Tag Archives: Richard Linklater

Lunch Anyone?

 My Dinner with Andre                                             YouTube

I’m always interested in the response of my friends to a simple question. If they could conjure up anybody from the past or present, who would they like to have a leisurely lunch with? 

Sometimes we could use some new conversation-starters.  In my circle the usual topics run all the way from A to B, from the cool and wet summer, to the latest norm-violating behavior of our President. There are also some local issues that are good for a few minutes of hand-wringing, including plans to build an unwanted pipeline through our valley, or the always-good-for-a-comment angst about our state’s supposedly high property taxes are too high.

But sometimes it’s worth taking a leap into the unknown, or even the frankly impossible. I’m always interested in an acquaintance’s response to a simple question:  if they could conjure up a meeting with anybody, who would they like to have a leisurely lunch with? A meal can not only satisfy an appetite, but lead to ruminations that can surface when the weather is warm and the days are long.

All of us come into contact with remarkable people, sometimes through their words, their persuasiveness, or our awareness of a life well-lived.  Sometimes it can be little more than an intellectual exercise to imagine what it might be like to spend time with them over lunch. At other times luck and timing may make it more plausible. Think of the interesting conversations that bubble up in Louis Malle’s My Dinner with Andre (1981) or Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight (2013).

To be sure, it sometimes works out that someone with intimate knowledge of a notable achiever may come away from a meeting chastened. More than a few writers have admitted that their living or deceased subjects remained interesting, but not necessarily as candidates for a fantasized social outing.  Biographer Nell Painter remembers working on a study of the famous slave preacher, Sojourner Truth.  But several years ago Painter told a C-Span interviewer that her “closeness to me receded” as she worked her way deeper into her life.  She respected her subject to the end, but finally doubted they would connect in a conversation. Sometimes a little distance keeps the great and good on a pedestal where we want them.

In a recent dinner with friends the question drew various responses.  Singer-songwriter Paul Simon came  up as  a good lunch companion.  He  has been a stream-of-consciousness poet for several generations.  Another liked the idea of sharing a meal with Jesus.  And it’s hard to quarrel with that choice.  But the guest of honor would probably make me a nervous eater. Did I order to much? Should I have shared it? Why didn’t I suppress the joke about turning my water into wine? Another mentioned Barack Obama.  He’s articulate and sometimes funny.  And his off-the-record perspective in this political moment would be fascinating  to hear.  Would he make us feel better about where the nation is headed?

Another person suggested the African-American blues musician, Daryl Davis. Davis seems to have a knack for drawing in listeners, including KKK members, and demonstrating his simple humanity in after-performance discussions.  He told an NPR interviewer that in some cases he was the first black American these white men had spoken to socially. One measure of his success is that he has a pile of KKK robes that his newly sensitized friends have sent him after they renounced their membership in the Klan. Think of what he might teach us about the subtleties of face to face conciliation.

American culture exists most vividly when we focus on agents of insight or change.

My choice tends to change by the week.  But right now I’d love to have lunch with the arranger, musician and producer, Quincy Jones. He is in his 80’s, with a career that spans playing trumpet in several great 50’s bands, to arranging and conducting some of the best performances caught on record: everything from Sinatra at the Sands, (1966) to Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1982). He’s a walking history of American music: big-band Jazz, R&B, Pop and Funk. In interviews and a growing list of tributes (including 26 Grammys) Jones is unfailingly generous and interesting. Can a person still be hungry when sitting next to a national treasure?

There’s a useful point to this exercise. It’s a reminder that American culture exists most vividly when we focus on agents of insight or change.  They may be famous or obscure.  But their lives are testimony to the value of pluralizing our world beyond the shallow celebrities and politicians who sometimes narrow rather than broaden our horizons.

Since the fantasy lunch with the fantasy check is on me, who would you choose?

Conversational Ping Pong

Before Midnight Wikimedia commons
            Before Midnight/Wikimedia commons

Every theater is a museum of conversation.  In its many forms and formats drama invites us to admire the diligence that goes into a transformative exchange.

