Friday, November 30, 2012

Not an easy piece

An iconic scene in an iconic movie has an iconic character played by Jack Nicholson who faces the pettiness of an iconic waitress and who comes up with an iconic retort to that pettiness.

In case you don't want to click on the Youtube link, here's a summary:  He orders some sort of breakfast, with special requirements: an omelet with tomatoes instead of potatoes.  The waitress says "no substitutions," so he orders an omelet and asks for a side of toast.  The waitress says the diner offers no sides of toast.  He protests.  She threatens to get the manager.  He orders a chicken salad sandwich on toast, with no butter and no mayonnaise and no chicken, with a bill for the chicken sandwich so she will not have broken any rules.  When she asks what to do with the chicken, he tells her to hold it "between your knees."

I have just presented the scene out of context and it's out of context that I'll continue to discuss it in this blog post.  But first, something about the context.  I have seen at least part of the movie the diner scene comes from, "Five Easy Pieces."  Or at the very least it was on TV several years ago back and I channel-surfed, and I saw much of it in between watching other shows on other channels.  As far as I can tell, the movie is some character study of a piano virtuoso born into an upper-middle-class family who for some reason opts for the semi-anonymous life of an oil rig operator.  (Apparently, being an oil rig operator is so easy even someone who is born into the upper middle class and whose life to to that time had involved no training in that job can do it.)

During the movie, Nicholson's character goes through a series of adventures, one of which is the famous diner scene I have described and linked to above.  The scene probably plays an important role in the movie.  It probably helps define, and elaborate on the viewer's understanding of, Nicholson's character.  One clue to the role of this scene is the admission, at the end of the clip, that Nicholson's character didn't get his toast.  (In fact, he and his gal friends are thrown out of the diner.)  In short, I allow that if I fully understood and appreciated the movie (and my understanding and appreciation is less than "full"), the scene would resonate in a way that is much more nuanced than it might seem without the context.

What's my gripe with the scene then?  It's the way some people celebrate it.  Some people seem to think of the diner scene as one of those "perfect retorts" of the sort that one would have oneself oneself if only one had thought of it first.  And the target of the retort is the rules-supersede-all-that-is-sensible-and-decent mentality, what people seem to mean when they rail against the "bureaucratic mindset."  You see, we all encounter stupid rules and inflexible employees who enforce these rules without giving any or at least much regard to how the inflexible enforcement of the rules affect those the rules are enforced against.  The waitress is standing in the way of something that Jack Nicholson's character wants and something that he has a right to:  a side order of toast.  She is the machine of bureaucratic rules, and Nicholson finally pops and rages against the blind subservience to the rules.  (Hah!  you thought I was going to say "rages against the machine," didn't you?)

My claim is that those who celebrate this scene sometimes go overboard.  They operate under the assumption that if rules seem stupid, then they necessarily are stupid and must be broken regardless of the collateral damage.  Worse, the celebrants operate under the assumption that it's okay that Nicholson's character insults the waitress, or at least it's not so bad as to call into question his actions.  She deserves it because she's a bureaucrat waitress.

"Sometimes" really means "sometimes" and not always or not even necessarily most of the time (after all, I did write it in italics, and when I put something in italics, I mean it!).  I am pick and choosing my anecdotes (cue in the tired but true point that the plural of anecdote is not data....there I go with the italics again, but this time not for emphasis!), and the celebration I claim others make of the scene may be more noticed by me than other interpretations of the scene offered by people who, unlike me, have seen the whole movie.

Still, at least one anecdote illustrates my point.  Take this post at the "middle-age cranky" blog.  The author uses the scene as an example of what is for him a decent illustration "of the frustration in that time [c. 1970] for people who blindly followed the rules, no matter how nonsensical those rules were."  He doesn't really comment on whether the waitress deserved her treatment--except perhaps when he describes her as "rigid," and we're probably supposed to know that "rigid" people don't deserve our respect--and he uses the scene primarily as a starting-off point to discuss the allegedly mindless rules he encounters in his career as a freelance technical writer.

Now that the caveats are out of the way, I'll start by noting how convenient the scene is for those who praise it as a strike against THE MAN (well, as a strike against THE PASSIVE-AGGRESSIVE RESTAURANT EMPLOYEE).

First, the rules in this case border on the extreme and unbelievable.  I find it incredible that a diner would not serve sides of toast.  The audience might have viewed it differently, or slightly less sympathetically, if Nicholson's character had noticed that the diner served huevos rancheros and therefore had ordered a side of corn tortillas.  After all, you need corn tortillas to make (some versions of) huevos rancheros, but people don't generally order sides of corn tortillas with their breakfast.  Not that having them for breakfast is wrong, but it's just not the staple of the good ole American dining experience.  I'll also point out that when Nicholson's character learns he can't have "tomatoes instead of potatoes," he accepts that limitation, if grudgingly.  My point is, I imagine the character or the audience might accept a similar limitation on corn tortillas

My second point about the scene's "convenience" is the waitress's rudeness.  She is not only "rigid" in her enforcement of the rules.  She is also pretty far to the rude side of the rude-friendly spectrum, and not in the waitress-who-works-at-a-truck-stop-diner-and-seems-rude-but-has-a-heart-of-gold sense.  She was unapologetic about the restaurant's policy and adopts a tone of "of course these are the rules, didn't you read the small print by the asterisk we put on the last page of the menu?"  If anyone is deserving of the Nicholson treatment, she is.

