El cine (The Flick) by Annie Baker: life’s quiet dramas

This quietly brilliant play by American playwright Annie Baker makes for gripping viewing in an excellent Catalan adaptation directed by Marilia Samper. At over three hours long (with a short interval), El cine (The Flick) weaves slow magic from the mundane setting of a battered Massachusetts cinema in the early 2010s. It could be the antecedent of recent independent movies such as Aftersun or The Quiet Girl that honour with humility (plus cinematic touches) the joys and tragedies of little lives.
El cine is an artful study of the relationships between four employees of an old-school movie theatre called The Flick. The name is early 20th-century American slang for a film, a movie or a picture, and refers to the way it flickered through the old 35mm projectors, miraculously turning stills into jerky then seamless movement, recreating life as it wasn’t.
Characters emerge as the movie’s end credits roll to a close. It is their minimum-wage job to sweep up the popcorn, collect crisp packets, and scrape up whatever else they find. The staging flips the cinema experience: seats face out, and the theatre audience sit behind its imagined screen. Up above the stage the industrious projectionist works her mysterious magic, a job once reserved for men that has now been automated with the switch to digital. The Flick, we immediately realise, is one of the few cinemas that still has an old-fashioned 35mm film projector.
David Marcé Tarradas is superb as Sam, a working-class man already senior in his mid-thirties. He shows Avery (Ton Vieira Poblet), an awkward 20-year-old, with fabulous taste in hipster sweaters, the ropes. Rose (Sara Diego Boladeras) is the chaotic projectionist that Sam, quite understandably, carries a torch for. Roger Torns Baltà plays Skylar, another employee who makes a late entrance, as well as (in a brief but exemplary scene) a man who has fallen asleep in the cinema and who is awoken in a fluster under the vehement glare of post-movie lighting.
There is the sense of an ending; or at least a sea change, as the switch to digital and whatever that means becomes inevitable. As the employees chat, work and mess about they allude to overwhelming pressures: money matters, family stuff, personal tragedies, mental struggles, rudderless lives. These concerns remain largely unshared: like squashed popcorn, they’re plodded down, embedded in the fabric of routine and necessity, and sociability. Silences create cohesion between characters. As in other Annie Baker plays (such as Circle, Mirror Transformation staged at the same theatre some years ago), the stage is left empty often, and these are moments of meditation, not discomfort.
Because of its length, El cine is a hard sell and a generous production to put on. When first performed as The Flick in the US in 2013, members of the audience walked out, apparently outraged by its lack of action. It then went on to win the 2014 Pulitzer Prize and had a successful run off-Broadway. When I saw it, two people left (an older man and his mother), but this seemed strangely part of it. After politely making way for them, the rest of us adjusted and remained riveted to the end.

El cine at Teatre Lliure (Gracia) until 17 December 2023