Monday, June 29, 2009
One of the first jobs I was given after I started at New Yorker Films in 1976 had to do with Nagisa Oshima’s “The Ceremony.” Office Manager Jose Lopez told me that there had been some complaints about our 16mm prints. Some people had voiced concerns that the reels were out of order. Jose told me watch all of them, see if there was a problem, and if necessary, fix them.
I had only seen one film by Oshima before, and that was “Death by Hanging.” This was about a convict who somehow survives hanging, but loses his memory. As the law requires him to be aware of his crimes, the officials stage a rape and a murder. They are so enthusiastic in their reenactment that they actually kill a girl, the first of many crimes. The only other thing I knew about Oshima is that the rape in “Death by Hanging” wasn’t an unusual occurrence in his films. I can’t find the quote but I remember reading something like, “Oshima without rapes would be like John Ford without Monument Valley.” I did find this from Audie Bock: “In every Oshima film at least one murder, rape, theft or blackmail incident can be found, and often the whole of the film is constructed around the chronic repetition of such a crime.”
So in my case, the “crime” was that some fool had screwed up the order of the reels and it was up to me to fix it by chronic repetition. Still, if I was going to have to watch a movie six times, you can imagine my relief that it would be an Oshima film and not a snooze-fest like Danielle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub’s “Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach” or four hours long like Jacque Rivette’s “L’amour fou.”
“The Ceremony” is a family saga that spans generations, and its story is told through a series of family gatherings and rites--weddings, anniversaries, f unerals, and so on. The actual title of the film is “Ceremonies.” Oshima said about the film: “Ceremonies are a time when the special characteristics of the Japanese spirit are revealed. It is this spirit that concerns and worries me.” If you see this movie, you will sure as hell agree he’s got a lot to be worried about, because it is one weird movie, even if you don’t have to watch it over and over and over.
Because the film went from ceremony to ceremony, I had sympathy for those who watched it and weren’t completely sure it was out of order. I didn’t have any script, but after a single viewing, there didn’t seem to be any question in my mind. By any standard—narratively, artistically, formally—it seemed to me that “The Ceremony” wouldn’t make sense unless reel three played before reel two.
At that point, I got curious to see what the critical response had been to the 16mm screenings. It turned out the fakakta print had been getting rave reviews. This didn’t surprise me. At that age, I often praised certain classic films when I had absolutely no clue what they were about or why I was expected to like them.* I had various ways of dealing with those situations, most often by reaching into my toolbox of Academic jargon. So if people were secretly bewildered by our screwed up print, I could see how they might cope with that by applauding its meta-narrative anti-temporal whatever.
Anyway, I explained to Jose my logic for re-ordering the reels and he gave me the go-ahead to change all six prints.
And that was that until a few months later, when Oshima’s “In the Realm of the Senses” was scheduled to premiere at the New York Film Festival.
“In the Realm of the Senses” was the first art film I knew of that featured hard-core sex scenes. Since then Catherine Breillat, Vincent Gallo, Lars von Trier, Larry Clark, John Cameron Mitchell, and others have made this ho-hum for the artsy-fartsy crowd, but then people got very worked up about whether Oshima was exploiting his actors. The movie was based on a real-life story and I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that it had a notorious castration scene. 1976 was a banner year for castration movies. Gérard Depardieu, walked around naked through much of Marco Ferreri’s “The Last Woman,” often with an authentic boner, before going DIY and slicing off his own schlong to prove a point to Ornella Muti. (Criterion, this film is calling your name!) I’m sure there was a third penisectomy that festival season, but I can’t remember what it was. (Cineastes, can you help me out?)
Anyway, at the last minute, the US Customs refused to let the print of “In the Realm of the Senses” into the country. With Oshima set to be in attendance and a crowd of A-listers expected, a replacement was urgently needed. Festival Director Richard Roud asked for “The Ceremony,” and Dan sent our one 35mm print over immediately. On the night of the screening of “The Ceremony,” I was walking out after the previous film, Alain Tanner’s “Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000,” one of our upcoming releases. As you can imagine, there was no movie I wanted to see less than “The Ceremony.” But something came to my mind and in a very casual way I turned to Jose and asked:
“Did you ever fix the 35mm print of ‘The Ceremony’?”
