Tim Sanford on "The Flick"
“Behold! human beings living in an underground den, their legs and necks chained so that they cannot move,… behind them a fire is blazing at a distance, and between the fire and the prisoners, men passing along the wall carrying all sorts of vessels, and statues and figures…. They see only their own shadows, or the shadows of one another, which the fire throws on the opposite wall of the cave... And if they were able to converse,… would they not suppose that they were naming what was actually before them? To them, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.”
– Plato, Republic, Book VII
“Film can express things that computers never will. Film is a series of photographs separated by split seconds of darkness. Film is light and shadow.”
– Annie Baker, The Flick
There’s no need to venture into film theory to appreciate the irresistible workplace storyline of The Flick. But there is something amusing and strangely appropriate in thinking about the play’s three small-town cinema employees as prisoners shackled in a cave together. As is her wont, Annie examines the lives of three decidedly unglamorous characters; she would of course rather dramatize the inner lives of ticket takers than the snazzy celebrities their customers come to see. She lays the groundwork for her story subtly. We never see her pulling strings. She adheres to rigorous standards of verisimilitude in the authenticity of her characterizations, her dialogue and milieu. The modest plot elements of sexual tension, the vulnerability of their jobs to changing times, and an ethical wrinkle in their daily operations are quite sufficient to stir up conflict. In some ways, it reminds me of Kenny Lonergan’s Lobby Hero in the way it creates ethical reverberations that seem somehow magnified by the seemingly neutral setting of the play.
But there is always more than meets the eye in Annie’s brand of realism. Circle Mirror Transformation, for example, was not just a character study of five Vermonters playing theater games. As suggested by the wall of mirrors on one side of the room, all five characters were in search of their selves and the various exercises in representation, imitation, and self-expression they performed served to illumine their path at the same time that they demonstrated the function and power of the theater. The Flick in a way takes the wall of mirrors idea one step farther by setting the action of the play in the auditorium of the cinema. It’s almost like we’re staring into a mirror of our own auditorium. But we’re not looking at our own lives. We’re not looking at the magic of art. We only see a couple of moments of a film actually showing, and in these moments we are keenly aware of the artifice of film as flickering light and shadow as the quote cited above from the character Avery indicates. Film takes the platonic allegory of the cave to its furthest extent, fancifying shadows into dazzling illusions that distract us from the originating strong moral forms Plato espoused that no one today believes in anymore. So what’s the difference if we cut out the shadows altogether and replace them with pixels? Well, in Annie Baker’s world, that substitution would be tragic because the interplay of light and shadow in a way replicates the real life struggle between her characters and their inner lives. As Avery says at another point in the play, “The answer to every like terrible situation always seems to be, Be Yourself, but I have no idea what that fucking means. Who’s Myself?” No revelatory apotheosis is forthcoming, but that doesn’t mean we should let our struggle be pixilated. As long as we have that flicker, the chance still remains that we might have our chains unshackled and we might get up and face the fire, that source of warmth and light we somehow can’t resist believing in. And when I read or see Annie’s work, I believe in that fire too. Actually, I believe in it because I feel it. I suspect you do too.
–Tim Sanford, Artistic Director