The Best Ism is Existential

My Dinner With André (1981)

Directed: Louis Malle

Written: Andre Gregory & Wallace Shawn
Genre: Drama

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When I think about the 80s, there are a few things that come to my mind: Spandex, big hair, yuppies, latchkey kids, and Reagan.  Also, these shirts and American Psycho, but we can thank retrospective pop cultural nostalgia for those particular items.  I’ve never really been a big fan of the 80s, if we want to talk about our particular decade affinities.  Fashion-wise, it never really worked for me—maybe because the only 80s-inspired clothing I ran into were either my mother’s actual outfits from her time in a high-rise, or cliched legwarmer-heavy Halloween costumes.  Music?  Nah.  I’ll concede that there were plenty of musical innovations and important artists to spring from those years, but there’s only so much Madonna I can take.

And yet, when we look at the 80s’ contributions to film and television, things start to change—though whether for better or worse is largely a matter of taste.  And my taste is pretty ambivalent about those films.  The 80s were admittedly an interesting time in the film industry: after a period of financial hardship and studio distress—one that actually promoted a flourishing spate of more artistic, experimental, and indie films—money began to flow back in to Hollywood, which meant studios could funnel that money into larger, more commercially-viable projects.  So the whole style of movies began to change to reflect not only that influx of cash (meaning, essentially, a rise in special effects, bigger production values, and high-budget genres like action and adventure) but also the corresponding change in sociocultural values and patterns.  Movies that once might have been shot simply to reflect a low budget now had lush or exotic settings because more people had been/could go/aspired to go to those places; the rise of yuppie suburbia meant movies were now set in Lake Forest, IL, rather than rural or urban locations; gone were the countercultural influences of the 60s and 70s—now it was all about fitting in and keeping up.  Comedy also underwent a bit of an evolution in the 80s, moving away from satire and black humor to slapstick and feel-good laughs.  Life was becoming more complex and more material (giant phones, anyone?) and the movies were running to catch up.

So how do we judge, or value, movies from the 80s?  Because there definitely are some films from that decade that are pretty significant: Back to the Future; Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Arc; The Karate Kid; Top Gun, The TerminatorAnd let’s not forget John Hughes‘ and the Brat Pack’s contributions: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, or Sixteen Candles.  These were the years of Spielberg and Lucas, Cameron and Hughes: big directors with big budgets and tons of technical innovation.  Each of those movies listed above are special in their own way, and sometimes were responsible for launching the long-running career of a particular writer, director, or actor (or group of actors; nobody could accuse John Hughes of neglecting the power of a good ensemble).  But the thing is, when I think about those movies, and other movies from that decade, all of them strike me as being interesting and engaging and good as 80s movies, but only a few of them really significant as movies.  You can’t really take those movies away from the decade they were made in, and that’s where I think taste might come into play: I don’t think that’s a strength of a movie, but I suppose their deep connectedness to a particular era and sensibility could be a sign of how in tune they were to sociocultural changes.

So when I think about 80s movies, I think about high school comedies, or alien adventures, or underdog victories: movies that make you feel good, that you watch with friends and then go on with your life.  What I don’t think about is an existential exploration of life, happiness, and friendship.  Which happens to be exactly what you get when you watch the 1981 classic My Dinner With André, a film that completely baffled and enchanted me, and turned my ideas about culturally-bereft 80s movies on their head.

My Dinner With André is maybe one of the most meta films you’ll ever watch: written by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, it’s basically a movie about themselves in which they star as themselves.  I’m a bit surprised they didn’t direct as well, but that honor went to Louis Malle, one of the most prolific and important French directors of the New Wave era (though Malle isn’t usually considered a New Wave auteur).  There are only four credited actors; besides Gregory and Shawn, we have Jean Lenauer as a waiter and Roy Butler as a bartender.

So let’s talk turkey.  The plot is pretty simple: Wallace Shawn, a grungy playwright in New York City, goes to meet his old friend Andre Gregory, a theater director, for dinner.  They eat dinner, talk, and part.  Fin.  That’s it—there’s nothing else.  (Nothing besides the entire existential conversation, but we’ll get to that.)  This is an incredibly focused film, in all aspects: four characters, 1 major location (or rather, micro location, since we can consider the restaurant table the actual locus of events), and absolutely nothing besides dialogue.  No action.  No capers.  No score.  It is just under 2 hours running time of dialogue.   Sound like fun yet?  I’ll admit that when I realized what I was in for, I was a little apprehensive.  But what is so masterful, and wonderful, about this film is that it works like a play: it hinges on the strength of its dialogue and acting so that you are engrossed for the duration of the film.  No outside distractions.   And the acting: subtly superb.

