Talking about “The Flick”

This post is a little different: JD and KHT went to see The Flick a few months ago, and loved it, while feeling that there was more going on than we were aware of in the moment. We tried a dialogue format to talk through what made it so interesting.

KHT: I really enjoyed Annie Baker’s Pulitzer-prize-winning The Flick, a play set in a low-traffic Worcester movie theater that still uses a 35mm projector, which I saw last week at the intimate Barrow Street Theater. The three main actors—Louisa Krause, Aaron Clifton Moten, and Matthew Maher—had a lot of poise and sense of timing as they brought to life a specific, very slow rhythm that was both familiar to me from awkward-pause-heavy comedies like The Office and totally new.

“I call this the walk-through,” Matthew Maher’s Sam intones in the first scene, as the old-hat worker he plays introduces the earnest newbie Avery to the cleaning rituals. Ten seconds pass. The audience hangs in suspense as the pause crested in awkwardness and then began to seem eternal. Then, instead of a punchline, Sam simply continues with an explanation of the walkthrough (which pretty much consists only of showing Avery how to sweep the popcorn from the floors of the theater), an observation perfect in its banality.

Perfect in that it manages to be banal without winks or nudges towards profundity—the closest thing to “cleverness” is exhibited when movie-theater-usher newbie Avery turns out to be really great at six degrees of separation (you know, where you connect actors by other actors they’ve acted in movies with). But also “perfect” because each piece of dialogue reflects so well both the narrowing world in which the characters exist (retail work forces you to really think about sweeping up popcorn), and the particular ways in which they each cope with that narrowness.

Is it fair for me to imply their world is narrow, which is probably inextricable from calling it “narrowing”? I’m not sure. They are all facing major personal problems, of course—depression, unrequited love, bad families, and sexual, errr, peccadilloes. And they are also all facing the coming, final descent into obsoleteness of a technology that was majorly influential in American culture: 35mm film projection. That’s not narrow at all.

JD: I think it’s not fair to imply that, but that’s ok, because you didn’t actually imply that. (Editor’s note: real spoilers from here on out.) Also, great use of peccadillo.

“Narrowing” is exactly the right word for the world inhabited by the 3 leads, but exactly the fact that each of them struggles against that world provides us the outline of a much broader and richer space. Avery, on leave from university, is obviously an interloper from a richer (literally and figuratively) world, but Rose and Sam also push outwards against the walls of the theater: at the crucial moment when Rose and Sam betray Avery and let him get fired, Rose cites exactly their outside lives, where they depend on the support of this job, as a defense of her choice.

Even in its staging, the play creates space around the confined action on stage for us to imagine inner and outer lives for the characters: you mentioned the incredible pause after the first line, during which you have to imagine flash-montage Amelié life-histories for both Sam and Avery trying to explain why they’re both here and which one will speak next, before the banality of the task itself, and Sam’s droning explanation, draws you into the narrowness of the world of the theater. One of the most touching moments of the play has this same surfeit of negative space—Avery takes a long phone call, alone, in a darkened theater, describing his dream, but also listening to an unknown friend? or therapist? or lover? for long stretches, during which we’re again left-invited-required to fill in not just the speech of this other party, but also their relationship to Avery, and the reason for this call at this time.

I’d say that exactly the most appealing thing about The Flick is how vividly it sets out both the narrowness of the place, and the breadth that fits beyond.

KHT: Thanks, I think you clarified things a lot for me. The way the play opens up the spaces of the world beyond the theater without ever leaving that one room, and the way that the long—aggressively long—spaces between words and lines open up the various layers of meaning that exist in the dialogue. I agree it’s one of the most beautiful parts of the play.

I was thinking about this outside-world justification for Rose and Sam betraying Avery. It’s a complicated thing—there are sort of twin injustices that bolster the cause of each side. Rose, the tough but appealing projectionist, and the old-hand Sam are in going-nowhere jobs and lives, looking at, probably, a lifetime of jobs in retail. (Avery asks Sam, who’s in his late thirties at least, what he wants to do when he grows up, and Sam, in one of the funniest lines of the play, squeals that that is the most depressing question he’s ever been asked).

Meanwhile, though, Rose and Sam are white; Avery is not. He senses racism on the part of the manager (whom we never meet), although racism is too strong and aware a word for these characters; Avery simply puts it as the manager not really wanting to hire a black kid. And when a new manager comes in and Avery’s job is suddenly on the line for no immediately apparent reason, it’s obvious that it’s because he’s black: he’d be in the same boat as Rose and Sam if he were white like them.

What really happens to Avery isn’t that Rose and Sam somehow need the job and make a wrenching decision to save him. It’s simple, everyday cowardice; it’s betrayal, on a seemingly smaller scale than betrayals you might expect to see staged, but as universal and meaningful as Brutus’s. The racism, the economic injustice, are what enable a world where this can happen to him; but the emotional punch of it, to me, lies in the realization that Rose and Sam aren’t going to stand up for Avery, no matter what excuses they might make. They have chances. Avery, always the optimist, really pleads his case here for once in his life. But at each chance they’re given, they turn aside—and, scrounging around to save their self-respect, they offer up this economic rationale instead.

