Annie Baker: Playwright, Director, Curator

Julianne Nicholson and Zoe Ziegler in Annie Baker’s Janet Planet (2023)

When Annie Baker’s first feature, Janet Planet, screened at the New York Film Festival last fall, fellow playwright Jeremy O. Harris spoke with her for Interview. “Devotion to her works can be felt wandering the halls of many a drama school, where dramaturgs argue over her themes, actors fret over her pauses, and playwrights present brazen imitations of her elegant scene constructions,” wrote Harris at the top of their conversation.

Harris’s own first feature has just premiered at Tribeca. He’d told Baker that several people had approached him with the idea of turning his Tony-nominated Slave Play into a film, but he was sure it wouldn’t work. What he’s come up with instead is a deconstruction, Slave Play. Not a Movie. A Play. For her part, Baker said that she, too, had dismissed any potential adaptation of her best-known play, The Flick, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2014: “Worst movie ever.”

But that doesn’t mean cinema hasn’t been on Baker’s mind for years. She set The Flick in a movie theater in Massachusetts, not far from where she grew up. A projectionist and two ushers do some cleaning up after hours, but mostly, they just hang out. “Ever since a Flick character entered whistling ‘Le tourbillon,’ from Truffaut’s Jules et Jim, you knew where Baker’s attention was taking her,” writes Helen Shaw in a profile for the New Yorker.

For one week starting Friday, Film at Lincoln Center will present Angels and Puppets: The Stage on Screen with Annie Baker, the playwright’s selection of seventeen films. “Bazin called theater ‘film’s evil genius’ in his essay ‘In Defense of Adaptation,’” writes Baker in a statement, “and that feels right to me, like somehow theater is the degenerate puppeteer responsible for the best and worst of twentieth-century cinema.”

The series will open with the two films Louis Malle made with André Gregory and Wallace Shawn, My Dinner with André (1981)—“a deceptively simple two-hander,” as Amy Taubin has called it—and Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), which Steven Vineberg has described as “an astonishing hybrid blurring the boundaries between theater and film, rehearsal and performance, actor and character.” Baker wrote her own well-received adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in 2012, so she and Shawn should have plenty to talk about during Friday evening’s Q&A.

On Saturday, Baker will introduce Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). In her statement, she notes that when she first saw this film, it struck her as “a beginning-to-end hallucinatory recreation of Offenbach’s opera that is all theater and all cinema, totally rigorous, completely bonkers, and so joyful it made me cry.” Baker will also introduce Eric Rohmer’s A Tale of Winter (1992), and as it happens, two favorites that Harris picked out when he visited our closet recently.

Harris calls D. A. Pennebaker’s Original Cast Album: “Company” (1970) “one of the best documentaries ever made,” adding that it features “some of the richest, most dynamic performers of a generation having full tilt mental breakdowns.” As for Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979), “no one knows how to shoot dance anymore. There have been some big musicals coming out recently, made by people we know, people we love. They don’t know how to shoot dance as well as this man did. Fosse knows what movement looks like on camera because he is movement incarnate.”

There are also films in the series by John Cassavetes—Helen Shaw writes that Baker’s “approach . . . reminds me as much of Cassavetes as of Chekhov”—Ernst Lubitsch, Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu, and two by Ingmar Bergman, including Fanny and Alexander (1982), which is overtly referenced in Janet Planet. Zoe Ziegler plays eleven-year-old Lacey, who works through the emotional twists and turns of early adolescence by staging scenes with tiny figures—puppets, in a way—in her dollhouse.

It’s 1991, and having ditched summer camp, Lacey spends her long days with her single mom, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and in three succeeding chapters, Janet’s boyfriend (Will Patton), friend (Sophie Okonedo), and possible suitor (Elias Koteas). “Baker has described the film as a story ‘about falling out of love with your mother,’” notes the Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney, “which is what Ziegler conveys with a subtlety and emotional acuity that’s astonishing in such a young and inexperienced actor.”

With Janet Planet, Baker “re-arrives fully formed as a film artist, with a developed and stunningly self-assured visual language bolstered by unhurried confidence behind the camera,” writes Charles Bramesco at Little White Lies. “This is not just one of the great films of its year, but one of the finest first films in the annals of the medium.” Writing for Sight and Sound, Lou Thomas finds that cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff’s “work on this film is as effective as her photography on the chilly Godland (2022), though to opposite ends.”

In a marvelous review for Reverse Shot, Shonni Enelow notes that Baker “has described how specific the Western Massachusetts setting was to her childhood, but there were other strangely familiar scenes too, from my own 1990s adolescence in a place with a large Jewish population and a wistful 1960s hangover. This was especially acute during the folk-song-circle at sleepaway camp, the linen-clad, picnic-blanket-carrying plein air theatergoers smiling at the immense puppets and social-justice commentary of the deeply earnest company (‘Take zucchini as you go, we grew too much’), whose leader’s name is Avi (Koteas): copious beard, spiritually and sexually promiscuous. That is the other theater in Janet Planet: the performance Lacey and Janet attend outdoors, certainly the only time I’ve ever seen represented on film such a mainstay of American theater (the leftist puppetry company with its politico-cosmic rituals).”

The Telegraph’s Tim Robey finds that “the sensibility of Kelly Reichardt (Certain Women, Showing Up) feels like a neighbor peering over the fence at this project, while the treatment of a parent-child bond as its core, with other characters as satellites, might recall the likes of Mike Mills’s 20th Century Women. Even so, Baker’s tingling delicacy of touch makes it a subtly distinctive experience: it’s a film I already looked forward to revisiting while tiptoeing through it the first time.”

Don’t miss out on your Daily briefing! Subscribe to the RSS feed.

You have no items in your shopping cart