Looking at The Flick

In Annie Baker's Pulitzer-winning play The Flick, tensions over race, sex, and labor automation appear in a mirror

In November of 2011, around the time Roger Ebert wrote “Who would have dreamed film would die so quickly?” I imagine Annie Baker was writing The Flick and trying to cope. Four years later, Ebert is dead, Baker’s play has won a Pulitzer, and film is still here, sort of. It sure feels gone. People shoot on it, but not very many. Even fewer people “finish” on it. Striking prints is rare. Screening them, outside of repertory viewing, even rarer. The phenomenological costs of this have yet to be calculated. Perhaps my attention span, and yours, isn’t long enough to account for them anymore.

If Instagram filters are any clue, fetishization of the various ways film could represent the world is widespread, even as the cultural and economic will to continue passing light through celluloid has faded. The Flick provides a window into exploring the America these changes are coming about in, the nostalgia and the dread, with a grace few works of art can muster. You leave The Flick (remounted at the Barrow Street Theatre in the West Village this summer with the same actors and creative team involved in its world premiere run two years ago at Playwright Horizons) thoroughly reminded that America is a tough place, where well-meaning people routinely do cowardly, destructive things.

The Flick centers on the loss of the film projector at a central Massachusetts one-screen art house theatre. The audience looks at another set of seats as if in a mirror, a run down 70-seat cinema from the screen’s point of view. As with An Octoroon, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s startling post-modern reimagining of a racist 19th-century theatrical text that graced the stage at SoHo Rep to much acclaim last year, The Flick showcases labor first and foremost. Its movie theatre employees work for a living. Indeed, the right to continue doing work is what’s most obviously at stake in the play. And we watch them do it. A projector is threaded in what feels like several minutes of silent real time. Floors are swept, dust pans emptied. To its great credit, the things that most drama throws away The Flick retains, even if the characters are always discarding someone else’s trash.

It’s summer 2012, and a 20-year-old black nerd named Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten) has a new gig sweeping popcorn and other unmentionables from the floor of the cinema. His mentor is Sam (Matthew Maher), a boorish but well-intentioned white man in his mid 30s, a lifer in these parts whose mediocrity is defined by his beat up Red Sox cap and inability to stump Avery, the once suicidal son of a semiotician, in any game of “six degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Not even Michael Caine to Macaulay Culkin can stop this taciturn young man. They both project their fantasies onto lithe and green-haired projectionist Rose (Louisa Krause), who doesn’t have to wear the degrading oversized polo shirt that is the theatre employees’ lot, but chooses to hide her angular body in baggy clothing and a devil-may-care attitude. But she’s shrewd about whose alliances she courts, and whose she discards; Sam and Rose regularly steal money from the theatre in a practice they refer to as taking “dinner money” and she demands Avery’s solidarity right away.

Projection is crucial to the play beyond the plot; the formal cue for another ellipsis between scenes is signaled by the staccato sound of film passing through the projector as the house lights die and projector light emanates at the audience from the second story projection booth, accompanied by the sounds of a movie reaching its conclusion. When a digital hum has replaced the mechanical progression of celluloid, late in the play, we know that film is no more. The projector’s demise is, perhaps too obviously, a metaphor that conjures innocence lost and ethics torn asunder, but the play, even though it is long, doesn’t belabor its meaning with didactic dialogue or obviously symbolic plotting. It radically reminds us how people actually talk, the way they avoid the thing at hand, circling it delicately, bathing in their own quiet desperation while finding moments of wonder and humor to hold along the way.

As Avery becomes aware that the unseen owner is looking to sell the theatre to someone who would convert it to digital projection, he issues a series of by turns thoughtful and hyperbolic pronouncements, as 20-year-olds are wont to do, about the necessity of maintaining the film media and holding off the digital tide. Meanwhile the mechanics of the plot revolve around shared deceit and personal betrayal, regardless of whether the cinema has a future or not. An unspoken and unsought rivalry grows between Avery and Sam for what feminine charms Rose has to offer. Few as it turns out, given that she actively refuses the role of ingenue in her behavior and dress. For her gamine qualities, she’s dismissed as a lesbian.

This turns out to be untrue. She increasingly offers come-ons to the shy and methodical Avery, and Maher’s reactions are a clinic in painful restraint. When she and Avery decide to stay late one night to watch a dust-collecting print of Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch together, Rose attempts to make the sparks fly with a dance routine that is one of the play’s humorous high points and an anxiety-inducing hinge moment. By the time she’s jerking him off in a middle row, more or less against his will, it’s clear the play’s a tragedy. This solidarity will not hold.

Neither will “dinner money” of course. This young, methodical negro, the son of a university department chairman, puts himself into a position of solidarity with these two working class white folks who have pain and unrealized dreams of their own. It’ll come back to haunt him superficially, even as the results of that decision will prove devastating for viewers more than for him.

The play as staged by Baker’s frequent collaborator Sam Gold is a treatise on labor and ownership, race and class, all set within the confines of a theatre where the ceiling tiles are collapsing and gum is stuck underneath the front row seats. Running nearly three hours, much of which is spent in total silence as the hard luck trio at the center grimly ply their trade, it resembles the slow cinema of Chantal Akerman or Pedro Costa as much as it does a traditional theatrical experience. It’s a play that could have only been written by a cinephile, but Gold’s contributions to that feel shouldn’t be understated. He trusts the audience to stay within the piece’s delicate trance as the characters glumly sweep the floors or climb the unseen stairwell to the projection booth in real time. He deftly places the characters in arrangements that heighten the unspoken tensions and ever shifting allegiances between them. Despite depicting the dullest of jobs for as long as The Godfather’s runtime, there isn’t a throwaway moment in this entire production.

Baker is 34, just a bit younger than Maher’s character Sam, but her heart is clearly with the youngest character in the play, and The Flick erects a spirited defense of analog culture. Baker, unlike Avery, is old enough to have gone to see Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in a theatre or vaguely remember watching Ronald Reagan’s presidential send off on a TV set with dials and wood paneling. She’s the type of old millennial who remembers and mourns an analog world that fell apart all around her without sounding like a tiresome philistine.

The play’s low stakes, revolving as it does around whether three poorly paid wage workers will get to keep their degrading jobs cleaning up behind slothful moviegoers amid a technological advance that threatens to render one of their jobs completely obsolete (this fact seems to be lost on Rose until it’s too late), morph into sneakily large ones as the back half of its 14 scenes unfold. Will seemingly disadvantaged whites act honorably toward seemingly privileged blacks when the latter encounter bigotry? Can mentorship, friendship, and sexual alliance exist in healthy ways under capitalism? Is technological progress, as Antonioni warned 55 years ago at Cannes, impeding emotional growth and understanding?

These questions don’t have comforting answers because America isn’t a place for comfort. Around the corner of every technological advance is the collateral damage of livelihoods lost and old ways of perception forever altered. Useful new ties across boundaries of class and race give way to old suspicions and fears at the threat of a crackdown from management. There is no honor amongst thieves. Onto this dark abyss Annie Baker shines a light and holds a mirror. What’s in the reflection is mostly trash, and people sweeping it up.