Cinema Quarantino is an ongoing series of alternative streaming picks for the self-quarantined and the socially distanced, as selected by the film staff of Boston Hassle. To browse the rest of our picks, click here.
THE FILM: My Dinner with Andre (1981) dir. Louis Malle
THE STREAMER: The Criterion Channel
There are certain movies that are difficult to approach as a blank slate. When you watch Citizen Kane for the first time, you’re not just watching a movie; you’re watching The Greatest Movie of All Time, and part of your brain will spend the entire running time trying to analyze why that is. Conversely, films like Halloween III and Ishtar bear such a burden from their initial commercial and critical failures that only now can audiences give them a fair shake. Coming into the modern day, entries in mega-franchises like the Star Wars saga and the Marvel Cinematic Universe come prepackaged with the expectations of their respective brands. As much as we all try to approach art on its own terms, it’s difficult to approach some titles as films rather than facts.
The tricky thing about watching My Dinner with Andre, for me at least, is that it’s served as a punchline in the popular consciousness for my entire lifetime. It’s not that it’s considered bad, necessarily, but its premise is so peculiar, and its title so memorable, that it’s difficult not to parody. When you hear My Dinner with Andre, you might think of Martin Prince’s favorite arcade game on The Simpsons (“Tell me more!”). Gary Larson sent it up in a particularly cockeyed installment of The Far Side, and Andy Kaufman merged his comedic and wrestling careers with his bizarre VHS oddity My Breakfast with Blassie. If you’ve never seen My Dinner with Andre, or even know what it’s really about, you know that it embodies a certain strain of snooty arthouse cinema: a turtlenecked, downtown, pre-Tarantino milieu in which “independent film” is the domain of the high-minded metropolitan elite, who are content to watch a film that’s nothing but two hours of philosophical posturing. And, I mean, you’re not wrong— but you’re also underestimating how enjoyable it is.
My Dinner with Andre opens with actor/playwright Wallace Shawn (playing a lightly fictionalized version of himself) on his way to dinner with his friend, actor/theater director Andre Gregory (played by actor/theater director Andre Gregory). As we learn from Shawn’s narration (set to the twinkly piano of Eric Satie’s Gymnopedies), the two have not seen each other in some time, but he’s heard tales of his friend’s increased eccentricities. As the two settle into their table at Manhattan’s cozy Cafe des Artistes, they have a lengthy conversation about life, art, and the deeper meanings thereof. This concludes the plot synopsis portion of this article: it literally is a two-hour film about two men having a conversation in a restaurant, and it ends when they settle the check and go home.
Yet this description does a disservice to how enjoyable My Dinner with Andre is to watch. Shawn and Gregory, of course, are friends and collaborators in real life, and their conversation hums with the energy of old friends who can pick up a conversation after years apart without missing a beat (they also wrote the screenplay together). Both actors are very fun to watch, and their stories are genuinely interesting (hilariously, I recall seeing a Facebook clickbait article with a title like “Watch These Two Men BLOW YOUR MIND Just By Talking!” that was literally just a two minute excerpt from the film). Your mileage may vary as to how much time you’d like to be in a room with either of them– Gregory is flamboyantly pretentious, and Shawn has an air of Woody Allen ninniness to him– but they call each other on their excesses in a way that keeps them in check. Above all, My Dinner with Andre captures the warmth and energy of having a conversation with an old friend over dinner.
Perhaps you can see where I’m going with this. Viewed through the lens of spring 2020, My Dinner with Andre might as well be science fiction. In a world where restaurants can only offer takeout and friends are unable to share the same physical space, this modest little film, once mocked for its banality, feels like a virtual reality experience. It allows you to relive the now-untenable world of three months ago, to inhabit the round little head of Wallace Shawn and pretend it’s you ordering the quail and nodding politely. In uncertain times, escapism truly can take the most unexpected forms. Maybe Martin Prince was on to something after all.
My Dinner with Andre
dir. Louis Malle
Now streaming on the Criterion Channel
Streaming is no substitute for taking in a screening at a locally owned cinema, and right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.