Hilton Als’s White Girls begins with a man sitting “on the promontory in our village, deep in movie love. He’s running the same old flick in his head again. In it, the stars kiss breathlessly, in true love.” A page or so later, now in a darkened cinema, Als says of the same man, “Watching him watch a movie, I noticed how his eyes would open and close slowly, like the folds in an accordion. The movies filled his eyes up.”
In Annie Baker’s The Flick, now on at the National Theatre, we watch people watching movies. The play begins in darkness, a point of light radiating out over the audience, the whirring of a projector the only sound. When it stops, and the lights are raised, we see rows of empty cinema seats staring blankly back at us.
For the next three hours, we follow snatches of conversation from Sam (Matthew Maher), Rose (Louisa Krause) and newcomer Avery (Jaygann Ayeh), three of the cinema’s employees, as they clean up dropped popcorn from between the aisles. They discuss their wages, their taste in movies, their star signs, and even – occasionally – heavier topics like their families or mental health. The three actors develop that particular silent intimacy that comes from spending many hours with someone, without actually sharing much about each other’s lives. The drama that unfolds seems both trivial and profound: from Avery’s dilemma over whether to join in with an illegal activity, to his letter to their boss asking that he keep using one of the state’s only remaining 35mm projectors. (Sam: “It’s like something someone would write in a movie.”)
Als sees in Baker’s characters “the funk of the everyday, choking them as they prepared to speak, or tried to articulate, the feeling of life being filled with big waves of everything, and then nothing”. In movies, we see the wave after wave of everything. In The Flick, we see even more of nothing – long, drawn out pauses, sometimes funny, sometimes excruciating, sometimes contemplative. There are several moments in the play that make me squirm (when Sam says of his brother, “He’s retarded”, and the audience laugh, what, or who, is the punchline?), but it feels the closest to real speech the stage can get.
The Flick deals at length with the way people make connections with each other through external cultural phenomena – how we often rely on big screen, technicolour, high stakes explorations of emotion when our own are hard to access. Sam and Avery break up their conversations with a version of Six Degrees of Separation – connecting two seemingly unrelated actors through the other actors they have worked in different films.
In fact, “movie love” is so inextricably related to empathy and connection to a higher force, that Avery tells his therapist that, in a dream, he realised “the way they decide whether or not you get into heaven is through, like, looking at all the movies you’ve ever watched or all the books you ever read and figuring out whether there was one book or movie that you truly truly loved. Like one movie that symbolizes your entire life.” If you don’t properly connect with art, you’re not getting in: “I ran it over Fanny and Alexander, and I can’t believe it, but… nothing happens. And then I think to myself: I’m going to hell.”
When Avery’s greatest movie love is revealed to be the “terrible” Honeymoon in Vegas, his own cultural snobbery sees him taken aback. “But then, I’m like, wait, it doesn’t matter, I’m going to heaven. I must have done something right in my life because I’m going to heaven. And that feeling of like… of like knowing that I made the right choices, was like the best feeling I’ve ever had.” The movies filled his eyes up.
The Flick argues that cinema and theatre going always, inevitably, involves an experience of reflection and projection, and that these provide us with a microcosm for ways in which we view each other off screen . Rose is a female projectionist who is projected onto, Sam insists “I’m not performing,” Avery grapples with his own authenticity. (Rose: “Were you faking it then?” Avery: “I mean yes and no. It’s hard to tell I guess.”)
The Flick is overly concerned with authenticity verses inauthenticity, high culture verses low culture, real time verses story time. At a discussion of the play with Annie Baker and her long-time director Sam Gold, journalist Sarfraz Manzoor asked Baker if she is interested in storytelling through television.
Baker: No, television doesn’t interest me at all. I find it incredibly uninteresting. I still love movies, and I write movies, and I have nothing philosophical against the medium of television. But I am super into endings. I really like making a thing that’s finished. And actually the endings of my plays are often the most important parts of my plays, for me. And I just have like zero interest in a medium that sort of like, long form, that could go on indefinitely. […] When am I gonna find the thirty hours to get to the part that’s still not as good as a good movie? […] It holds no interest for me. How do you feel about it?
Gold: I’m so interested in what you just said, because I think you’re a very very brilliant structuralist. […] I think that instinct has a lot to do with the idea of being a structuralist and of wanting to start an idea and make it work, make it pay off, make it come around in the end, make it tight. […] Everything that comes up in the first three scenes of The Flick comes up in the last three scenes of The Flick.
Manzoor: Tightly plotted TV would do the same?
Baker: I think what he’s saying is that television isn’t like that, because it really isn’t.
Manzoor: But if you watch The Office [UK], there were only two series and there was a culminating moment at the end…
Many of The Flick’s most resonant lines make me think of TV as much as they do film. (Avery: “The answer to every terrible situation always seems to be like, Be Yourself, but I have no idea what that fucking means. Who’s Myself? Apparently there’s some like amazing awesome person deep down inside of me or something? I have no idea who that guy is.” Angela, My So-Called Life: “People always say you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster or something. Like you can know what it is even.”)
In fact, The Office UK is a particularly interesting example – both it and The Flick are about, in their own way, the life that happens after the cameras stop rolling; and it’s therefore apt that both are hyperconscious of their own endings, and reject cinematic closure:
Tim: If I’m really being honest, I never really thought it would have a happy ending. I don’t know what a happy ending is. Life isn’t about endings, is it? It’s a series of moments. And um, if you turn the camera off, it’s not an ending is it? I’m still here.
Avery: Do you remember the end of the movie Manhattan? […] This is like the opposite of that ending.
If real endings aren’t movie endings, is movie love a delusion? The Flick is not conclusive about the role of art in life, or of life in art, but it is strangely hopeful about life as a series of moments. Moments that are sometimes invested with the same strange transcendence as the movies.