The truth about last year's dinner

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MY brother Bob purchased a videocassette camera to use as an analysis tool for his business. About 15 months ago he brought it to a family gathering at my parents' house and filmed the nine of us by turns, urging us to ``act naturally.'' We smiled and waved vigorously at the lens, as if our natural behavior were identical to that of a parade's grand marshal. Although this was not filmmaking in the Orson Welles or Jean Renoir league, we enjoyed seeing ourselves when Bob played the tape back on a television screen.

Last week, my parents, having acquired a videocas-sette recorder, borrowed this tape from Bob and played it for me. When the familiar waving-at-the-camera sequences had passed, we were surprised to find that there was more. Bob had fixed his camera to a tripod that day, and, after focusing it on the dinner table, had, without our knowledge, recorded our entire meal.

The dinner footage was overlong, had only one camera angle, and consisted mostly of eating and talking (though, thankfully, not both at once). It was a film so uneventful that the passing of a salt shaker was a major plot development. Yet we were spellbound, because in it we truly were acting naturally, and this invited scrutiny.

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My mother looked at the film for tips on how to give a large dinner more efficiently. She wasn't pleased with the way the meal had begun. ``I said that dinner was ready, but then I took forever to get the food on,'' she said. ``Next time I'll put the food on, then call everyone to the table.''

Although to her this was a glaring fault, I hadn't seen it. I was too busy noticing that, in the film, my shirttail had come loose in the back and it looked sloppy. I kept muttering to my screen self to take care of the problem, but he refused to listen.

My father also was checking to see that he was presentable on screen. Because he had sat at the head of the table, the camera had recorded only the back of his head. Still, being a resourceful person, he found a problem.

``This film has me convinced. I've got to do something about that cowlick of mine,'' he said. ``I usually don't see it, so I forget it's there. But look at that. It's the focal point of the film.'' Funny, I could have sworn that my loose shirttail was the focal point.

As the meal progressed, I felt vaguely embarrassed. I wasn't sure if we were being impolite, watching our televised selves eat, or if the folks on screen were impolite for eating in front of us.

In any case, we witnessed the dishing up and consuming of some wonderful food, and the spectacle was making me ravenous. ``You ate so much 15 months ago,'' said my mother, ``that I wouldn't think you'd be hungry again already.''

For future reference, my mother paid close attention to which dishes her guests seemed to enjoy most, as evidenced by her cry of ``Look! Tina does like sweet potatoes!'' during one of the film's major revelatory moments.

I hesitate to mention another of her discoveries. ``Did you see that?'' she said to me, pointing to the screen. ``You just reached in front of John for the gravy. Such manners!'' I didn't like her use of the word ``just.'' Maybe she was ``just'' seeing it, but it happened 15 months ago and I felt that the statute of limitations on the offense had run out.

``People change with time,'' I claimed, ``so I disavow any connection with that uncouth fellow there with the loose shirttail.'' ``I'll trade you your shirttail for my cowlick any day,'' said my father.

When the segment was over, we walked away from the screen feeling that we had our work cut out for us. The film had been more instructional than entertaining, for we had experienced the camera's power as an analysis tool.

I'm not sure what will happen next. My guess is, we'll keep eating dinners until we get it right.

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