Saturday, January 17, 2015

What I learned from THE FLICK: movies are better than theater

No, I am not kidding.

My company let us out of work early on Friday so I had a couple of hours to kill in Manhattan before my appointment with my therapist. So I went to the Dramatists Bookshop. I had planned to buy both THE FLICK (won the 2014 Pulitzer) and VANYA, AND SONIA AND MASHA AND SPIKE but I was able to read THE FLICK in the bookstore in the time that I had, thus saving myself 7.99.

OK, I'm not saying THE FLICK is as bad as ANNA IN THE TROPICS, which will forever be for me the low-water mark of Pulitzer Prize winners. But it certainly is nowhere near as good as its competition, FUN HOME which I saw a year ago.

Now admittedly, I was not inclined to like THE FLICK and not just because I loved FUN HOME - here I am complaining about it back in September based on the reviews. I feel that part of the play's appeal is the upper classes' nostalgie de la boue.

If anything though, it turned out to be even worse than I thought it would. One of the complaints of those who saw the play was that it was boring - the show presents people working at mundane mindless jobs. Actually, Baker managed to make her characters more boring than people at crap jobs actually are.

Unlike Annie Baker, I have years of crap jobs under my belt - I really should have gone with the plan where I won a Pulitzer by the time I was 33 - I didn't even write my first play until I was 31, and instead was an impoverished single mom working such jobs as:
  • a circular inserter at a small town newspaper
  • a thread cutter at a garment factory
  • an order picker in a health food warehouse
  • a cashier at a liquor store
  • a printing plate developer at a print shop
  • a paste-up artist at a graphics company (this was before everything was done on computers)
  • a driving instructor
And several others. I was lucky enough to get a computer earlier than most people (1989) and was able to ride the personal computer wave into a job as a computer applications trainer and eventually a technical writer. But you never forget those low-paying, mundane, soul-crushing shit jobs. And one thing I remember is that the people who worked them were generally more strange and interesting than the three characters presented by Annie Baker in THE FLICK.

Maybe because the play is set in a movie theater, which is arguably more intellectual than your typical liquor store (I also ran the lottery machine whoohoo) and so the workers are perhaps less bizarre than at other shitty jobs, but I worked with a devotee of the Guru Mahara Ji at the health food warehouse (she sabotaged my work as I wrote about here), and plenty of born-again Christians at the other jobs. Not to mention the hideous family who ran the print shop - the son routinely referred to his mother as a "whore" in front of the employees. Having some semi-autistic, asexual movie buff character who loves "Pulp Fiction" is not even close to that level of bizarreness.

And speaking of which, towards the end of THE FLICK the other characters cajole the semi-autistic asexual into reciting from memory a section of "Pulp Fiction" dialog. It's this:
There’s a passage I got memorized. Ezekiel 25:17. “The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. 
Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of the darkness. For he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. 
And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know I am the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.”  
I been sayin’ that shit for years. And if you ever heard it, it meant your ass. I never really questioned what it meant. I thought it was just a cold-blooded thing to say to a motherfucker ‘fore you popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this mornin’ made me think twice. Now I’m thinkin’, it could mean you’re the evil man. And I’m the righteous man. And Mr. .45 here, he’s the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or is could by you’re the righteous man and I’m the shepherd and it’s the world that’s evil and selfish. I’d like that. 
But that shit ain’t the truth. The truth is you’re the weak. And I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m tryin’. I’m tryin’ real hard to be a shepherd.
So what this means is that the most exciting, most compelling dialog in THE FLICK was lifted directly out of "Pulp Fiction."

And consider - while THE FLICK won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama, "Pulp Fiction" did not win an Academy Award for Best Picture. Now I love "Pulp Fiction" but I don't think it's the greatest movie ever made - that would be "Seven Samurai" - but I defy anybody, even the world's biggest theater queen, to watch "Pulp Fiction" and then to watch THE FLICK and tell me that "Pulp Fiction" isn't twenty times more entertaining, enlightening and original than THE FLICK.

Thus proving that movies are better than the theater.

And for the record, this isn't just because movies allow more action - "My Dinner with Andre" is also far more entertaining than THE FLICK. And I didn't even have to sit through a production of the play, which reportedly was filled with lots and lots of mind-numbing pauses. One of the very few non-glowing reviews notes:
These two had some success last season with Ms. Baker’s Circle Mirror Transformation, also at Playwrights in a production which I did not see. But this time out, all I could think, during most of the 180 minutes in my small seat, was that I was watching the Emperor without clothes. 
For The Flick breaks every rule, defies any description of what I was taught makes a good play. It has no dramatic action whatever, its dialogue sounds as though we, the trapped audience, had a microphone hidden somewhere. That the two principal characters, later joined by a third, were inarticulate, emotionally challenged human beings did not help matters. 
Under Sam Gold’s direction, and I assume Ms. Baker’s instructions, one could almost hear the actors being told to “say Mississippi to yourself four times before you respond when asked a complicated question like: ‘Are your parents living?’ or ‘Where were you born?'” The tipoff came at the top, when that movie score went on and on and on, climaxing several times before its finale ultimo brought its blast of clashing cymbals to a sudden halt. 
There is no plot. Well, there is a tiny one and I certainly won’t spoil what there is of it for you by giving it away. All I can say is it’s not worth waiting until deep in the second act to even discover what it is.
I'm afraid this critic only made things worse for future theater audiences.
Saying "For The Flick breaks every rule, defies any description of what I was taught makes a good play" is exactly the kind of thing that Baker and her enablers want to hear. For Baker is a disciple of the dread, anti-drama Mac Wellman, the king of the fuck-the-audience school of theater, and "breaking the rules" (i.e. "breaking the boundaries") is their one and only goal. Breaking the rules of theater convention convinces them (and obviously the Pulitzer committee) that they are a bunch of magnificent genii.
I do wonder how Baker is going to continue her career. If she wants audiences to actually watch her plays, she's going to have to stick with what Wellman calls "melodrama" - like Baker's crowd-pleasing CIRCLE MIRROR TRANSFORMATION. But if she wants awards and reliably worshipful reviews from critics, then she should keep going the Wellman route, with the obnoxious, anti-dramatic, playwright-knows-best attitude towards the audience, whom the Wellman school consider idiots and losers with their pathetic need for emotional resonance and interesting plot.
I'm so happy I read the play, instead of watching it on stage - if I had to sit through all those pauses, on top of the boring characters and situations I would have completely lost it.