"The Flick" Part One

I just saw the 2014 Pulitzer-Prize winning drama, The Flick. Before I can get to the topic of this (and next-week’s) blog, a rather long commentary on the play is necessary.

The Flick is about the interactions among three lost souls who work in a decrepit movie theater. Most of the action, as it were, takes place among the rows of seats—the only set in this three-plus hour show—as Sam and Avery clean up popcorn and other refuse after each movie screening. Rose, the projectionist, comes downstairs to talk with them. Critics laud the playwright, Annie Baker, for capturing so vividly the quotidian conversation in an unexceptional workplace. Some also describe the play as on homage to celluloid film, almost a eulogy. (The play ends when the theater’s new owner retires the 35 mm projector in favor of a digital projector.) Most of the audience, including our companions for the evening, saw this play. My husband and I, sitting right next to them, watched something completely different.

Avery is autistic. Somehow The New York Times and the Chicago Tribune reviewers missed this fact. According to the New York Times,

Avery remains hilarious in his textbook geekiness — he’s hyper-articulate and speaks and even moves with a robotic awkwardness — but also reveals himself to be the most sensitive and morally mature character, younger than the others though he is.

I’m not sure that Baker, the playwright, even realizes it, given that the program interview with her focuses on the demise of reel-to-reel projection. But my husband and I watched a young man with odd prosody, an inability to respond to non-verbal cues, limited eye-contact, a slightly “off” gait, and an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema. When I searched “Avery and The Flick and Autism,” I got only two hits: one reviewer suggested he was “almost autistic in his inability to respond to physical intimacy.” The other described him as a “twitchy, tightly-wrapped film aficionado who falls somewhere on the scale between obsessive purist and autistic savant.”

Well those of us who know someone on the spectrum recognize that Avery is not “almost autistic.” We know that watching thousands of movies and memorizing the cast rosters is not a savant skill; it’s a standard-issue autistic passion or obsession, depending on the connotation one prefers. Those of us who live with a family member who has special needs will also remember particularly two exchanges between Avery and Sam that total less than two minutes of the 190 minute running time: After Avery reels off a list of movies connecting two actors in a game of six degrees of separation, Sam remarks (my apologies if my recollection is not verbatim), “Wow, that’s like a disability or something,” and Avery retorts, in his near monotone, “I think it’s more like an ability or something.” Then in a later scene, Sam tells Avery about the wedding he attended the previous weekend. We learn that Sam’s brother is retarded (Baker’s word choice, not mine), and he’s married a woman with similarly limited cognitive ability. Sam complains that everybody smiled, but only the bride and groom were really happy. Sam is a man in his thirties, a man with no meaningful relationships, a man whose job is cleaning a movie theater. He seems, to me at least, to be living a life of quiet desperation. Yet he derides his disabled brother’s happiness. Is it unreasonable for me to interpret these two scenes as a commentary on the construct of disability? Whether the playwright intended it as a thematic point or not, she’s created two ethically-challenged “normal” people, Sam and Rose, and one ethically-upright autistic person, Avery, who ultimately loses his job because he has been sucked into their malfeasance. Rose and Sam let Avery take the fall for all three of them with the new boss, and though he accepts the outcome, the play concludes with Avery’s observation that he had been mistaken in thinking Sam was ever his friend. Here is a theme worth exploring.

So now on to me. As I said in last week’s post, I think about Sam’s (my daughter, not the character in the play) autism with less ambivalence than when I began writing this blog. I remember watching a performance a few years ago about someone with a developmental delay. Tears streamed down my cheeks. I pitied the performer who was talking about her child, and I pitied myself as I was thinking about my child. Misery, born in part from exhaustion I’m sure, nearly crushed me. I remember wondering, for the umpteenth time, what I had done to harm my child. Lived too close to a factory? Ate from plates with BPA when I was a child? Consumed too many organic carrots during pregnancy, as the midwife suggested facetiously when we learned Sam’s diagnosis during my next pregnancy? Worse, I wondered if I had done something before I was pregnant to “sentence” both of us to this particular world. Was it divine justice for having hurt someone? These are ugly thoughts and I’m certainly not proud of them, but they occupied much of my time.

No more. While I was telling a friend about The Flick, I realized that I was not feeling sorry for Avery because of his autism, I was not feeling sorry for myself, and I was not feeling sorry for Sam. Not even when she called a few minutes before intermission and started crying when I returned the call because she was afraid to start reading Frankenstein. It is true that watching the play was difficult for me, that I squirmed through the whole production and wished it would end. But, and this is a critical but, I never felt like I wanted a different life for myself or for Sam. I felt angry at the two characters who betrayed Avery and angry at society by extension. I worried about the ingenuous personality that Avery shares with my child because it left him so vulnerable. Never did it occur to me that he was the one with the problems.

Recognizing this shift in my attitude has startled me. I know there will still be times when Sam’s autism enervates both of us (today, for example), and celebrate is not a word I am prepared to use; however regret is no longer a word I will use either. It’s hard to know if the process of writing this blog has altered my perspective, or if the passage of time would have changed me irrespective of the writing. No matter, really. I’m glad to be in a better place on my parenting journey.