Peter Linton reflects on a film that has impacted him like no other.
Editor’s note: This post is the first in an ongoing series, “Movies Make Me a Better Man.”
When approaching the subject “Movies Make Me a Better Man,” I easily recalled a favorite: The Quiet Man with John Wayne as the lead character Sean Thornton. Thornton represents positive images of strength, ideals and conviction. Yet like any good male character, his is a mix of internal conflict, emotion, and disillusion. It’s hard not to be sympathetic to his very male plight. But this favorite follows the movie cliché of “Man versus Man,” as if the male roles somehow involve fisticuffs. And there is another cliché: “Boy meets/gets/loses/re-gets girl.” Now I’m not a big movie person for few reasons other than clichés. As much as I love it, The Quiet Man can’t escape to what a longtime friend once said of the Hollywood trope: “Rocky wins.”
There are fewer than a finger count of films I’ve seen and enjoyed that break from clichés. The subject of this brief essay is one: My Dinner with Andre. My history with My Dinner with Andre began with its original theatrical release in 1981. I, then an undergrad with a major in philosophy, just ate up its banquet of ideas and sat through it on multiple occasions. At the time, Star Wars was the only film I had seen more often.
As plots go, My Dinner with Andre is its title, a fine restaurant dinner for two men, played by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. The action, for lack of a better word, is their conversation. Shawn speaks as a down to earth character, stuck in the affairs, small pleasures and stress of his daily life. Andre counters as a Buddhist acharya, having lived fully yet now speaks broadly of the emptiness of modern life. Both men are mouthpieces for an internal discussion we may all have between doing our lives and composing its meaning. Their convo blends Socratic dialogue with Freudian stream of consciousness, has a consistent flow, but no formal logic. Listening to them incorporate absurd anecdotes, psychic rooftops, the 60s, their wives and girlfriends, societal boredom and life’s money trap, you suddenly realize that what they are saying is wicked interesting.
The theme of this essay should be about how a specific movie has been an inspiration, to learn something new or make positive choices in my life. For brevity’s sake, it is impossible to divulge fully into My Dinner with Andre. But one element comes from the fact that both men, as these movie characters and in real life, are playwrights and are at once fierce critics and defenders of theater as an impactful art. It’s a topic never abandoned throughout the script. And evident from the opening line: “The life of a playwright is tough,” the theater talk creates a metaphor for discussing life in general, of the roles we play: a lover, a husband, a provider, a father.
Andre: “I do think that you have to constantly ask yourself the question, with total frankness: Is your marriage still a marriage? Is the sacramental element there? … I mean, it’s a very frightening thing, Wally, to have to suddenly realize that, my God, I thought I was living my life, but in fact I haven’t been a human being. I’ve been a performer.”
Now we don’t live our lives in constant sacrament, nor in questions about its meaningfulness But My Dinner with Andre does draw you into the counter notion that we do live on automatic pilot, mechanically, without genuine connection with each other. Such a downer.
Yet for all that, My Dinner with Andre hooked me, now and then, but in a refreshing, stimulating way. What Andre said of good theater applies: “Something that had ritual, love, surprise, denouement, beginning, a middle and end. The impact that it had on its audience was somehow a totally positive one. It didn’t deaden me. It brought me to life.”
Once, when asked to name a non-cliché movie, an answer came momentarily for renown movie critic Roger Ebert: “I thought for a moment, and then answered, ‘My Dinner With Andre.’ I am impressed once more by how wonderfully odd this movie is, how there is nothing else like it. It should be unwatchable, and yet those who love it return time and again, enchanted.” (1) With that last sentiment, therewith goes I.
The flick set a standard. If you get into My Dinner with Andre, then we can have a meaningful conversation. Well, when renting video cassette players once equaled a real date, I brought My Dinner with Andre to my then girlfriend’s house and she didn’t understand a word of it. Now she’s my wife of near 28 years. Times change and so did I; not every meaningful conversation has to include Heidegger’s Dasein. But in the course of my life there are moments, images, feelings that bring the dinner’s closing line to mind: “Well, have a real relationship with a person that goes on for years, that’s completely unpredictable… But what does that mean? A wife. A husband. A son. A baby holds your hands and then suddenly there’s this huge man lifting you off the ground and then he’s gone. Where’s that son?”
Photo: Saga Productions
Would you like to help us shatter stereotypes about men?
Receive stories from The Good Men Project, delivered to your inbox daily or weekly.