Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Ready? Get Set!

I’m told the latest indignity of travel is that instead of the handy personal seatback TV screen that makes long flights tolerable, you are now encouraged to hook up the airline’s communications system to your very own personal device, like an awkward iPad or an itty-bitty mobile phone.  Aargh! Fortunately for me, on my last business trip to NYC I had a genuine (and mostly working) seatback screen to amuse me. Of course, the movie offerings were spotty, which is why I found myself choosing to see a most unlikely documentary, one that had never before come to my attention. It’s called Set!, and I was hooked by the explanatory subtitle: “An Inside Look at the World of Competitive Table Setting.”

 Yes, really. It’s called “Table-Scaping,” by those in the know. The idea is to set a table that observes all formal rules of correctness (utensils, plates, and napkins all in exactly the right position), while also displaying creativity through the use of backdrops, table coverings, and elaborate decorative tchotchkes. Each competition selects a theme, of course, and hands out medals and trophies to those who fulfill it best. Set! focuses on one such competition, a major annual event staged on the grounds of the Orange County Fair in Costa Mesa, California. Vying for the coveted Best of Show honors are a number of middle-class, middle-aged ladies, and at least one amiable man. The documentarians clearly are having fun exploring the various personalities on display: the much-decorated table-scaping veteran; the mother/daughter duo; the world-traveler showing off her souvenirs;  the kook with mystical leanings. Mostly they’re a convivial bunch, until push comes to shove. But some of the more affluent (those who set their tables with Waterford crystal goblets) do tend to look down on one poor schnook. He’s out of work and short on cash, which is why his decorative supplies come from the local dollar store. How déclassé! 

 At the competition being covered in Set!, the theme is International Travel. This lends itself quite naturally to colorful displays of the “It’s a Small World” variety. (The out-of-work guy tries a sweetly childlike Dr. Seuss variation: “Oh, The Places You’ll Go!”) Someone evokes Marrakesh, while one big winner simulates dinner in an Italian vineyard, complete with a grape-festooned gazebo lit by a Venetian chandelier. Two contestants choose African safari settings. One of them bets big on a romantic picnic in the veldt, while the other has something quite different in mind. This particular contestant, something of a maverick, traditionally begins her table-scaping efforts with a good soak in a sensory deprivation chamber to stir up ideas. Maybe that’s why she leans toward the macabre. She surrounds her tableware (all correctly placed, of course) with taxidermized African wildlife, accented with rifles, bullets, and fake blood. Though she wins no big prizes, she certainly gets a lot of attention.

I once was a huge fan of Christopher Guest spoofs, those hilarious mock-docs in which—with a cast full of gifted improvisers—he affectionately satirized people’s passion for folk music (A Mighty Wind) or regional pageants (Waiting for Guffman).  Perhaps the most popular of these was Best in Show (2000), an outrageous look at the contestants, both human and canine, in a snooty, highly-competitive dog show. Guest seems, alas, to have left that genre behind, but I’d think table-scaping would inspire him to reach even greater heights. Just imagine what Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy could do with some plates, forks, and goblets. That’s a meal I’d gladly eat. Cheers!



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