Jose’s face turned ashen.
With “The Ceremony” set to begin screening in minutes, I rushed up to the projection booth. Jose and I explained the situation to the projectionist. If I tried to tell you how tightly wound and jittery this guy was, you wouldn’t believe me. He took his job extremely seriously, and it was a matter of life and death to him that every detail be rehearsed and that there would be no leeway for mistakes. He was quivering with nervous energy before I arrived to send him bouncing off the walls with fear.
It was entirely possible that the 35mm print would be just fine. In any case, I had just made the changes a month or two before and I remembered them well. Unfortunately this wasn’t a 16mm print like the ones I’d fixed. There were only four reels in the 16mm prints, but there were seven reels in the 35mm print. I had to keep calm. I started a few reels in and began looking at the beginning and endings, until I was sure.
“It’s in the wrong order,” I said.
I felt like I had killed the projectionist. But I refused to let his freakout affect me; I had a job to do.
“Take these two reels and put them before this one.”
The projectionist looked like he wanted to cry. But I was 22 years old and the many castastrophes I would live through in the movie business were still far ahead.
“Don’t worry,” I said.
And then I went home.
After the screening, Roud approached Oshima gingerly.
“Mr. Oshima, were the reels in the right order?”
Oshima looked at him like he was out of his mind.
“Of course,” he said.
Sunday, June 21, 2009
Writing about Coppola last week made me think of a story I’ve told many times to my friends about Andrei Tarkovsky, who just happens to have a retrospective coming up on July 7th at the Walter Reade Theater in New York.
In the early 80’s, I was running a movie PR firm called “Reid Rosefelt Publicity.” The title sounded impressive, but it was only me and an assistant or two working out of my bedroom in my apartment on Riverside Drive. Some of the people who worked with me included future Premiere Magazine editor Howard Karren, director/producer Sara Driver (mentioned last week), writer Jane Hammerslough, leading New York unit publicist Julie Kuehndorf, and filling in for a few weeks as a favor, Adam Brooks, who would go on to write Jonathan Demme’s “Beloved” and direct “Definitely, Maybe.” Among the films that were promoted out of my bedroom include Jim Jarmusch’s “Stranger Than Paradise,” Susan Seidelman’s “Desperately Seeking Susan,” Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo” (and Les Blank’s “Burden of Dreams”), Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s “Querelle,” Bertrand Tavernier’s “A Week’s Vacation,” Paul Verhoeven’s “The 4th Man,” Jeanne Moreau’s “L’Adolescente,” Stephen Frears’ “The Hit,” and Dennis Hopper’s “Out of the Blue.” I might add that before Jarmusch made “Stranger,” I hired him to put up posters for a re-release of “The Seven Samurai.” (He had a lot of experience, having done it for his band, The Del-Byzanteens, and knew where the good spots were.)
In 1983, my firm was hired to publicize Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Nostalghia.” I was dazzled by the prospect of spending time with Tarkovsky. To me he was such a legendary director as to be slightly unreal. I had only seen “Solaris” and “Stalker” at that point, and they totally mystified me. I loved them but I couldn’t explain what they meant or why they had such an impact on me. It was more the atmosphere that I got—the constantly dripping water, the mists, the fog, the beauty of his compositions, the aching feeling of loneliness and alienation.
“Nostalghia,” is a very slow, melancholy and meditative film. It’s not an easy film to watch, but if you give it your deepest concentration it is a very moving and rewarding experience.
Of course not everyone agrees with me. In his review in The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that “the meaning of water in his films isn’t as interesting to me as the question of how his actors keep their feet reasonably dry.”
The story is about a Russian poet (Oleg Yankovsky) who is traveling in Italy with a beautiful translator (Domiziana Giordano), to write a book on a 17th Century Russian composer who had lived in Bologna. The translator is hoping that they will become lovers, but the poet is too sad and caught up in his own world to connect with her in any way. Instead, he becomes fascinated with an eccentric madman named Domenico (Bergman regular Erland Josephson).
