There are movies that can start conversations (Citizen Kane, Eraserhead, The Sixth Sense), movies that can end conversations (Salo: The 120 Days of Sodom, Fahrenheit 9/11, perhaps the entire oeuvre of Michael Bay), and movies that are simply about conversations.
I hold a special place in my movie-watching heart for films that truly emphasize the spoken word as much as the powerful image. The pure theatricality of the material is immensely appealing to me, the wrenching of the inherently more visual craft of filmmaking in one way or another towards something approximating the experience of live theater.
And yet, that very paradox makes this trio of films I’m revisiting the purest classics of the cinema all the more for going against the grain.
What’s going on in your life…right now? Chances are, Louis Malle’s unforgettable film My Dinner with Andre (1981) has something to say about it.
Recently I picked up the Criterion Collection edition of the film, perhaps the most celebrated of two-person, feature-length philosophical explorations. Nearly two hours of observing a “real” time dinner chat between actor/playwright Wallace Shawn and theater director Andre Gregory? Are you grousing “Inconceivable!” already, with as much snide gusto as the diminutive Shawn did during his comedic turn as the villainous Vizzini in The Princess Bride?
The “plot”—and to use that word at all in its conventional sense is a real stretch—involves Shawn agreeing to meet Gregory for dinner at an elegant restaurant in New York City. It seems Gregory has returned from a long, impulsive sojourn around the world after abandoning a successful directing career seemingly on a whim. In fact, Gregory had embarked on a period of intense self-discovery to address artistic, emotional, and spiritual crises that had taken root in his life. What he’s discovered—and what Shawn does and does not like about those discoveries—makes up the wildly unpredictable discourse of the film.
If you aren’t one of this movie’s ardent fans already, sit down for a dinner you’ll never forget with this loquacious duo. One of the (numerous) brilliant achievements of My Dinner with Andre—with its wide-ranging and adventurous observations on life, art, and death (not to mention many of humanity’s much smaller concerns) is that the film’s meaning may appear to change for you throughout the years as your own beliefs and preoccupations evolve. It can provide comforts when you desire them, and challenges when you need them.
Depending on what you’re going through in life when you watch it—and really, aren’t we all always going through something?—you may find yourself siding with the fiercely skeptical and pragmatic Shawn…or you might find yourself in sympathy with the exotic visions of Gregory. This time out, two passages in particular stuck with me.
First, there’s what I think sums up one of the film’s central themes, a weakness of human character as articulated by Shawn late in the film:
“We live in such ludicrous ignorance of each other, we usually don’t know the things we’d like to know even about our supposedly closest friends.”
Second, and much earlier in the film, Gregory’s description of a mission accepted by his experimental theater workshop participants serves also as an invocation to conscious action, rather neatly anticipating Shawn’s dire diagnosis and offering at least one indirect strategy to confront it:
“What you’re doing, in fact, is you’re asking those same questions that Stanislavsky said the actor should constantly ask himself as a character: Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I come from? And, where am I going?”
NEXT: Get your rage on, ‘cause we’ll be spending some time with Oliver Stone and Eric Bogosian’s fiery 1988 flick Talk Radio.