Twentieth Century Fox announced last year they would stop distributing 35mm film by the end of 2013, “bringing the promise of digital cinema to all exhibitors,” said John Fithian, the National Association of Theatre Owners president. The movement towards digital appears to be driven by the economical preference for advancing technologies: cutting the costs of printing and repair, and the dissolution of unnecessary workers, namely, the projectionist. A theater worker, any theater worker—from the clean up crew to the box officer assistant—can run up to the projection room and push a button to start the movie. This is “the promise of digital?” But whose promise?
Annie Baker’s new play The Flick, at Playwrights Horizons, is a thrilling and tedious venture into dying art forms, our obsessions with popular culture, and the role of the connoisseur and the critic in our everyday lives; it takes the conversation of digital versus film and projects upon three co-workers at a run down single-screen cinema.
There are a number of conversations throughout the course of the work, but the most significant one is the moral/ethical dilemma over what we say we do and what we do do—and how in this, there is a conundrum, do we love the things we say we love in the right way? Or are we apathetic? Too willing to let what we care about slip away? Baker mines for the ethical dilemmas we face on the microscopic level, how our apathies are fueled by the relentless system that favors the “upward” advancement of technologies over authentic connection.
And in the character of Avery (played with metered resolve by the uncompromising Aaron Clifton Moten) we find our champion: a young man who has opted out of Facebook, bemoans the evils of digital, and who has resolved to not participate in the distractions of his generation. His steely gaze, his monotonous cadence, his unwillingness to budge on any of his opinions make him one of the more remarkable character studies I have seen in contemporary theater. In the hands of someone less compassionate, Avery could have been distilled to a stereotype, an unlikeable misanthropist but Baker has equipped the character with a Brechtian-like composition, carrying a didactic message through the play.
In a pivotal scene Avery reads a letter he has written to the management to his co-worker Sam—played by the astounding Matthew Maher, who could do a reading of the phone book for all I care. In the letter, Avery pleads with the new manager not to replace the 35mm projector with a digital projector. After reading his impassioned letter, Sam comments on Avery’s boldness. The following plays out:
Did I convince you?
Oh. Hm. Good question.
You know, I guess I don’t really care either way.
And in this exchange, Baker hits on what she is after.
It is very easy to have a world-view; it is increasingly difficult to maintain a worldview when all forms of media are intent on diminishing our capabilities. We shrug things off, we act like we don’t care, and sooner than later, we actually don’t: we don’t care.
But the play is about so much more than this. It is about how embarrassing and awkward and depressing it is to live amongst others and our inability to be happy in the presence of anyone but our selves. It is about our uncomfortable impulses to be close to the “magic” in our lives, whether it be a film or another person. It is about how we can never fully recognize how we are hurting others. And it is about why it’s worth caring about the esoteric, why it’s worth having strong, critical opinions, and not changing your mind, as absurd as it might seem.
The play is an experiential undertaking that requires patience and fortitude from the audience—with her seemingly naturalistic pauses that stretch and stretch, Baker creates minor gulfs for us to contemplate, or not, for minutes on end, giving us the space to wander in her controlled environment. However, watching the hours go by—the play clocks in at nearly three and a half hours—I was struck by how rare this felt, to be given the time to spend with such endearing and complicated characters for an extended period of time. Typically, as a purveyor of the experimental, I propagate the “hour-long” play—if you can’t do it in an hour, you probably shouldn’t do it at all. But after The Flick ended, like a great film—Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny & Alexander came to mind (with the aid of a textual nudging from Baker)—I wanted to stay longer, to watch the characters do nothing or something, for a few more hours.
The remarkable Louisa Krause, who bears watching, and the incredibly capable Alex Hanna round out the cast. David Zinn’s scenic design is a detailed piece of wonder and had me reeling in memories of Cinema Paradiso. Jane Cox’s lights reflect the life of a dying movie theater. And Bray Poor’s sound design lightly brings in film scores from the great films that have haunted so many of us since first viewing them. All of this is harnessed by Baker’s collaborator/director Sam Gold who has mastered a tension that peaks, dissolves, and persists over the stretch of the performance
In spite of its multiple false endings—the play drags out well past its desired end, to sputters and splats and unremarkable non-dénouements—I left the theater feeling more satisfied than I had in a very long time. Many might look at the last half hour of the text and say, “The playwright needs to fix X, Y, and Z.” But what The Flick reminds us is that theatre is the form where we may need to be the least refined, the most patient and open-hearted.
We have been conditioned as slaves to quicker, gratuitous modes of entertainment: the mindless creeping through social medias; the crashing, grating booms of monolithic blockbusters; the dangerous submission to all new forms without question or criticism. The Flick courageously, and in its own humane-way, draws us away from this and lets us know how capable we can be.