dinner-with-andre

What kind of conversation could possibly be so interesting?  Well, one about the meaning of life, happiness, and how to live.  In a nutshell, Gregory and Shawn each represent two bodies of thought: Gregory, in relating his global experiences with unconventional artistic experiments and endeavors (tramping with trappists; leading acting workshops in the Polish forests), advocates for a hither-thither, unstructured life; Shawn, on the other hand, lives a much more structured and conventional life, and values basic, day-to-day work and experiences.  Gregory lives in search of the spectacular, the transcendent; Shawn looks for stability, creature-comforts.  Gregory questions the stasis and parochialism of Shawn’s life, while Shawn questions what value (and reality) there is in supposedly abandoning a conventional, practical life.

Of course, it’s not quite as black-and-white as all that.  Much of the appeal is the slow development of each character, particularly Gregory, who shares his experiences in a building, almost-manic monologue, as his passion grows, while Shawn listens in awe.  If we want to talk about plot, what’s especially skillful here is the way that action and events, the typical markers of a plot line, have been replaced by emotion, so that the natural waves and pauses of the film are created by Gregory’s and Shawn’s emotions and reactions to one another.  And we run the gamut from despair to joy, from camaraderie to annoyance to contentment and dissatisfaction, confidence and doubt, guilt and pride.  The two men, apparently separated for decades, must relate years of their lives to one another, and in doing so we get an enormous overall view (Gregory’s manic, desperate search for fulfillment vs Shawn’s uneasy, false contentment) in addition to smaller, shifting forces.

There are so many layers to the dialogue that it would certainly take more than one viewing to get a handle on everything.  There’s class commentary in abundance; the film pokes fun at philosophic pretension; it’s a lesson in how to pull off a completely uneven distribution of dialogue.  But just looking at the content of the dialogue is where the real fun is at.  Buried beneath the normal give-and-take of the conversations are wonderful, bizarre moments where Gregory’s narrative slips into something quite strange (hallucinations, anyone?) and suddenly we see just how unbalanced our main narrator is: what is Gregory trying to say here, and what does it mean for Wallace?  I’m not sure I could even attempt to answer that.

Ultimately we see a portrait of two vastly different lives ordered around opposite philosophies, and see a glimpse of just how well those lives have worked out for Gregory and Shawn.  It’s not a really uplifting movie; the feeling I got, when I finished, was curious neutrality: I knew that I’d seen something really cinematically important and philosophically interesting, but it was like entering a conversation already in motion, that had been going on for years.  It’s a challenging film, and while that means it’s probably not going to be a go-to movie for fun Friday nights, when the mood strikes this can be a really rewarding film experience.

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David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive”

I mentioned before that the 80s were a new divergence from independent and artistic cinema, a la Blockbuster action films.  Well, that’s not entirely true, or at least there’s more to it than that.  While there certainly was a huge contingent of films during this tim that cashed in (literally) on high production value and technical innovation, there was also a quiet, strong streak of new-wave indies, starting with My Dinner.  Directors like Jim Jarmusch (Stranger Than Paradise, 1984), David Lynch (Blue Velvet, 1986), the Coen brothers (Blood Simple, 1984), Stephen Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape, 1989), and Spike Lee (She’s Gotta Have It, 1986; School Daze, 1988; Do the Right Thing; 1989) began to experiment with low-budget, gritty films, that were thought-provoking, cynical, often shocking, and quite different from the big-budget action/thrillers sharing screen time at the movieplex.  The 80s also showed the tentative beginnings of a greater number of female directors and producers; gender equity was still woefully lacking (as it still is, to a tremendous degree), but women like Jodie Foster, Barbra Streisand, and Jane Campion broke away from the pack to write, produce, and direct a number of independent and big-budget features.

So it seems that the 80s were a fruitful decade of a different sort from the more artistically-minded 60s and 70s; here, directors and writers explored sociocultural disillusion, the dark side of the new materiality and financial success (suburban horror), and the conflict and challenges of a new technological age.   My Dinner is a perfect introduction to those films, as it offers a conversation about the greatest tension and insecurity of that era: how do we live now?  What place does art, reality, security, conventionality, have in society?  What is better: to break away from pragmatism, or to accept stability as the best force in life?  Existential angst might not be the most popular subject for film, but I think My Dinner proves that it’s just as engaging as swashbuckling action or melodrama of the highest order—and, at the very least, it’s a fascinating portrait of social class, cultural fear/insecurity, and personal struggle and triumph.  Whether you align yourself with Gregory or Shawn, or maybe with neither, this is one film that leaves you thinking.

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