The meaning of the title isn’t “nostalgia” as we know it, but the pain of exile, the longing that Russians have when they are separated from the homeland. Sadly, after making the film, Tarkovsky found himself in the same place as his character. Searching for creative freedom, Tarkovsky defected after “Nostalghia” and never returned to Russia. He made one more film, “The Sacrifice,” in Sweden in 1985 before he died in Paris at the end of the following year. In his book, Sculpting in Time, Tarkovsky wrote, “How could I have imagined as I was making this film that the stifling sense of longing that fills the screen was to be my lot for the rest of my life.” I don’t believe one word of this. You don’t make a decision to defect in five minutes. I think the whole film, his first made outside Russia, sprang out of his tortured considerations about possibly becoming an exile.
To deal with this anxiety I felt about working with Tarkovsky, I watched nearly all of his films that I hadn’t seen. During the summer, I managed to see all but his debut, “Ivan’s Childhood,” on decent sized screens in revival houses. You could do that in those days. This was followed by research. In those pre-Google days, research meant going to MoMa film library. Mary Corliss (married to Richard) would bring out these little boxes of faded clippings, which I would carefully peruse. After I made my choices, I’d go down the hall and wait in line to use the Xerox machine. Google is faster and more convenient, but the information in Mary’s boxes was a hell of a lot more comprehensive. I also loved just being there--it oozed the serious contemplation of cinema. There were cool posters on the wall and there were always scholars silently poring over their boxes, no doubt knee-deep in preparation for an article in Sight & Sound magazine or writing a monograph on Eisenstein.
By the time Tarkovsky turned up, I was as well versed in his oeuvre as I could be. He was a lot shorter than I thought he’d be, but otherwise he was pretty much what you’d expect, ultra serious and intense. He was accompanied by his wife, and a “translator” who not only wasn’t as beautiful as Domiziana Giordano, but who I suspected was something of a Soviet watchdog, there to make sure nothing got said that was out of line. Or at least a jerk. On the first day, he encouraged me to use a Russian word that he said Tarkovsky would appreciate. It turned out to be something like “comrade” and of course Tarkovsky hated me for it.
Julie Kuehndorf remembers that he always kept the window shades down in his room at the Mayflower and his wife sent her out for a pineapple, something they couldn’t get in the USSR.
One of the people who came to interview Tarkovsky was Michael Wilmington, who I knew when we were both students at the University of Wisconsin. Michael would later become a critic at the LA Times and the Chicago Tribune, but at that time he was working for Heavy Metal magazine. In the photo above, you can see Tarkovsky flipping through a copy of the magazine to get a taste of the highly prestigious publicity outlets I’d found for him.
It turned out that the Botticelli-beautiful Domiziana Giordano was living in New York at that time, and I had the opportunity to meet her. Later on, Neil Jordan would cast her in “Interview with the Vampire,” based on seeing her in “Nostalghia.” She would also go on to appear in Godard’s “Nouvelle Vague” and numerous Italian films, as well as a varied career as an artist, video artist, photographer, poet, and writer. Recently, this multifaceted intellectual appeared on a “Survivor”-like Italian reality show, which made me wonder what it would be like if Susan Sontag could have lived to be on “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here!”
The distributor of “Nostalghia” was a father-and-son company called Grange Communications. The father, Myron Bresnick, had founded the 16mm non-theatrical film company Audio Brandon and sold it to MacMillan. He was now picking up high-quality European films and sub-distributing them through companies like Kino. Myron was old school, but Geoff Bresnick, who was closer to my age, was pretty wild. It was weird to team up with a character from the cast of “The Hangover” on this profound art film, but after I got used to it, it was a lot of fun.
