Film ★★★★★

On one level, Samuel Beckett’s single embattled foray into filmmaking lends itself to an “easy” philosophical reading. It’s almost an ultraminimalist restaging of the last line of Sartre’s No Exit, “Hell is other people.” But Beckett takes the existentialist bumper sticker one step further to propose that “Hell is the Gaze itself.” This gaze, in the Sartrean sense, is that which fixes our identity in the field of the Other and detaches and alienates it from our “authentic” sense of self. In other words, the “I” that I experience myself to be is not the same as the “me” that others see, assess, and judge. The ultimate horror that the film pinpoints is the inevitable realization that there is something in me that performs the exact same alienating, mortifying function — that both the “I” and the “me” are bound together in an inescapable dialectic of misrecognition, no matter how hard we try to filter out the perceptions of others. 

Things get more interesting when you take another run at it from a film theory angle. (You might want to fasten your seatbelts and put your tray tables in their upright locked position at this point cause she’s about to bust out some Lacan.) According to the standard line, there are two types of identification at work in classical cinema: symbolic and imaginary. The kind of identification we usually talk about — identifying with the protagonist or with scenes and situations we recognize — falls into the category of imaginary, or “secondary,” identification. When a heterosexual male spectator, for instance, identifies with the male heterosexual hero of a narrative film, he’s reenacting a more primal version of seeing himself in the mirror, only as a more powerful, idealized version of that self. Symbolic, or “primary,” identification is the condition of possibility of the imaginary kind. For Lacan, it’s the gaze of the m(Other) who holds the baby up to the mirror that serves to validate and authorize the fantasy the infant is experiencing in that moment. Her gaze says, “Yes, that’s you! You are that coherent little almost-person that you’re seeing in the reflection.” In cinema, that function is taken up by the gaze of the camera itself. By remaining invisible as an active, orchestrating presence, it holds us up to the fantasies being played out on the screen and lets us feel as though they were happening to us and for us. The unseen agent of the camera-as-Other stage-manages the imaginary fantasy from behind the scenes, implicitly saying “Yes, this situation is for you and about you, and the feelings of empowerment you’re experiencing are valid and ‘real.’”

Beckett’s film aims to dismantle that whole delicately arranged system. Here the camera is the protagonist, in a figurative sense, but also in the most literal sense possible. The visual difference between the subjective, “embodied” POV shots, which are distinguished by a streaky, blurry mask over the lens, and the omniscient, “objective” shots that follow Keaton down the street and track his movements in the apartment are completely erased by the film’s denouement. It’s not that this paradoxical situation is itself absurd — though it certainly feels that way in the moment — it’s that our “normal” experience of cinematic identification is equally absurd, if not more so because we all act as though it were perfectly “natural.” 

To acknowledge the artificiality of this arrangement — figured in Film as a recognition of the active presence of the camera’s gaze — is to experience something akin to horror or even death, if by “death” we mean the collapse of a certain sustaining fantasy of selfhood and identity. But Beckett’s film can also be read in an even more rigorously Lacanian way by understanding it as a demonstration of the Gaze as a part-object, or “objet a” to use the more technical term. For Lacan, this gaze has nothing to do with eyes at all, human, animal or otherwise. Rather, it is a trace of radical Otherness in the real itself which exceeds and exposes the fragility of all human attempts at meaning, both symbolic and imaginary. 

The most concise objective correlative of this “Gaze in the Real” is the nail that remains in the wall even after Keaton has removed the image of the Sumerian statue with the comically exaggerated eyes. That reflected light on the head of the nail recalls an anecdote that Lacan himself tells in Seminar XI to illustrate the concept. He was working on a fishing boat as a teenager — partly in deference to his father’s wish that he do some manly manual labor for once in his life. One of the older fishermen pointed to a sardine can floating in the water with sunlight glinting off of it. The fisherman said to the young Jacques, “Do you see that sardine can out there? Well, it doesn’t see you!” This gaze —nothing but a point of light reflected from a piece of trash — is the most horrific gaze of all, not just because it’s the one that’s impossible to escape, but because it’s unconscious. For Lacan, it’s the trace of the thing that doesn’t see us that’s even worse than the Sartrean hell of other people. In that stubborn remnant of the real — the nail in the wall that’s a reminder/remainder of an absence — there is the possibility that we are seen, but what we are seen by is precisely the No-thing.