JD, I’m interested to hear what you think of this. Also, I’m interested to hear what you think of how the coming obsolescence of 35-mm film fits into this play thematically. Is it about the economic marginalization of these characters—no one needs a projectionist in the age of digital film, but also, no one really needs any of them enough to pay a fair wage, no matter what retail venue they find themselves working at next? Or something else?

JD: Wow it’s hard to pick up a conversation after more than a month of doing nothing. Probably I should have written this when I was supposed to, huh?

The 35mm theme bothers me because it seems to be exactly what you say, and very little else: capitalism and technology are making more and more workers marginal and then obsolete. Which is not exactly an original thought.

It may ultimately be wishful thinking, because I really want to like this play, but I read the “romantic” episode between Rose and Sam, which immediately precedes Sam and Rose’s betrayal of Avery, as undermining this sophomoric Marxism, and some of the blandly racial developments in the last act. Late in the play, Sam declares a long-unrequited love for Rose, which she immediately scoffs at. She doesn’t speak about her own feelings towards him (or the absence of them), but just dares him to say something real about why or how he loves her—he is unable to, and silently accepts the emptiness of the narrative he has built around this projection of his coworker.

Presumably it’s clear where I’m going with this: a number of abstract thematic narratives seem to fit fairly neatly over the events of the second act. Never-stated-outright racial discrimination against Avery, economic marginalization of the undereducated Sam and Rose, the technological obsolescence of unskilled labor and 35mm film—but each of these pull against each other, and their realization in the actual people Sam, Rose, and Avery makes each theme inadequate to summarize the content of the play.

That betrayal scene encodes this rejection of the purely “thematic” with its devastating finale. An aside in explanation: a continuing source of the simmering racial tension in the play has been Sam’s repeated attempts to get Avery to “do Samuel L. Jackson.” At some point off stage Avery has revealed to Sam that he can recite Jules’ famous “Ezekiel 25:17” speech from Pulp Fiction from memory, but the fact that this piece of movie arcana among so many others, this quintessential representation of the “threatening black man,” is the one that Sam keeps asking to see repeated, seems uncomfortably racially motivated, and it seems so more and more each time Avery redirects or refuses the request. In some circles Samuel L. Jackson personifies commodified Blackness, and those are usually exactly those circles where Blackness is commodified.

With that established: once Sam and Rose have stood firm in their betrayal, defending themselves with their economic-narrative-as-rationalization, and thereby making themselves immune to further appeals, Avery says: “Hey Sam. You want me to do Ezekiel 25:17 for Rose?” Sam attempts to demur, but Avery launches directly into it. His Samuel L. Jackson impersonation is as good as advertised (when we saw the play, Aaron Clifton Moten was riveting in this scene), but as he continues the Pulp Fiction scene past the “biblical quotation,” it becomes clearer and clearer that Avery is quoting with intention. “The truth is, you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men.” He finally trails off, and doesn’t say anything of his own, in his own voice, after the Tarantino quotation. He takes in Sam and Rose’s reactions (silence from Sam, “That… was awesome” from Rose), and walks off stage.

What we see, in other words, is that Avery recognizes the adoption of a thematic or theoretic explanation for their personal betrayal for the cowardice that it is, and returns the insult in kind: if they are not Rose and Sam, but rather exploited members of the proletariat, coerced into violence by an unfeeling system, then he is not Avery, but rather an angry and threatening black man, radiating a righteous but implacable menace.

I think I’ve at least convinced myself: the most significant moments in the play all seem pointed at this assertion that social-theoretic narratives are inadequate to explain why actual people actually act and feel the way they do towards each other. Sam and Rose are more than 35mm film being replaced by projectors, in other words: the macroeconomic reasons why their jobs, and jobs like them, won’t exist in the near future, don’t tell their personal stories—why they had those jobs, what the jobs meant to them, why they went on to others.

KHT: Funny, I didn’t pick up on that interpretation of the Samuel L. Jackson theme at all, but it makes complete sense to me. I agree with you that the play makes the interesting choice by rejecting any narrative that’s purely about social injustice; however, the social injustice of racism, poverty, even sexism are important because they form the difficult backdrop against which these three characters still have to make their personal choices. Choices that—though Rose and Sam would like to deny this fact—are of the deepest consequence. So when Avery walks off the stage he leaves Rose and Sam very much themselves, facing their very individual shame.

JD: Hey – you started, I get the last word!

I totally agree with that correction, though—thematic narratives are so attractive because they assert such a strong influence on how people actually act, and on the stories they use to explain their actions; and so in emphasizing how the play rejects a completely thematic interpretation of its action, I shouldn’t have suggested that the thematic narratives don’t remain a key part of the territory explored by the play, or a key part of what makes it so compelling. I guess it shouldn’t be much of a revelation, in the end, that a Pulitzer Prize-winning play would be incredibly good, but damn if it wasn’t.


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