The Bresnicks took Tarkovsky to the Telluride Festival, where they put on a big tribute for him in the Opera House. As soon as we got there, the festival directors Bill Pence and Tom Luddy whisked him away to points unknown. See ya! I thought that was a bit extreme as the Bresnicks had gone to the great expense and hassle of bringing him to the U.S., as well as bringing him to Telluride. The idea of Telluride at that time was that publicity was strictly verboten, and publicists like me, while not completely persona non grata, weren’t supposed to work while they were there. Telluride opened up that policy years ago, but then it took a major effort just to locate Tarkovsky and meet my commitment for one measly phone interview. But the thing that really drove me nuts about the whole Telluride experience is that they programmed “Ivan’s Childhood,” the one Tarkovsky film I hadn’t seen, at the same time as the Tarkovsky tribute! But the tribute was amazing, as all Telluride tributes are. And after the festival ended, Geoff Bresnick drove me to Denver at what seemed like 150 MPH the whole way, which now that I think of it is a perfect way to top off watching a lot of Tarkovsky films.
So what does all this have to do with Coppola, you ask?
Throughout my time with Tarkovsky, I refused to give up trying to make a connection and draw him out. After all, I was a card-carrying Tarkovsky buff! Attention must be paid! I had a lot of questions, but I was always in the same position as Domiziana’s character and the poet in the movie, getting nowhere He would dismiss me, telling me over and over again that I could never fully understand his films because I wasn’t Russian.
But one time he was talking for a long time about “The Godfather;” really getting into it in a very sophisticated way. Thinking that I had him, I asked, “How can you understand ‘The Godfather’? You’re not Italian-American.” He looked at me in this bemused way, perhaps with a trace of compassion for my inability to grasp the obvious.
“All artists understand each other,” he said.
Monday, June 15, 2009
“The Rain People” isn’t even mentioned in Francis Coppola’s Wikipedia biography, and perhaps that’s understandable, as it hasn’t been seen by a lot of people and few would argue it’s one of his best films. Warner Brothers never released a DVD, and has only recently made it available as a special order from WBShop.com or as a download.
“The Rain People” is a low-key road movie about an unhappy Long Island housewife (Shirley Knight) who flees her marriage when she finds out she’s pregnant. Driving cross-country with no set destination, she picks up a brain-damaged ex-football player (James Caan), who she gradually becomes responsible for, and has an encounter with a sexually aggressive highway patrolman (Robert Duvall). At the time, the film was generally perceived as a bit arty, and as a gloomier mirror image of “Easy Rider.” Nowadays it’s seen as an imperfect, but ambitious and important step in Coppola’s development. Dave Kehr wrote that “The Rain People” was the “first statement of Coppola’s perennial theme—crippling loneliness within a failed family.”
What thrilled me about “The Rain People” in 1969 wasn’t the movie itself, but the way Coppola made it. He loaded a small production team into a handful of vans and cars and made the same trip that Shirley Knight’s character did through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Nebraska.
The entire cast and crew of “The Rain People”
This all was very vivid for me at the time because his friend and American Zoetrope partner George Lucas documented the trip in “Filmmaker: A Diary by George Lucas.” I didn’t see Lucas’s film then, but there was an edited featurette that I saw many times. I have a very strong memory of Coppola saying in the featurette that he imagined a day when each town could have its very own film crew. As a teenager making my little Super-8 films, I found this incredibly inspiring. Here was this freewheeling traveling carnival, experimenting and improvising as they rambled from town to town. They were young and cool cinematic hippies challenging the “man” (Hollywood). Coppola even had a beard--just like Jerry Rubin! I would have given anything to be riding in that caravan.
If I had been able to see the whole “Filmmaker” I would have seen a very different portrait of Coppola. He was no hippie—he was a hot-head born to be pissed off. He fought with Shirley Knight, and raged against a DGA spokesman on the phone, escalating a demand for another AD to a world-level crisis and a potential end to all hope for the future of American cinema.
