structurally and dramatically rather than emotionally.


Armstrong, Tim. Modernism, Technology and the Body: A Cultural Study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Beckett, Samuel. Film. In The Complete Dramatic Works. London: Faber and Faber, 1990. 321-334.

Beckett, Samuel. Letters to Thomas MacGreevy, 29 January 1935 and 6 February 1936. Manuscript Library, Trinity College, Dublin.

Beckett, Samuel. Manuscript Notebook for Film, dated Ussy 05.04.63, MS 1227/7/6/1. Beckett International Foundation, Reading University Library, Reading, England.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Translated by Harry Zohn. Edited by Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken Books, 1969.

Benjamin, Walter. 'The Author as Producer.' In Understanding Brecht. Translated by Anna Bostock. London: NLB, 1973. 85-103.

Ben-Zvi, Linda. 'Samuel Beckett's Media Plays.' Modern Drama 28.1 (1985): 22-37.

Bouchard, Norma. 'Film in Context(s).' In Beckett Versus Beckett. Edited by Marius Buning, et al. Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui, v. 7. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1998. 121-33.

Caygill, Howard. Walter Benjamin: The Colour of Experience. London: Routledge, 1998.

Dos Passos, John. USA. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991.

Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Translated by James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1989.

Kalb, Jonathan. 'The Mediated Quixote: The Radio and Television Plays, and Film.' In The Cambridge Companion to Beckett. Edited by John Pilling. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996. 124-44.

Orvell, Miles. 'Literature and the Authority of Technology.' In Literature and Science as Modes of Expression. Edited by Frederick Amrine. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 1989. 169-176.

Pountney, Rosemary, 'Beckett and the Camera.' In The Savage Eye / L'Oeil Fauve: New Essays on Beckett's Television Plays. Edited by Catharina Wulf. Samuel Beckett Today / Aujourd'hui, v. 3. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995. 41-52.

Woolf, Virginia. 'The Cinema.' In The Captain's Death Bed and Other Essays. London: Hogarth Press, 1950. 166-71.

About the Author

Katherine Weiss is a Ph.D. student and instructor in the Department of English at the University of Reading, home of the Beckett International Foundation. Her recent work focusses on the issue of technology in the dramatic works of Samuel Beckett.

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