Posted by Greg Ferrara on February 10, 2017
Last week, I delved into documentaries and asked how much was real and how much was fiction. Specifically, I was looking for the appearance of reality and wondering if documentaries and their overlap with fiction was a problem at all or just something to be expected when watching someone’s account of what happened. All of this led me to ponder a movie I have long considered a fictional documentary, My Dinner with Andre (1981), which is currently streaming under the Food for Thought theme in FilmStruck. The movie itself has become the butt of jokes from The Simpsons (Martin Prince plays the My Dinner with Andre game in an arcade) to movies like Waiting for Guffman (where Corky sells My Dinner with Andre action figures). Both of those jokes play well but let’s be honest, it’s pretty damn easy to parody a movie that is almost entirely two men sitting at a table, talking. The fact that such an undertaking not only had a director (instead of simply a cameraman saying, “Okay, I think we’re ready… I mean, action!”) but the internationally famous, highly acclaimed director Louis Malle, is a miracle in and of itself. Surely Malle saw this decidedly uncinematic scenario as an irresistible challenge as a filmmaker and set out to see what he could do with two men at a table talking. So what did he do? And what is the point of all of this anyway?
Here’s the plot description for My Dinner with Andre: Wallace Shawn is meeting an old friend, Andre Gregory, for dinner, that he hasn’t seen in years. They both worked in the theater together and now, as they eat, they talk about the last five years and debate their philosophies of life. The mildly interesting Andre Gregory talks much more than the very interesting Wallace Shawn which is unfortunate because his stories aren’t a tenth as interesting as he seems to think they are. Then they pay the bill and go home. Oh, sorry, spoiler.
That’s it. That’s pretty much the movie. The conversation was written by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory based on conversations that they actually had. So by editing those conversations down and filming them, they were, in effect, doing a reenactment for the camera of actual events. A kind of documentary reenactment where the reenactment is the whole thing and we never get anyone onscreen talking about the conversation, not that anyone in their right mind would welcome such a development. But here’s the thing: in interviews after the film, they both claimed that the characters were not actually them even though they were based on them and that they could have easily switched roles to prove it.
Well, I don’t know about you, but if you can watch My Dinner with Andre and imagine Wallace Shawn convincingly pulling off Andre Gregory’s stories, or Andre Gregory convincingly coming off as grounded and rooted in reality, you’re seeing something I’m not. It’s one of those things said in interviews that I fully believe to be genuine but misguided. They’re trying to get the viewer to see the work as more than just a compilation of conversations they once had and see two characters in a movie instead. But it’s hard to believe those words would fit well with either person switching seats.
And if the goal is to not just record the conversation but bring it life, via either a play (which they opted against) or a movie, why not make it more than one evening at dinner? With the power of film at your disposal, why not make it a series of conversations over many weeks or months, just as had happened to them in real life? Why not fully develop the characters into two old friends getting reacquainted over time and make the movie about their philosophical clashes? I think the answer is that they were not only trying to condense everything into one convenient package but that they were also trying to take up the challenge that the cinema could indeed be static visually while still stimulating intellectually. I suppose.
Louis Malle does little with the camera and I can’t imagine anyone wanting him to. The idea was to present the conversation with minimal interruption and in doing so Malle achieves an intimacy with the characters that allows their speech to predominate. In other words, he keeps the camera close enough to let the cinema work its magic of zooming us in on the action without moving the camera around like he’s trying to convince us this is a visual extravaganza.
So what is My Dinner with Andre and what does it hope to achieve? I take it as a rehearsed documentary. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s take one of the docs I did last week, The Fog of War (2003). Instead of Robert McNamara answering Errol Morris’ questions by speaking on the spot to the camera, imagine if after they recorded all of that, they whittled it down to two hours of back and forth, rehearsed and memorized the lines, and then set it at a restaurant in which Errol Morris narrates that he’s going to meet Bob McNamara tonight. He’s anxious to see him and curious what he has to say. And then they have dinner and McNamara does the talking, the same talking he did before, only now it’s being filmed like it’s not a documentary. That’s what I mean. That’s what My Dinner with Andre is, in my opinion, but it doesn’t quite succeed. I honestly would have much rather seen a real life back and forth between the two, filmed at various locations, in which it is presented as a documentary. As it is, it doesn’t feel like the effort went far enough to justify the format they chose over documentary.
The fact is, movies that don’t quite succeed at what they are attempting to do are some of my favorite movies. I look upon My Dinner with Andre as a fascinating attempt at fictionally documenting something real by transforming it into a narrative movie rather than just making a documentary. That right there is enough to bend one’s mind and I’d welcome more of it. I just wish Gregory and Shawn and Malle had done more with it.
My Dinner with Andre is streaming in FilmStruck until March 3, 2017, after which point it will be available on The Criterion Channel.
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