I was going to call this new feature “Stuff Dan Likes,” and give myself an outlet to recommend books and movies and such, but then I remembered that sometimes I like to talk about things I didn’t like, either to point out the flaws or just to be a jerk, so I decided a non-qualitative name would give me a wider umbrella.
The first entry in the series is a movie I’ve wanted to see for years, and finally got the chance last week: the crazy indie experiment My Dinner with Andre. It’s a movie about two New York theater guys, a playwright and a director, playing themselves, eating dinner and talking. For two hours. That makes it sound boring, but it’s actually one of the most spellbinding movies I’ve ever seen. Gene Siskel used to say that a movie should be at least as interesting, and ideally more interesting, than a documentary of the same actors having lunch; it’s sounds weird, I know, but when you really think about it I think you’ll agree that most movies don’t pass that test. Characters get stripped down to their most basic stereotypes, walking rotely through plots we’ve seen plenty of times before, and without a bit of skin or some car chases or explosions there’s really nothing to hold our attention.
My Dinner with Andre not only demonstrates the Siskel Test in action, but takes it one step further by making the dinner conversation completely and utterly fascinating. We begin with Wallace Shawn (best known as Vizzini from The Princess Bride, but actually a respected playwright and stage actor), looking small and shlubby and talking about his struggles to get by in the big city. He meets Andre Gregory (best known as the guy from My Dinner with Andre, unless you’re a close follower of New York theater, I guess), who is tall and dramatic and a mesmerizing storyteller. He has spent several years traveling the world, getting himself involved in wacky, experimental theater projects (he teaches an acting class in Poland, for example, with very strict guidelines: the students must be experienced actors who want to give up acting, they must play the harp or flute, and they must be non-English speakers so he can’t actually communicate with them. Then they all go live in the woods for a month just to see what happens). Andre goes on and on, weaving tales about his travels and the strange people he met and the life lessons he learned, and you in the audience are captivated: it’s just a guy talking, while another guy nods and sips his soup, but you can’t stop watching.
Andre’s stories would potentially have sustained the whole movie, and it would have been a good movie, but then something happens that makes it great: Wallace disagrees. He blows up (very politely), calling Andre on his bizarre theories of life, insisting that life is about simplicity and comfort, not crazy theater experiments in the Sahara, and suddenly this is not a monologue but a conversation; it has conflict and story and surprising weight. They go back and forth, sometimes arguing, sometimes agreeing with each other, proposing their own theories about what life is, and what makes it good, and what would make it better. Neither of them is right, and neither of them is wrong; it is the conversation itself that matters, the ebb and flow of it, the fact that they are talking to each other deeply and personally about subjects that really matter.
The movie has virtually no plot, and absolutely no narrative, but it has a story: there is conflict and resolution, there is a powerful climax, and there is a touching denouement. In an industry increasingly focused on skin and explosions, here is a movie about the human need for communication and companionship. It will make you think about your own friends, and the conversations you have with them, and it will make you want to have more of them. I can’t remember the last time a movie affected me this deeply.