Awkward Silence at MOMA


Hesitant Hack

Originally published in The Evergreen Review Issue 111 in 2006.

On Friday evening, we were hugely disappointed to turn up at MOMA for the screening of short films by Beckett, Genet and Ionesco only to find that it was sold out (never mind the fact that it had been advertised as a free event, and that there was now a $10 admission fee). I had been looking forward to the public conversation of Barney Rosset and James Fotopoulos. Fotopoulos is the young filmmaker who's made a short inspired partly by Beckett's 1947 play Eleuthéria, which I'm also trying to write something about at the moment.


Anyway, we couldn't get in - despite the fact that I'd been sent (and had replied to) a press invite, grrr - and nor could any of the 30-plus people who were also astonished to see that the event had been sold out so quickly. It wasn't exactly the kind of thing with which you associate an immediate sell-out - a screening of Beckett's 1964 silent film Film, followed by outtakes from the shoot and a live commentary by Rosset. Then Jean Genet's Un Chant d'Amour, a 26 minute silent work from 1950, and finally a new film production of Ionesco's screenplay The Hard-Boiled Egg, commissioned by Rosset from Fotopoulos. All the films were produced by Rosset's company Grove, which was also the publisher responsible for bringing the work of Beckett, Ionesco, Pinter, Duras, and countless others to America for the first time (and for fighting censorship battles on behalf of many of these authors). Anyway, we couldn't get in on Friday, so it was back to Brooklyn and pints in Spike Hill (a non-cheesy Irish bar) for us. But we managed to get tickets for the following day's screening, so along we went. By then it had sold out too.

And by approximately 30 seconds into the first screening, of Film, I was even more baffled as to why. A huge part of the audience was made up of older people, as in old people, and when confronted with the silence and unconventional approach to narrative of Beckett's film (it features a shrouded Buster Keaton, in his last role and scarcely showing his face, scurrying from a street to an apartment, and trying desperately not to glimpse his own reflection), many of them reacted as though they'd been locked in a burning barn. There were coughs, snuffles, scuffles, outright exclamations of disbelief and dismay, constant hissings about whether the sound was broken, and loud exits. During the outtakes, which weren't as interesting as they could have been - mainly the same scene shown over and over - there were audible groans. But things got funnier still with the Genet and the Ionesco films. The Genet was luxuriantly homoerotic, set in a prison where the beefy young inmates couldn't keep their eyes off each other and their hands out of their pants. By the climactic scene of full-frontal orgy, the seats were flying up so fast that it sounded like a duck shoot. Respectable couples were running out of there as fast as their arthritis could carry them, and the poor security guard at the door got an earful from one man who thought that the film should have come clearly marked "PORN". It wasn't a great film but this experience was priceless. Next came the utter bizarreness of Fotopoulos's version of Ionesco, which I thought pretty shallow and pretentious, but it, too, provided its share of hilarity. One man burst from his seat almost wailing "I gotta get out of here."

At the end of the screening, the cinema was more than half-empty, and you had to wonder what the hell these people thought they were coming to see. Most of them seemed genuinely shocked, yet the programme had been quite clearly explained. Maybe the answer was provided by the old dear who came in late and sat beside A (the cinema was so full we couldn't get seats together). At the end of it all, she turned to him and asked where the Buster Keaton movie had been. She loved Buster Keaton, she said, and she came to see him. Had she missed something? And what was all that terribly boring stuff where Buster should have been?