Shadow Theater as a metaphor for immateriality

in preparation

About FILM 

FILM is a text by Samuel Beckett, it was commissioned for the Ever-green theater in NY and was filmed there in 1964. The following year it was shown at the NY Film festival. 


I worked on the text, not on the movie, taking careful note of every word written, be it part of the story or part of the several "notes" specifying exact description of places, or movements, or placement of objects etc.


What is FILM about?


FILM is about a man that wants to escape being perceived. In the original movie this character was played by Buster Keaton. Called O, this character runs pursued by E, the eye/camera that follows him.

It is divided into 3 parts, it is entirely silent except for a brief sound "shh", and Beckett wanted it to be funny.

Why does O want to escape being perceived? In order to cease to exist. Here Beckett takes inspiration from Geoge Berkeley's philosophy " to be is to be perceived": esse est percipi.

As Beckett writes FILM is about the " Search of non- being in flight from extraneous perception breaking down in inescapability of self perception". When O finally faces E, O realizes it is his own eye that was pursuing him, therefore unable to cease to exist. 


FILM is divided into 3 parts, the street, the stairs and the room. In the first 2 parts all perception is E's. E is thecamera. In the third part there is both 


I was attracted to this text for several reasons.


As a drama teacher I often give my students "action sentences" asking them to act them out exactly as written, in silence. I want to teach them the  importance of clear, precise communication not contaminated with other unnecessary ( not demanded by the exercise) information. I ask them to act out the sentence and then repeat exactly what they did, this second time donning a neutral mask.


For example: I am walking barefoot in the park. I suddenly step on a thorn. In pain I look for a place to sit on. I see a bench. I go there. I sit down. I remove the thorn. What a relief." 


The first time they play they learn what can be communicated without words and what not. They can show they are walking in an open space by the way of using their gaze,  whether it is a park or a garden, remains unknown without a wider context or words.

Their tendency as beginners is to add information, to depict a park they start picking flowers, smelling them, looking around at the scenery or sky above, arranging their clothes etc.

The second time around, with a mask they are asked to repeat exactly what they did the first time. And they learn that the grimace of pain shown in the face, is hidden by the mask and must therefore be transfered as an expression of the body. The masks teaches them to transfer expression from face to torso and limbs.


A few times in my lessons I took sentences from a text Samuel Beckett wrote in 1963, as a guideline for a silent film he directed and which he called FILM ( 1)

For example:

" He sets down the case, approaches window from the side and draws curtain. He turns towards the dog and cat , still staring at him, then goes to couch and takes up rug".

Yet another:

" She carries a tray of flowers slung form her neck by a strap. She descends slowly, with fumbling feet, one hand steading the tray, the other holding the banister. Absorbed by the difficulty of descent..." 



Knowing that Samuel Beckett does not allow theater companies to interpret his plays but demands actors to play them exactly as written I took upon myself to do an exercise similar to the ones I teach and play his text, exactly as written, but instead of live people, with shadow puppets



Why Shadow Theater?


1-It is a medium I have been working with since the early 70's when I was part of a Shadow Theater group in Argentina called " Transparencias". In nearly all of my puppet shows there is use of shadows for scpecific scenes.



2- Shadow Theater and  Cinema are closely related. In both there is a 2D stream of images. (In China, cinema is still called "Electric Shadows",  since images are created when light hits the film and projects shadows on the screen). In both cases there the illusion of continuous movement depends on the speed of replacement of such images, i.e. the technology of the medium. 

In my work I wanted the actions of rolling the scroll, of bringing in and out the different figures, of  the light distortions caused by the necessity to come close to the screen in order to put my hand on the scroll handle,  was  to be part of the concept. The weight of the technology in the overall performance actions, was important to me since 



From the first painted narratives on scrolls -which still exist today in many cultures , such as the Indonesian wayang beber, or the pat scrolls of Bengal in India,  in which the narrator presents a whole story painted on one or more  scrolls- or scene as a static painted image and directs the gaze of the spectators by pointing at the particular part of the image he is refering to in his storytelling, uconsist of a stream of images on a 2D screen. They are closely related in the evolution of narratives with pictures. Whereas in cinema we do not perceive the black intervals between picture and picture due to the speed in which the images replace each other, in Sh Theater such a visual phenomenon can't be achieved. The images change at a speed recorded by our brain as happening in real time, making the medium itself a constant presence in our consciousness. There is no escape into the illusion of another reality. 


Shadows are a good metaphor for immateriality.

Inspired in the philosophy of George Berkeley: Esse est Percipi (to be is to be perceived ), Beckett writes the text for his film about a man who does everything to avoid being perceived. He does not want to be seen by anyone, human, animal or God, in order to cease to exist. " All extraneous perception supressed, animal, human, divine, self -perception mantains in being. Search of non-being in flight from extraneous perception breaking down in inescapability of self-perception"


For George Berkeley (1685-1753) material things do not exist, what we call reality is what we have constructed in our minds, the product of our experiencing the world. Objects, things, are the product of how our senses experience them.  An object, say a tree, is a combination of perceptions we acquire through our senses, there is no material tree out there in the world. The world as we know it is just in our minds.... To answer how things continue to exist when we do not perceive them, Berkeley argues, there is God  who always seeing everything. ( as Bertrand Russel says " a weighty argument for the existance of God" (3)


About FILM 

FILM was commissioned for the Ever-green theater in NY and was filmed there in 1964. The following year it was shown at the NY Film festival.

I worked on the text, which combines the story itself plus Beckett's notes specifying exact description of places, or movements, or placement of objects etc.



The Screen 


An aluminium construction has two main components: the rectangular frame to which the parchment paper screen is attached, and the two cylinders that can be turned by handles and which allow the perspex scroll to run in either direction. Illuminated from behind, only the rectangular screen becomes the playing area, the "frame". 




The Light Source


A lamp strapped around my body allows me two free hands to turn the scroll and animate the puppets.



The puppets (in prep)


E: E for eye. E pursues O, E only faces O at the end, when O realizes that E is himself, they face each other, conclusion: O is not able to escape self perception.


E is a puppet with a moving eye. In  the shape of a head, I can move the eye to the left and to the right. E can therefore "look for" O. The eye has a flap that when lifted and brough close to the source of light allows me to create the impression we enter E' s eye, i.e. his vision. We see what E sees.  By bringing E with the lifted flap close to the source of light, the screen fills with light in an area of E's eye.


Below some images of E:




Below  the first in a series of videos I will later connect, just a few scenes. E appears in the beginning and the effect of using the eye flap to enter E's vision can be seen in minute 1.25 




O is the object of pursuit. O is a man being pursued by the eye, E.


I had to make several puppets of O

This one below is 3D allowig me to turn the puppet and get the effect I need when O turns towards the wall when E excedes the angle of perception.







References (in prep)

1- Samuel Beckett Film ......

2- Daniel Barnett. Movement as meaning in Experimental Cinema.

3-Bertrand Russell Berkeley. In A History of Western Philosophy. pg 647.....










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