THE FLICK, by Annie Baker, directed by Sam Gold, with Louise Krause and Matthew Maher, National Theatre in association with Scott Rudin, Saturday 4th June, 1.30pm
I can't help it. I have to start this review by talking about the programme notes. Having been to two plays at the National Theatre in so many days, I'm struck by how the programme notes seem only tangentially, or tenuously, relevant to the plays referred to.
In the case of Sunset at the Villa Thalia, the programme note is about Chile and the baleful, if not sinister, influence of Milton Friedman, the high priest of austerity, on that country 40 years ago. Yes, the play does refer briefly to Chile, but almost as if to make sense of the programme note.
The programme notes for The Flick universally make the case for the efficacy of film, celluloid, over digital projection in cinemas. This isn't really what the play is about. It's almost as if these essays are smoke screens, decoys, magicians' sleight of hand, 'hey, look over there, while I do what I have to do over here'. Displacement, no? Should our suspicions be aroused?
The Flick is really about those people, workers, at the very bottom of the food chain, who sweep up the popcorn, the detritus of a high profile, very glamorous, superficially very wealthy, global enterprise, cinema. But for all the award ceremonies, the red carpets, the stars, the festivals, our own experience, as an audience, is often a pretty woeful one of multiplexes, or fleapits which have seen better days, as is the case at this eponymous cinema, The Flick.
So, The Flick, the play, is about The Flick, the cinema, or, more specifically, the three people who work there: the projectionist and two front of house, tickets, popcorn et al, concessions. We, the audience, sit where the screen would be, looking back at half a cinema, constructed with loving attention to detail, seats, walls, ceiling, surround sound, door and, above at the back, the projection booth, glimpsed through two windows, or portholes, one for the projector, this being one of the last cinemas projecting celluloid in the US, one for the projectionist. A view of a cinema we wouldn't normally dwell on for long.
It's the first day for new boy, front of house, and he's being given an induction, an introduction to the broom and the popcorn which needs sweeping. The other staffers are long term inmates, and in a happy congruity, or theatrical necessity, (the performances are outstanding) the two actors playing these parts created the roles in its New York premier season and revival, where it caused such a stir that I was aware of its success here in Brighton.
The secret sauce translates exceptionally well across the Atlantic. Working in a single screen cinema somewhere in Massachusetts, around the time of Django Unchained so not long ago, there isn't a lot to do between showings. They sweep up slowly. There are lots of long silences while they ponder. We come to love their idiosyncrasies. Rose's square shoulders, her hard edge; Sam's rhythms of speech, his fundamental generosity. Stylistically, this is utterly original, and true to its subject. Sam and Rose, one short step away from destitution. (Sam lives with his parents. He's 35.) They aren't paid enough to make ends meet. (Maybe there is a truth here that is very close to home. How much are the programme sellers, the bar staff, the ushers at the National paid? Programme note, anyone?)
Newest member of staff, Avery, is from the middle class. He's a film geek, with encyclopaedic knowledge. But he has an escape route, a way out the others don't have. He's taking a break, somewhat enforced, from college, and chose this cinema because it still shows film. As I said, an enthusiast.
Ok, here we are in a theatre, every seat full, looking at a cinema, every seat empty. What does this say? Anyone? Anyone? Sir, at the back there? Madame? No?
Here's what I think. Cinema couldn't give two hoots about the audience. Or the staff for that matter. And the audience knows it. Why do you think they throw popcorn about with gay abandon?
The bottom line is that film on film was incredibly expensive, which meant a very high barrier to entry, which meant centralised control.
Digital cinema means a low barrier to entry, both for film makers and for cinemas, which means devolved control. This is what drives the cinema industry crazy and they will stop at nothing to try and stop it happening. The complicated financial arrangement that sees distributors paying for the digital projection equipment in cinemas is all about retaining control, control over what films make it to the big screen.
The programme notes again: Nick James from the British Film Institute, who are supposed to be encouraging British filmmakers, says: '... how fantastically cheap the means of digital film production has become, ... that almost anyone can now make a film. That also means that, for better or worse, we're now swamped' (swamped I say) 'with more that twice as many film releases in any given week than there would have been a dozen years ago and each film gets a smaller slice of the audience.'
And this is a bad thing?
Centralised control means cinema staff who can't afford to eat. It means emerging filmmakers who can't get their films shown in cinemas. It means multiplexes that are funded and developed as property investments, not as places devoted to telling us stories about ourselves. It means the audience completely absent from the debate, or even from consideration.
This is what this play is about.