DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEWs of My Dinner With Andre, Diner, Before Sunset, Copenhagen , Einstein’s Big Idea


Title: My Dinner With Andre

Release Date:  1981

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: about 110 Minutes

MPAA Rating:  PG

Distributor and Production Company:

Director; Writer: Louis Male


Cast:  Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn (playing themselves)

Technical:  (regular aspect)

Relevance to doaskdotell site: polarity

Review: Movie Review of My Dinner with Andre (1981); 110 Minutes; Directed by Louis Malle; PG

Imagine a whole feature film based on a single dinnertime conversation. As the movie opens, a inquisitive, somewhat introverted writer named Wally Shawn (an underemployed and struggling writer and actor) is walking through New York City streets on a late February Saturday, when the new year has settled in and the skies are starting to get brighter as spring approaches. He meets his more flamboyant and articulate friend, Andre Gregory, who has traveled around the world, taking in Life but absent from those who have cared about him and who have been influenced or inspired by him in the past. There follows a witty personal and philosophical discussion that keeps one's attention for almost two hours. Andre wants people to just stop and experience, whereas Wally feels everything he experiences by definition can provide enjoyment. Intriguing is Andre's proposal for a network of underground ashrams, and his account of being stripped and then buried alive, just for practice.

I recently had a personal experience just like this. By situation, I was pretty much the Wally of the event (well, not quite). My companion fed all kinds of ideas, such as the significance of acting while I talked of polarities. Pretty soon, 157 minutes had passed, far long enough for another art-house movie. I should have taped it for the automatic "thumbs up" ¾ the conservation was that good! Indeed, this prototype film is one of the favorite of Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert. (After my real life dinner, the restaurant closed permanently almost immediately).

But see this movie when it shows up on cable or PBS (it sometimes does).

Diner (1982, Universal, dir. Barry Levinson, 110 min) bears some comparison to Andre, as well as to American Graffiti. Five high school grads (Steve Guttenberg, Daniel Stern. Mickey Rourke, Kevin Bacon, Timothy Daly) and their girls have devotional in a greasy spoon grits-and-homing diner in Baltimore the night before they go away to college and will do without old fashioned family restaurants. A bit of a cult classic. A Prairie Home Companion also had a diner. 

Before Sunset (2004, Warner Independent Pictures and Castle Rock, R, dir. Richard Linklater, 80 min.) shows again what can be done in a duo conversation movie. I saw this on a day where the projector broke on another film, but I should have seen it in July when it first appeared, because it is very relevant to my own situation. In fact, this film is a sequel to a 1995 film “Before Sunrise.”

It starts with a booksigning of a fictitious (or maybe not) opus called “This Time” by a handsome laconic author Jesse (Ethan Hawke)—in fact, the book is about an encounter those nine years before in Vienna. This time, Celine (Julie Delpy) appears again, and after the signing they adjourn to a café for a “My Dinner with Andre” type conversation. It gets philosophical as Jesse talks about how Buddhists and New Age spiritualists want to leave all desire behind, and Celine sees that as clinical depression.

They walk the streets and Seine riverbank of Paris, continuing the conversation in some technically difficult and long continuous takes, telling their stories for the past nine years without showing any flashbacks. (I’ve been to Paris just twice—some of it looks a lot like the Dupont Circle area in Washington--but did not travel the same path myself, instead hanging around in the Bastille area.) They get into love and marriage. Celine wants to be loved but get away from the idea of the man as provider—she wants to love for the sake of love, not family values. Jesse is not so sure, as his family and son have become so important. Well, there is a plane to catch, a cab ride, and they stop at her apartment, and she plays her song. You are left to imagine what may happen next, but he will miss his plane and have a big fee for waiting for the cab driver. 

You see from this how the screenwriters made a simple “here and now” plot (Linklater, Kim Krizan, as well as Ethan Hawke, himself a writer too in real life, and Julie Delpy collaborated as a team to write what seems simple but is not, and Julie herself composed the song). You want to see more at the end, and there is genuine sexual suspense, which is left to the imagination of the moviegoer. Hawke, with his super lean presence and shirt that seems to invite opening, is especially inviting here. The cigarette smoking of both characters was, however, a bit “depressing” and perhaps unnecessary (but then, again, realistic, especially in Europe).

