Thursday, September 29, 2011
10:51 PM |
The Dangers of Comfort, The Theater of Dinner Conversation
And I don’t mean the pedestrian gossip that slakes over our dinner tables most of these days—although that, too, has its own perverted pleasures. The thrill of finding frail humanity among our kind. Schadenfreude as drama.
“Did you know so-and-so and so-and-so got together over the weekend?”
“Seriously? But what about so-and-so? Aren’t they living together?”
“Well, a little birdie told me that so-and-so has done this-and-that.”
“Oh. Em. Gee.”
What I mean is dinner conversation of the illuminating kind—not about politics or religion, those two deadly bores. But about the place of humanity in the scheme of the universe, in philosophy—leavened, of course, by anecdotes from personal experience. Imagine a conversation about art, a painting or sculpture or what-not a friend of yours have seen in a museum which has touched him, which has given him fodder for thought. Imagine that friend as an impresario of talk. Over a three-course meal, pushed by the sweet intoxication of red wine, you hear him give a dramatic musing of what he has seen. You are both surrounded by kindred spirits, and the talk becomes organic, more philosophical, a little bit tipsy from the wine. There are affirmations, counter-arguments, jokes and laughter, more illuminating anecdotes. You leave that dinner table knowing you have learned a little bit more about the nature of humanity. You become, at least for a few hours during and after that dinner, a better human being—because you have partaken of a strange communion, a mix of food and words and friends.
I find myself in rare instances of this in Dumaguete. When the chance presents itself—usually in the delightful company of Dessa Quesada-Palm, Arlene Delloso-Uypitching, Esther Windler, Cecilia Hoffman, Annabelle Lee-Adriano, Laurie Raymundo, Margaret Helen Udarbe, Betty McCann, Moses Joshua Atega, Patrick Chua, Myrish Antonio-Cadapan, Jacqueline Veloso-Antonio, Leo Mamicpic, Ben Malayang III and his wife Gladys, Myrna Pena-Reyes, Tata and Simon Stack, John Stevenson, and assorted artists/friends from Manila and elsewhere who would join us—I grab it, and I prepare for a night of scintillating talk, knowing it is good for the soul, and for the mind.
I thought as much when I saw the filmed dinner conversation between André Gregory and Wallace Shawn, playing versions of themselves in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André
. This film, hailed as a unique cinematic experiment and is considered one of the best films to come out of the 1980s, is ripe with witticism, philosophical musings, and provocative thoughts, but this one strain of dialogue between the two struck me the most:
ANDRE: I mean, if you don't have that electric blanket, and your apartment is cold, and you need to put on another blanket or go into the closet and pile up coats on top of the blanket you have, well then you know it's cold. And that sets up a link of things: you have compassion for the p-- ... well, is the person next to you cold? Are there other people in the world who are cold? What a cold night! I like the cold, my God, I never realized, I don't want a blanket, it's fun being cold, I can snuggle up against you even more because it's cold! All sorts of things occur to you. Turn on that electric blanket and it's like taking a tranquilizer, it's like being lobotomized by watching television. I think you enter the dream world again. I mean, what does it do to us, Wally, living in an environment where something as massive as the seasons or winter or cold don't in any way affect us? I mean, we're animals after all. I mean, what does that mean? I think that means that instead of living under the sun and the moon and the sky and the stars we're living in a fantasy world of our own making.
WALLY: Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, André. I mean, because New York is cold in the winter, I mean, our apartment is cold. It's a difficult environment! I mean, our lives are tough enough as it is, I'm not looking for ways to get rid of the few things that provide relief and comfort, I mean, on the contrary! I'm looking for more comfort, because the world is very abrasive, I mean, I'm trying to protect myself, because really there are these abrasive beatings to be avoided everywhere you look.
ANDRE: Yeah, but Wally, don't you see that comfort can be dangerous? I mean, you like to be comfortable and I like to be comfortable, too. But comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquility. I mean, my mother knew a woman, Lady Hatfield, who was one of the richest women in the world, and she died of starvation because all she would eat was chicken. I mean, she just liked chicken, Wally, and that was all she would eat, and actually, her body was starving but she didn't know it 'cause she was quite happy eating her chicken and so, she finally died! See, I honestly believe that we're all like Lady Hatfield now, we're having a lovely, comfortable time with our electric blankets and our chicken, and meanwhile we're starving because we're so cut off from contact with reality that we're not getting any real sustenance. 'Cause we don't see the world. We don't see ourselves. We don't see how our actions affect other people.
[The transcript of the film can be read here.]
The dangers of comfort. That made me take pause. Because I have been thinking about this for some days now. And there it was, the whole notion of it, discussed at length in one of the best films of all time. And I have just stumbled on it, like the “omens” they talk about in the film. Is this film my own form of Wally’s fortune cookie?
A few days ago, I posted this status update in my Facebook wall: “I don’t know what the Universe is trying to tell me these days, but I’m willing to listen.” The things is, I have been out-of-sorts lately, bombarded by tiny problems with magnificent wings which I can’t talk about to anybody, trying to make sense out of ... something. I had no idea what was bothering me, but I have been feeling odd. Strangely sad, feeling blue. And so I popped in this film like I have always promised myself I would. And I’m glad I did.
And what a beautiful film it is. When it ended, I just stared and stared off into space as the end titles rolled over Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1
, and I was thinking about the things they were talking about: theater, domesticity, the imprisonment of comfort, how life must be lived when one realizes how we have forgotten to connect... I think this is one film one should watch when one turns 36 (Wallace’s age when this was made). I’m 36 now, and I love the film because I feel it now, more thoroughly, because of having have lived. Because the questions it asks are things I have come to know through all those years. I wouldn’t have gotten this film when I was 21.
Amy Taubin in the Criterion website
captures exactly what I felt upon finishing: “And then the dinner is over. Nothing is concluded—not for Wally or André, and certainly not for the audience. But on the way home, Wally is surprised to find that something has changed in the way he attends to the city as he sees it from the taxi window. And that slight shift in consciousness is what André ... would have applauded. And we might do the same as the image fades to black.”
The film finally reminds me that I need to have dinner with my good people again. Because you need these little events of gab to go beyond the vapidity of everyday life, the drone of television, the mindless cares of zombies around you. A dinner conversation is a small strike against the electric blanket of life. It is rare when the right talk chemistry sparks, and so when it happens, one has to be of mind to cherish it.
Labels: film, life, philosophy, theater, travel
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