Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 41: My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where My Dinner with Andre (1981) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert nostalgically discusses the value of well-written dialogue. He writes, “The big difference between today’s dialogue and the dialogue of years ago is that the characters have grown stupid. They say what is needed to advance the plot and get their laughs by their delivery of four-letter words. Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical. Today it is flat. So flat that when a movie allows its characters to think fast and talk the same way, the result is invigorating, as in My Dinner with Andre.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “The idea is astonishing in its audacity: a film of two friends talking, just simply talking—but with passion, wit, scandal, whimsy, vision, hope, and despair—for 110 minutes. It sounds at first like one of those underground films of the 1960s, in which great length and minimal content somehow interacted in the dope-addled brains of the audience to provide the impression of deep if somehow elusive profundity. My Dinner with Andre is not like that. It doesn’t use all of those words as a stunt. They are alive on the screen, breathing, pulsing, reminding us of endless, impassioned conversations we’ve had with those few friends worth talking with for hours and hours. Underneath all the other fascinating things in this film beats the tide of friendship, of two people with a genuine interest in one another.” -from his 1989 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“What My Dinner With Andre exploits is the well-known ability of the mind to picture a story as it is being told. Both Shawn and Gregory are born storytellers, and as they talk we see their faces, but we picture much more: Andre being buried alive, and a monk lifting himself by his fingertips, and fauns cavorting in a forest. And Wally trudging around to agents with his plays, and happily having dinner with Debbie, and, yes, enjoying Heston’s autobiography. We see all of these things so vividly that My Dinner With Andre never, ever, becomes a static series of two shots and closeups, but seems only precariously anchored to that restaurant, and in imminent danger of hurtling itself to the top of Everest (where, Wally stubbornly argues, it is simply not necessary to go to find the truth).” -from his 1999 review for his Great Movies series

I didn’t have regular access to cable television as a kid, but whenever I did manage to find myself alone with a remote control and more than several broadcast-network channels to choose from, I’d often park the dial on IFC. The Independent Film Channel was never as satisfying as an afternoon spent emptily staring at MTV or Comedy Central reruns, but I did enjoy watching it anyway. It gave me the self-satisfaction of an intellectual. Half-watching entry-level indies like Living in Oblivion, Trees Lounge, Kicking & Screaming, and short film programs on IFC made me feel much smarter than the teenage idiot I so obviously was, even though I wasn’t engaging with their individual selections as vigorously as I should have been. My Dinner with Andre might be the quintessential IFC half-watch movie of those lazy juvenile self-indulgences. I remember seeing the movie on television so many times in my younger days, but I can’t recall every actively watching it, absorbing its nuances. A movie mostly consisting of a real-time conversation between NYC playwrights at a hoity toity restraint, My Dinner with Andre was perfect background fodder for pretending I was a budding intellectual, a lie I never came close to living up to.

Of course, I have much greater patience & attention span in my thirties than I did two decades ago, so I had a much easier time engaging with the dialogue-heavy explorations of philosophy & art that play out over this film’s titular meal in my recent revisit. NYC playwrights Wallace Shawn (who I would have known only as The Nice Man form Clueless the last time I saw this picture) & Andre Gregory (an avant-garde theatrical producer who staged Shawn’s first play) share a philosophical back & forth over their meal about Nature vs. Comfort in the modern world, jumping form topic to disparate topic as the natural rhythms of their conversation dictate. At first, Shawn allows Gregory to ramble on unimpeded about his spiritualist journeys beyond the facade of societal & artistic norms, only asking questions to deflect interest in & attention to his own views. As Gregory’s long, troubling answers are increasingly upsetting to his sensibilities, Shawn finally becomes incensed enough to speak up, challenging Gregory’s complaints about how modern society is living in a foggy, zombie-like trance by rightfully countering that Gregory’s spiritualist solutions to that false crisis are impractical to everyday people with normal means. Before that conversational shift, My Dinner with Andre feels exactly like the stuffy, intellectualist nonsense I had casually grouped it in with without giving it too much thought. Once Shawn starts speaking up, however, it becomes a much more vital, useful debate about life, art, and the merits of the modern world

Director Louis Malle (who we’ve covered here before in discussions of Black Moon & Pretty Baby) does his best to make this stage play material feel cinematic, recalling similar Friedkin adaptations like The Birthday Party & The Boys in the Band. Although the conversation is staged in the public space of a restaurant, it’s constrained to the intimate setting of a corner booth. The audience feels like we’re listening in from a table over, invading the players’ privacy. Malle also clues the audience in on Shawn‘s more practical, populist mindset over this dining partner’s by paying attention to the physical language he shares with the waitstaff, whereas Gregory acts as if they’re the only two souls in the room. There’s only so much a director can do with the dialogue-focused material, however, so the most auteurial style Malle allows himself is in depictions of Shawn’s travel to & from the titular meal, riding the subway cars & taxi cabs of late-night NYC. In these moments you can really feel the film’s microbudget, experimental theater means, which only feel a step above its No Wave cinema contemporaries because of the academic nature of the dialogue. There’s even something oddly punk about watching Wallace Shawn travel by subway in cold weather, apparently fighting off a nasal drip & looking mildly displeased by life itself. That’s never something I expected to think about The Nice Man form Clueless.

I could claim that the dense philosophical discussion of art, Nature, and comfort is what endeared me to My Dinner with Andre, but even in this recent, adult rewatch that would be a self-serving lie. I mostly appreciated My Dinner with Andre for the opportunity to spend two hours looking at and listening to Wallace Shawn. In too many roles, Shawn appears only briefly as the bills-paying comic relief, so it was wonderful to hear him speak his own written dialogue for extensive stretches of time while gazing at his Muppetish visage. Before he even speaks up against Gregory’s noxious pontificating he’s already the clear hero to his dinner guest’s villain, making lovably incredulous faces at each absurd, prolonged statement about What’s Wrong with The Modern World. Maybe my fixation on Shawn’s facial expressions and my total opposition to Gregory’s POV are both directly tied to my unintellectual approach to cinema (and life at large). Two decades may have passed since the last time I watched this independent film standard, but affording it a matured, attentive viewing only made me feel like more of an intellectual imposter upon revisit. Thankfully Wallace Shawn was there for me this time to call bullshit on any & all potential pomposity. He really is the best

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

-Brandon Ledet

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