Annie Baker’s Pulitzer Prize winning play “The Flick”, which is winding down a run at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater, where I saw it back in February, is set entirely in a rundown single screen movie theater, and opens with an overture – namely, the prelude to “The Naked and the Dead.” It heralds, as overtures do, the beginning, yet it also doubles as the end, because once it ceases the lights come up and two theater employees, Sam and Avery (Danny McCarthy and Travis Turner, respectively, in the Steppenwolf production), enter with a garbage can, brooms and dustpans, sweeping up while riffing, and sometimes not talking at all. Last year, in an interview with podcast hero Marc Maron, Baker herself described this moment “when the lights came on and the ushers came through and started shit-talking each other and sweeping up the popcorn. That transition from the magic, the time-machine of the movies into the crazy present tense...that, to me, felt so profound.”
The darkness of the movie theater, David Thomson has written, exists “so that the compulsive force of our involvement may he hidden.” When it’s dark, we feel protected within the filmed fantasy’s cocoon; when it’s suddenly bright again, we are released from the cocoon, exposed, figuratively naked. There is a reason why the most unnerving passage in all of “The Flick” doubles as the one that takes place when the lights are down and a movie is being screened, and that’s because the sacred pact of the cinema’s darkness is broken.
The rest of “The Flick” simply dispenses with the pact altogether, taking place after the lights have come up, when all the fever dreams by light of the 35mm projector have ended and all that’s left is spilled popcorn. In fact, much of “The Flick’s” is devoted to sweeping up popcorn, lengthy passages of Sam and Avery going up and down rows with brooms and dustpans doing menial work, occasionally pausing to talk shop with Rose (Caroline Neff at Steppenwolf), the projectionist, and sometimes not talking at all, simply allowing the noise of dustpans scraping against the concrete, over and over, to effect an astonishing workaday vérité. “The Flick” runs ten minutes over three hours and this is why. If infinite movies and TV shows, and whatever else, have claimed to chronicle the working day, none have so consistently, daringly and remarkably done so with this kind of authenticity.
But that length is deliberate. It draws you into the explicit mundaneness of “The Flick’s” world, becoming an ode to this kind of low-paying, un-eventful job where at-work friendships evolve and devolve, sometimes within a matter of moments, and so many conversations about nothing organically morph into being about something, or about everything, which Baker captures with an incredibly adroit ear. At one point, she has Avery recite a monologue from Quentin Tarantino's “Pulp Fiction”, giving it new meaning without appropriating it, an improbably deft trick, and the best implementation of a movie quote in any artistic context I can recall.
Above all, it is the place that defines this play. Baker could have set her story anywhere, at a dead-end retail job or a hotel lobby, but she chose a fading palace to the motion picture. In her landmark essay, The Decay of Cinema, Susan Sontag wrote of the movies’ “double start”, how the French filmmaking Lumière brothers sought to employ “cinema as the transcription of real unstaged life” while French filmmaker Georges Méliès saw “cinema as invention, artifice, illusion, fantasy.” “But,” as Sontag noted, “this is not a true opposition. The whole point is that, for those first audiences, the very transcription of the most banal reality was a fantastic experience. Cinema began in wonder, the wonder that reality can be transcribed with such immediacy.”
Anymore, movies seemed to have branched out in two polar opposites from those marvelous beginnings, seeking only to render either a fantastic experience or a banal reality, nothing in-between. Leave it to the “The Flick”, set on the stage, to capture completely the cinema’s original intention; Baker transcribes reality with such immediacy that it renders wonder.