Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Existentialism of a Tuna Sandwich at Duke's

Earlier this afternoon, at about 1:30, you were standing at the order counter of a longtime favorite restaurant in Ventura, Duke's, hungry for what had become in your mind the iconic tuna salad sandwich, which for you is the Duke's tuna sandwich,always served with a pickle slice of the proper degree of being brined, neither too much pickle nor too little cucumber.

A bright, cheerful waitperson took  your order, her brow furling.  "You mean,"  she said, "the tuna melt special?"

You assured her of your intent, which was not a tuna melt.

For a moment, she seemed relieved.  "The tuna melt does not come with a pickle."

Once more unto the breech, dear friends.  You started fresh.  You did not want a tuna melt,  You wanted a tuna salad sandwich with a pickle.  

"Our tuna sandwich comes with cheese, and no pickle."

"Could you hold the cheese and include an order of pickle, which I would willingly pay for."

"I'm so sorry.  I can't do that.  Our new kitchen supports a modularized menu."

"But the man in front of me ordered a tuna salad, which I imagine is a scoop of tuna on some lettuce, but no cheese, an probably a pickle." 

"I'm sorry.  My hands are tied."

For at least the past five years, when you are dealing with a new group of wannabe fiction writers who are early in their progress, you spend considerable time walking them through architecture of the basic unit of drama, the scene.

When it comes time to provide a link to a stand-alone example illustrative of the shape and rising dramatic intensity of a scene, so much the better if one or more of the students have a laptop or iPad.  You send them to YouTube, where you direct them to look up the first of two instances you want them to remember well into the future.  The first of these comes from a film early in the career of the actor Jack Nicholson, Five Easy Pieces, in which Nicholson plays a troubled and edgy character, Bobby DuPre, who had reached the status of concert-level ability as a pianist. 

The scene you have in mind opens with DuPre in a truck stop coffee shop, trying to order a relatively commonplace breakfast of bacon, eggs, toast, and coffee.  What could go wrong?  Check the scene on YouTube to find out. (Type in Jack Nicholson  Five Easy Pieces, diner scene).  Not quite a spoiler, Bobby DuPre can't get an order of toast with his breakfast, raises the ante by offering to buy a chicken sandwich on toast, for which he offers to pay.  When the waitress repeats the order, DuPre delivers his apparent solution to the entire problem, at which point the scene explodes with interior dramatic intensity.  

On later reflection, after watching and rewatching the scene, you're of the opinion that, extraordinary as it is and as surprising as it is in the overall concept of the story, it was not an absolute requirement in the story.  And yet, on further reflection, the scene could well outlast the entire story because of its shape, its mounting tension, and the manner in which it is resolved.  The Diner Scene is a role model of what a scene should accomplish, and of how every scene in a story should leave the viewer/reader with an emotional impact.

You've never ordered anything other than the tuna sandwich at Duke's, sparing yourself some of the more existential, Five Easy Pieces-type dialogue of today's exchange.  Yet such times appear in Reality, causing a moment where you feel somehow stranded between worlds of your own invention and dialogue and moments of actuality.  Such moments give a sense that the two arenas have colluded against you, leaving you somewhere outside, peering in a window in search of someone who will come to the door, open it for you.

Little surprise then that it's one or more of your characters who open the door, then whistle you in, Over here, bro. In that sense, you see some small possibility of balance, the quirkiness of the inner world you create being an equivalent of graduate school, a few more adventures before you move out into the world of Reality to profess your researches and theories on an unsuspecting public.

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