In these pages we have frequently worried about how the primary model for human communication—the face to face conversation—seems to be weakening as a default form, taking on more mutations that diminish its essence of human contact in real space and time.  We’ve cited the alarming research of Sherry Turkle (Reclaiming Conversation, 2015), with its surveys of younger Americans that reveal a distinct discomfort with direct interpersonal connection.  And we’ve noted a decline in emotional affect: emotions seemingly flattened by no-obligations digital devices that absorb so much of our time.

For most of us the challenge of engaging others has never been that easy.  In the presence of another we must also listen, a process we often fake more than fulfill. The means getting out of our own heads long enough to hear what another is saying.  And then there’s the unpredictability of direct contact.  Potential partners in conversation can surprise or even diminish us, as when a listener shows complete indifference to what we are saying. A bored interlocutor who has been entrusted with a precious and personal story can inflict real injury.

It’s a good thing we have theater and all of its variations:  plays, films and television.  Theater perfects conversation.  In important ways it functions as a museum of the form, inviting us to admire the craft that goes into a transformative dialogue.  Characters that aren’t rhetorical–aren’t very fluent or engaging–are seldom the magnets in a story.  In popular theater, at least, we want snappy one-liners.  We want responsiveness.  We welcome a clash of wills between two equally formidable and loquacious people.  Even a dystopian story offers useful lessons.  We wonder why those in a dysfunctional world can’t find the resources of hope and empathy that should be their inheritance.

Anyone’s short list for inclusion in their own cinematic  museum of interpersonal fluency will vary.  The top of my list would include films such as John Madden’s Shakespeare in Love (1998), Richard Linklater’s wonderful trilogy of love and loss that concluded with Before Midnight (2013), and the old film and stage chestnut that has just reopened on Broadway, The Front Page (1931, 1974, 2016).  In both serious and funny ways, all give us characters who are alive to the words and ideas of others.

Amplifying feelings and ideas requires reservoirs of energy, curiosity, and the will to draw others out.

Television is just as fertile in providing good examples. Old chestnuts like The West Wing (1999-2006) and Gilmore Girls (2000-2007) were mostly centered on interpersonal relationships that needed to be negotiated through compelling talk and argument.  The actors in those series were quick to remind admirers that their scripts tended to run twice the length of other shows with the same time frame.  Conversation takes effort and a degree of generosity.  Amplifying feelings and ideas requires the will to connect and draw others out.

Listen to Celine and Jesse, Before Midnight’s couple with a young family and a boat load of unfilled aspirations: he, as a writer, and she as a mother who wants to escape back into the unpredictability of her adventurous youth.  Their love is no longer new.  Yet both are trying to find the safest tracks to a shared future.

Céline: So if we're going to spend another fifty-six more years together...

Jesse: Yeah?

Céline: What about me would you like to change?

Jesse: [Smirks] That's another one of your can't-win questions. I'm not answering that.

Céline: What do you mean? There's not one thing you'd like to change about me? I'm perfect?

Jesse: Okay.

Céline: Okay.

Jesse: Actually...

Céline: One thing.

Jesse: If I could change one thing about you...

Céline: Uh-huh.

Jesse: It would be for you to stop trying to change me.

Céline: You're a very skilled manipulator, you know that?

Jesse: Well, I'm onto you. I know how you work.

Céline: You think?

Jesse: Yeah. I know everything about you.

It’s clear they have a long way to go.  But somehow we believe they have the conversational chops to navigate through the accommodations the will have to make for dreams that have been put on hold.

Of course conversation should not be relegated to a spectator form.  If it is representative of our dramatic arts, it’s one that we need to cultivate in ourselves.  Twitter, and two-word responses in Facebook won’t cut it as forms that will push the potentials of communication forward.  As a teacher it can be painful to be on the frontlines with too many able students who seem to have been rendered mute by shifting too much time and energy to stunted forms of connectivity.  The impulse to interact seems to have become dormant.  What is lost is the expressive power that is our birthright as symbol-using creatures.

Comments: Woodward@tcnj.edu