In the summer of 1978, I took a group of students to Taiwan for a work-study trip. Among them was an older female ROTC grad with the officer’s rank of Second Lieutenant. With me posing as her husband, we entered the American Military”s Officers Club. A hub for the social and political elite, its members included government officials, foreign businessmen, and American military officers and guests. I came not as a guest, but as the spouse of a Second Lieutenant.
Besides the extensive cantina, the Club featured the rare pleasure of a swimming pool, where my children, my students and I regularly swam. During the afternoons with temperatures in the 90s, this was one of our greatest pleasures.
At the time the Club provided, for members only, access to probably the largest cinema screen on the island—and the only one that showed American films. Since it had a fixed military budget, it could occasionally show films that were not box office smashes. Such was the situation when it released a weekend special—Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. My children and I sat in a spacious theater with only a half dozen other customers. They were most likely there for the air conditioning!
Woody Allen’s romantic comedy brought us out of Taiwan into the fraught emotional relationship between two Americans. As it happens, one was Jewish and one Christian; one was a New Yorker, the other a Wisconsinite. The drama would neither be tragic nor sentimental. It was a satire of unresolved cultural challenges. The key revelation of this challenge was when Annie invited Woody to meet her parents for Thanksgiving dinner.
The scene was projected through the use of split screen technology: showing Woody on one side in Wisconsin and the other in Coney Island. For me, the double-screened Thanksgiving dinner divided the stoic midwestern world from the chaos of Manhattan civilization.
The film choreographed my life: my first wife was the daughter of a Christian family that served etiquette for dinner. Annie Hall’s family dinner revealed a still, formal, tableau that began with a quiet prayer, heads bent over a formal turkey dinner. The turkey and the family were equally quiet..
On the other half of the split screen, Woody’s family included children running around while the adults gulped their food noisily. There was no formal process for eating/consuming, passing food, or speaking without interruptions. Also, there was a chair at the head of the table whose ritual function was ignored.
In contrast, I recognized my first wife’s sense of table propriety. She thoroughly objected to my manners, especially when I fingered the French fries from her plate, spooned soup from her bowl, or ate while partially clothed and barefoot.
The dual images on the screen lit up my past, releasing uncontrollable laughter. Due to the nearly empty theater, I was ignored by the audience and ushers.
The movie played on until Woody’s final monologue. He was departing a soured relationship without guilt, remorse, anger, or regret. Rather than the usual conclusion of a romance interrupted, his last thought was about a common Jewish topic, food: “I forgot the eggs.”
I giggled as I headed up the aisle toward the exit. My children ran out as quickly as they could with embarrassment. They were living the life of carefree children, oblivious of leaving an air-conditioned theater for the hot afternoon sun.