Astonishingly inventive and stripped-down movie, directed by Louie Malle. Playwright Andre Gregory and actor Wallace Shawn apparently play themselves. There are essentially three scenes in the movie, and the first two pass during the opening credits: Wally on the subway, and Wally walking from the subway station to the restaurant. There in the restaurant, he meets his long-lost pal Andre and they have a conversation over dinner.

That's it... that's the entire movie, two guys sitting down having dinner. And it's enough. By the end of the film I felt thoroughly charmed by Andre, like I'd just recountered an old friend of my own, and I felt a thirst for travel and the experience of exotic cultures like never before.

(I had no desire to be buried alive, though...)

Will appeal to those who like "talkies" such as Six Degrees of Separation, Mindwalk or even Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

In 1981, at the age of 13, I saw two movies that blew wide open my previous notions of what cinema could be, though each film did so for very different reasons. The first was George Miller's The Road Warrior, for its success in melding visual imagery and mythological storytelling, and the other, of course, was Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre, which brings the storytelling ritual to its everyday place around the dinner table.

Playwright Wallace Shawn and director Andre Gregory wrote the screenplay which centers almost exclusively on a playwright named Wallace Shawn meeting a director named Andre Gregory for dinner. The script was based on real conversations of the two men.

(Wally) came over to see me and said that he felt that either I had had a complete nervous breakdown over the last few years, or else a creative block, or a spiritual awakening, or a combination of all three, but whatever it was, when he reached my age... he didn't want to go through the same thing. And then he proposed that we should sit down together a few times a week and talk and that I should tell him about all the things I had experienced since leaving the theater, and that we should create a fictional piece -a film- based on our talks, and performed by us.
-Andre Gregory, June, 1981
Over dinner, Gregory relates tales of his own spiritual quest, which had him leave the world of New York theatre and travel around the world. Interestingly, as Gregory's foil, Shawn champions the very life of comfort that his own plays rail against (then again, in 1981, few people outside of New York had seen Shawn's plays, so no one could call him on it).
I knew...that beneath my work's primeval, hysterical facade there was a calm little writer in an armchair just waiting to burst forth, but I didn't know how to reach him; he'd been repressed too savagely for too long.
-Wallace Shawn, June, 1981
The film, through the characters, asked the question of whether meaning-- spiritual meaning-- is found in everyday errands, objects, and relationships? Or is meaning found only in esoteric spiritual quests and adventures? As a teenager, I found the the characters exploration of the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in human nature fascinating, as if two paths of adulthood lay before me, and soon I would have to choose.

The film also celebrates the art of conversation-- even when one person dominates (and here Gregory plays the raconteur). Despite (or perhaps because of) the limitations of the setting (the action of the film never budges from the table at which the two men are seated), the movie allows the audience to do the heavy lifting of visualization-- imagining the lives of Gregory and Shawn outside the action of the film. No flashbacks. No cutaways. They're not necessary. The primal human arts of storytelling and of listening, in the onscreen story and in the audience watching, are allowed to do their work.

Andy Kaufman created a parody, My Breakfast with Blassie, in 1983.

In the film Waiting for Guffman, Corky St. Clair shows off the My Dinner with Andre action figures.

This 1981 movie was highly recommended by an old friend.

It consists of a long conversation in a restaurant between two New York neurotics, played by the actual neurotics (theatre personalities) themselves. Wallace Shawn grumbles about his failure to progress in his career, a largely material problem that is probably far more easily solved than he can see. André Gregory is tentatively recovering from a crisis of confidence and fears the world is falling into a "totalitarian" reign of complacency.

Both of them deserve a sound spanking. And Shawn should probably take a year abroad somewhere.

Although both characters raise a few important issues, the larger tenor of their discussion consists mainly of age-old ideas, and in the garb of the late 1970's I find that discussion more unpleasant than edifying. Gregory's best lines are about the dangers of falling into mindless boredom by letting automatic behaviors take over one's life. Shawn's best lines are when he ridicules Gregory's giddy and egotistical comments about synchronicity. I think Shawn's delivery is a bit better than Gregory's because it is less tragically earnest and more critical. It also appears that Shawn (Shawn's character) learns something from the conversation - he realizes he has things to be happy about, and he goes home to tell his wife about the conversation. I suspect Gregory's character is too far gone to learn anything.

As a movie, because it consists almost entirely of dialogue, I found My Dinner With André very weak indeed. Movies with neither plot nor varied visual content seem to me exceptionally poor use of the medium. In the case of "André", that is surely due to its having been created and acted by stage-people. Will they never learn?

Even accepting the funereal format, I have little sympathy for the neurosis of either character. I suppose I lean more toward Shawn's character these days, though I have in my time indulged in both of these points of view. These days I try to appreciate whatever I encounter in the real world (excluding contrived works of art and actors playing at philosophy). There are many blessings to be grateful for; imagine some of the alternatives and you can hardly help feeling grateful. In particular, I find the infinite detail of the world - both the ugly and the beautiful - quite awe-inspiring, and I am glad to be alive, in spite of the emotional rope-burn I have had along the way. These whining theatre-people tire me.

At the beginning of the movie there is a good scene of the inside of a New York subway train as I remember them from the late 1970's - dim and graffiti-slathered. I was just thinking today that I really could not remember exactly what they looked like back then. I don't think it's synchronicity; I'm just glad to see one of those trains again. I'm glad they're gone, too.

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