Thursday, October 4, 2012

TV Review: “The Song of Lunch”

The title gives it away, even though it’s hiding in plain sight. While etymologically it signifies nothing, it reveals that the BBC production The Song of Lunch is styled after the mock heroic narrative poem conventions popular in the Regency Period. In particular, the title hearkens back to Alexander Pope’s epic poem The Rape of the Lock, a seriocomic masterpiece that blows the cutting of a lock of hair out of proportion. In other words, it is a perfect storm in a teacup.

And what a storm is brewing in the glasses served at The Song of Lunch. This is a dramatization of a contemporary narrative poem by Christopher Reid. He (Alan Rickman) once had a passionate affair with her (Emma Thompson). She moved away long ago to marry a successful novelist in Paris, while he has an editorial job he despises. The funereal volume of poems he composed based on her departure went out of print, “creeping into triple digits” in terms of its pitiful sales. This is their first meeting in fifteen years, at a restaurant that he heavily criticizes but also cherishes because they both shared happy memories there: it was their place. Directed by Niall McCormick, the film runs an economical 48 minutes. Little actual dialogue is spoken, as the lunch is almost narrated entirely by him. He still aches for her, as the production flashes back to their intense lovemaking, while resenting her choice to leave him behind.

The inner monologue he intones deliciously elevates the exercise of mastication to Herculean heights. The ordering of the meals from both he and she, informed by feeling and recognition of old patterns, invokes different reactions from the same waiter and reveals calculated premeditation usually reserved for warfare. (Reid would not be above assigning similarly heavy significance to the arrangement of forks, at least for this occasion.) No drop of wine falls without threatening to echo across the universe, magnifying its terrifyingly insignificant significance to shake the heavens. To give you a better flavor of it, here is the opening of the text:

It’s an ordinary day
in a publishing house

of ill repute.
Another moronic manuscript
comes crashing down the chute
to be turned into art.
This morning it was Wayne Wanker’s
latest dog’s dinner
of sex, teenage philosophy
and writing-course prose.
Abracadabra, kick it up the arse -
and out it goes
to be Book of the Week
or some other bollocks.
What a fraud. What a farce.
And tomorrow: who knows
which of our geniuses
will escape from the zoo
and head straight for us
with a new masterpiece
lifeless in his jaws.

Reader, you may have noticed that neither character is named, thereby throwing the drama into sharp relief. Not only are the acts and omissions of these two people of nominal interest other than to themselves (he arguably more than she), but they are also greatly exaggerated. It should surprise no one that his hateful volume of regret features an Orpheus and Eurydice analogy elevated to absurd dimension. Like the mock heroic narrative poem tradition, Reid blatantly and deliberately flaunts the narrative excesses to grotesque grandeur, like a Grand Guignol of emotions dancing on the frays of his last nerve.

Although he is the orator of these proceedings, it should be no surprise that she has her own perception of how they once were. As the wine flows and he polishes off the first bottle, she presents her own view of their relationship and rips his analogy apart, then rebuilds it using new signifiers to reflect his own character – the one he cannot or refuses to accept – back onto him. The Song of Lunch, for its deadly hilarious and delectable turns of phrase, also harbors buried anguish, stuffed away in the deepest chambers of the soul, slouching forth to be borne again.  At its heart, the poem says that as grander emotions like love, lust and anger subsides, they are replaced by disappointment. It’s the ultimate sign that one is getting older when once-all-consuming passions surrender to resignation and regret. At one point, there is no longer any energy to be angry, only the gradual acceptance that a Henry James character once uttered in a devastating cri de couer, “We can never again be what we once were!”

The Song of Lunch received scant attention in North America until Emma Thompson received a surprise Emmy nomination for Best Actress this summer. It is so little-seen that neither its IMDB nor its Rotten Tomatoes pages have any memorable quotes submitted for it. The fact that such a symphony of the English language is not enshrined anywhere on the Internet for the aliens to find, but where reality show sound bites run unabated, is a crying shame.

If, after a summer of junk culture you crave a meal of substantive art, tuck into The Song of Lunch.