Fair's fair.  The categorical "no toast" rule is a foolish one.  It might have been different if it had been a special circumstance, say, the diner is perilously short on bread and it needs to, temporarily, impose the ban to make sure there's enough bread for the sandwich-rush at lunch and dinner.  But that doesn't seem to be the case here.  And again, what diners, as a matter of policy, don't serve sides of toast?

And there are indeed rude servers. I personally think it's better to approach encounters with such people with the assumption that the server is overworked and underpaid, or perhaps is having an off-day, or has to deal with a dictatorial manager, or the restaurant is short-staffed, or what seems like rudeness might actually be only a defensive ploy because she knows the management is inflexible on the "no substitutions" policy and she'll get in trouble (or at least scolded for the n'th time) if she doesn't enforce it right away.  But I acknowledge it can be frustrating to deal with passive and not-so passive aggression of that sort.  Certain people (say, a piano virtuoso born into an upper-middle-class family) might not have the service industry experience to make approaching the situation with empathy a realistic possibility.  And maybe at the end of the day one can make a plausible case that a rude affect calls for a sharp retort.

So where are we?  What's accomplished by the Nicholson character's put down of the waitress?  He doesn't get his toast and he and his colleagues get kicked out of the diner.  He's also delivered one of those witty comebacks that other frustrated patrons who have to deal with the lowly service workers wished they had given in lieu of resorting to lectures about good service and about how traumatic it is not to get it.

I think I'm saying something more than simply "we need to be nice to service workers," although we do need to be nice to service workers.  In keeping with my wonted humorless and priggish disposition when it comes to such things, I see in the Nicholson retort a fundamental disrespect for others, a facile notion that the proper comeback is sometimes something you just gotta do regardless of who gets hurt in the process and regardless of the triviality of the "offense" you have suffered.

Wow!  I probably come off as a moralizing jerk.  I admit that my point, taken to an unwarranted extreme, would require me to be courteous to the executioner as I'm walked toward the scaffold, should my circumstances ever become so dire.

And again, the function the scene serves in the movie might very well be more nuanced than I'm allowing.  Maybe a careful viewing of the movie suggests that we are to see Nicholson's character as someone to be criticized and not as someone to celebrate, as someone who really wants to be an island but can't because no man is an island, or as someone who doesn't realize that living in a society means complying with some stupid sounding rules.  And I'll also say that the point of view represented by "middle-age cranky" above, from which I have gathered so much anecdotal straw to build a knock-downable scarecrow out of, might be an interpretation that strays from the movie's main point.

But my main takeaway is that we shouldn't celebrate that comeback uncritically.

UPDATE 12-1-12:  I've edited this post for clarity.


Dr X said...

If I ever saw the movie, I don't remember the content or what I thought of it, so I couldn't comment on the scene, either partly or fully. But I'll say that context and nuance matter a great deal. I don't simply mean context of a scene, but context in real life situations, and contexts are often ignored by parties to difficulties. Nonetheless, contexts are influencing everyone involved. Think of a situation like Israelis and Palestinians, but it's also true of what we think of as mundane transactions in life.

When someone refers to rising above a situation (often easier said than done), I think about recognition of the fact that there is much more going on than what we most immediately perceive. It's a kind of wisdom that, when present, will always be helpful in our dealings with others.

The perfect response/the perfect retort seems like it could often be a case of getting caught up in the moment on a dehumanizing level, though it can be quite difficult to avoid getting caught up in this way. I see the mind as a context bound, wobbly affair with a lot of autopilot built into it.

Pierre Corneille said...

Dr. X,

That's interesting food for thought. I might need to think on it more so I can write a good response.

A few first thoughts on your comment:

I do think that seeing the mind as you do--with "a lot of autopilot"--might be a very workable way to view it. It's possible I as the viewer ought to show some empathy for Nicholson's character. It's easy for me to judge the person-who-gives-witty-comebacks in large part because I'm often on the receiving end of such witty comebacks. (I tend to think of my own comeback only several hours later, if at all. If I were Lloyd Bentsen, I would have come up with the JFK quip the day after the election, not that it helped him or his running mate all that much.)

At any rate, thanks for commenting!

Dr X said...

l'espirit d'escalier.

I don't often think of the witty comeback in the moment or after the moment.

Pierre Corneille said...

I know I had heard that term before, I didn't realize what it meant until you mentioned it.

I should say that sometimes I do think of a witty comeback in time, but I usually regret saying it.

Russell Saunders said...

Just for the record, I've seen "Five Easy Pieces."

I hated it.

It's one of the films I've put in my mental "Movies About Jerks We're Supposed to Like for Some Reason" file. I never (I'm using italics for emphasis, too!) like those movies.

Anyhow, I don't think you're appreciation for the scene would be enhanced by seeing the whole flick.

Pierre Corneille said...

Thanks, Russell. Your take on the movie matches my (incomplete) take on it.

By the way, thanks for stopping by!