Now this all parallels my own screenwriting projects, somewhat. I have a script that starts with a “My Dinner…” beginning with me as the writer. The other protagonist is an aspiring actor, and the story that remains is (with some ironic twists) a story about how he will then go to the A-list. So after the first 45 minutes or so I break away from restaurant conversation and go to action, because I want to make the younger character a sort of “hero” like on one of those TheWB “The Frog” weekly drama series (and that could take more than a 3-hour film, unfortunately for me). And I have flashbacks. But imagine a second half with a “before sunset” formula, where I and the successful actor meet again, wondering what we would find out about each other, and how common characters might have figured into his success. Then you have this movie, again. It can work in a heterosexual, gay, or bisexual setting, although sexual fungibility in most story development is the exception, rather than the rule. Polarities can make it work.  Maybe I will try this experiment myself. After all, this got made, and conceivably I could come up with the resources myself to execute this formulaic method (you have to increase the sexual tension at the end in layers, though).  The problem, though (beyond the tension in the ending), is that if you are going to create a hero, you really have to show him become one (and use some moral ambiguity or irony in doing so in manipulating the “writer” character to serve the domain needs of the hero), and that takes $$$. The Frog has taught me that well.

Copenhagen (2002, PBS/Hollywood, dir. Howard Davies, from the play by Michael Frayn, with Introduction and Epilogue by Frayn, total is about 105 min) is a conversation between physicists German Werner Heisenberg (Daniel Craig), author of the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics, and Danish physicist Niels Bohr (Stephen Rea). Heisenberg requests the meeting in Copenhagen (home of Hans Christian Andersen), Denmark (during Nazi occupation) in September 1941, at Bohr’s home. Francesca Annis plays Bohr’s wife and provides some narration. Much of the conversation consists of talk between the two men, sometimes on walks, about the whole question of science and politics. Hitler’s anti-Semitism has already cost him an edge in nuclear research, and Heisenberg insists he has no loyalty to the Nazis. The situation reminds one of conductor Wilhelm Furtwangler in Taking Sides (2001).

There is a lot of setup of the talk, though. Heisenberg’s arrival in Copenhagen by steam train and quaint travel to Bohr’s estate is carefully scripted. Their verbal encounters become contentious, as Bohr accuses Heisenberg of a little “nip” in finding fault in one of his lectures. Then they go on a secret walk into the woods, and confront each other. What they said becomes hearsay, from them. But it comes down to the join of physics, politics, and morality. Heisenberg confronts Bohr with the ultimate insight into the nature of nuclear fission (not just fusion) and critical mass, particularly when working with HEU (highly enriched uranium, U-235 isotope). Heisenberg wants to know if America has a program yet, and is debating just how involved he can get involved in what could be Hitler’s nuclear weapon’s program. We don’t know for sure exactly what was said, but restraint on their part could have prevented Hitler from getting The Bomb before America did. Later, they reunite in an empty estate, and consider Hiroshima. Bohr has worked on the Manhattan Project in the United States, and must struggle with whether he contributed to mass deaths. The two men taunt each other about who took the responsibility for doing the critical mathematical calculation involving critical mass of U-235. There is the moral point, that some of us (particularly, in Rosenfels terms, “subjective feminines”) will have the opportunity to discover and speak The Truth about great issues, to possess the proverbial Knowledge of Good and Evil. Any one person’s written work can have enormous impact on the world, for good or for bad. Hitler himself was one example. There is a certain asymmetry in this that existed well before the Internet. Where is restraint on personal opportunity and ambition called for? When is loyalty to a higher calling –faith—to be expected? There is also a parallel between the uncertainty about what they said to each other and about their friendship, and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle itself. A man is like one of those particles of uncertain position and velocity, and we are back to undergraduate philosophy. Everything is affected by the act of observing it (as Einstein said—“Jewish science” the Nazis called it)—we get to what I would call The Gawker’s Effect. (Maybe that’s why sometimes people fear being stared at.) The music background, featuring piano music by Franz Schubert (like the A-flat impromptu, which Heisenberg attempts to play on the house grand piano, and some slow movements from sonatas), as well as a theme by Mike Post, is haunting.

 A couple times in my life, I have had dinner meetings as clandestine and important (to me) as those in these films.

This film has another personal significance to me, which I explain in a blogspot link.

Einstein’s Big Idea (2006, PBS/Nova, 110 min) makes a good companion piece. The biography of Albert Einstein, who came up with his theories as a young man, while working for a patent office and nurturing a new family in Germany. Gradually, he did achieve his recognition. The most startling idea in special relativity is that an object gains mass as it approaches the speed of light (the cosmic speed limit) so that, if a space ship could approach the speed of light to travel, say, 100 light years to find a nearby civilization, weight gain by the travelers would be an issue. The film looks back into history, to the work of Faraday (electromagnetism) and other scientists, including female. But the most startling episode is that of German Jewish scientist Lisa Meitner, who discovered so much of the physics of atom splitting (from the energy relationship to mass and light), and was expelled from her job in 1938, and escaped to Holland. Hitler might have had the bomb had she not been expelled, an idea that fits into the Copenhagen film.   


Related reviews: Taking Sides   Infinity, Fat Man and Little Boy   American Graffiti  A Prairie Home Companion 


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