In 1981, at the age of 13, I saw two movies that blew wide open my previous notions of what cinema could be, though each film did so for very different reasons. The first was George Miller's The Road Warrior, for its success in melding visual imagery and mythological storytelling, and the other, of course, was Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre, which brings the storytelling ritual to its everyday place around the dinner table.
Playwright Wallace Shawn and director Andre Gregory wrote the screenplay which centers almost exclusively on a playwright named Wallace Shawn meeting a director named Andre Gregory for dinner. The script was based on real conversations of the two men.
(Wally) came over to see me and said that he felt that either I had had a complete nervous breakdown over the last few years, or else a creative block, or a spiritual awakening, or a combination of all three, but whatever it was, when he reached my age... he didn't want to go through the same thing. And then he proposed that we should sit down together a few times a week and talk and that I should tell him about all the things I had experienced since leaving the theater, and that we should create a fictional piece -a film- based on our talks, and performed by us.
Over dinner, Gregory relates tales of his own spiritual quest, which had him leave the world of New York theatre and travel around the world. Interestingly, as Gregory's foil, Shawn champions the very life of comfort that his own plays rail against (then again, in 1981, few people outside of New York had seen Shawn's plays, so no one could call him on it).
-Andre Gregory, June, 1981
I knew...that beneath my work's primeval, hysterical facade there was a calm little writer in an armchair just waiting to burst forth, but I didn't know how to reach him; he'd been repressed too savagely for too long.
The film, through the characters, asked the question of whether meaning-- spiritual meaning-- is found in everyday errands, objects, and relationships? Or is meaning found only in esoteric spiritual quests and adventures? As a teenager, I found the the characters exploration of the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses in human nature fascinating, as if two paths of adulthood lay before me, and soon I would have to choose.
-Wallace Shawn, June, 1981
The film also celebrates the art of conversation-- even when one person dominates (and here Gregory plays the raconteur). Despite (or perhaps because of) the limitations of the setting (the action of the film never budges from the table at which the two men are seated), the movie allows the audience to do the heavy lifting of visualization-- imagining the lives of Gregory and Shawn outside the action of the film. No flashbacks. No cutaways. They're not necessary. The primal human arts of storytelling and of listening, in the onscreen story and in the audience watching, are allowed to do their work.
Andy Kaufman created a parody, My Breakfast with Blassie, in 1983.
In the film Waiting for Guffman, Corky St. Clair shows off the My Dinner with Andre action figures.