Another thing I didn’t know was that Coppola started out by bankrolling “The Rain People” himself with his Hollywood-earned loot. As he told Lucas: “I was acting very irresponsibly. I was committing all my personal money, with no guarantee that we were going to make the film. So I stood to lose everything. It’s not too much because I figure if you’re not willing to risk some money when you’re young, then you’re certainly not going to ever risk anything in the years that follow.” I know that Warner Brothers did ultimately step in to provide financing, but I’m not sure if Coppola got any of his investment back.
Today “The Rain People” would be called a Sundance film and of course it would have premiered there and Sony Classics would have brought it out. Instead it was released by a studio that didn’t understand or care about it and basically dumped it. That year, Coppola and Lucas set up their own company, American Zoetrope, to make studio films to pay for riskier fare. Unfortunately, the first one, Lucas’s “THX-1138” was a flop and Coppola was left $300,000 in debt. This would become a recurring pattern in his career: bold and expensive ventures followed by devastating financial ruin. In this particular situation, Coppola bailed himself out by making a film called “The Godfather.”
Years later, in 1989, I was working as unit publicist for the New York shooting of “The Godfather: Part III.” The production set up for a few days on Elizabeth Street in Little Italy, to film the sequence involving the shooting of Joe Mantegna’s character, Joey Zaza. Coppola spent most of the time holed in his much-publicized Silverfish, a huge trailer rigged up with computers, monitors, and assorted high-tech sound and video gear. From the outside, the Silverfish looked like the kind of Greyhound bus you’d find in Oz and inside was Francis the Wizard with all his gadgets. It was state-of-the-art 1989-- I remember the stacks of countless Hi-8 Video cartridges. While the crew was sitting around in the usual torpor of movie sets, Francis was working furiously in the Silverfish. He wrote interstitial scenes to help the actors better understand how they got from the last scene in the script to the one they were about to do. He actually edited the film using video, something I had never seen before. And he plotted ways to keep people on their toes during the shooting. As we were getting close to the big moment, when Mantegna’s character got his, there was supposed to be one final rehearsal. But Coppola had the special effects guys make the actual killing happen in the rehearsal, without telling the actors, thus adding actual surprise and giving the scene more immediacy. He also had a thing about talking to the extras, giving them little backstories. Everything was important to him. Despite all doing all this stuff, Francis somehow found time to explain the Silverfish technology and tell me some great stories.
I set up shop for my publicity activities in a coffee shop across the street from the Silverfish. Paramount had supplied me with this huge brick cell phone. One day I saw Jim Jarmusch and his girlfriend (now wife) Sara Driver (also a terrific director, and a former employee of my publicity firm) come by (they lived very near there). We hung out in the coffee shop for a while, both of them fascinated by my hairdryer-sized phone until I asked them if they wanted to meet. They didn’t take much persuading.
Francis gave Sara and Jim the grand tour of the Silverfish and everybody had a great time. I got a big kick out of watching my friend Mr. Less-is-More talk to my idol, Mr. Monumental-is-More. At the same time, I couldn’t help wondering, “what if?” What if things had gone differently with American Zoetrope? Would Coppola have had a career like Jim with complete artistic control—and own his negatives? I realized that it couldn’t have happened and it shouldn’t have happened. Coppola had a different kind of talent, the talent that flourished on a large scale and was often enriched by battles with producers, studio heads and all the anti-art suits. More than any American director I can think of, his career has lurched about like a boat in a storm. And a lot of the stories this now very calm and wise man told me in the Silverfish were about how he did something in reaction to someone like Robert Evans breaking his balls.
Now of course, the thing I thought could never happen--has happened. Coppola is making movies on a smaller scale, and just like Jim, he has complete artistic control and now he owns his negatives. He’s even doing the distribution himself. It wasn’t something he actually planned (see David Poland’s interview below), it just kind of happened. He spent five years trying to make two epic films, “Pinocchio” and “Megalopolis,” and both of them fell through. But something that seemed to me like a hobby in 1989 had made him incredibly wealthy. Now, as he says, he can be a rich guy making films as a hobby. So we can look at “Youth Without Youth” and “Tetro” with the knowledge that they are made by the guy that made the Godfather trilogy, “The Conversation,” “Apocalypse Now,” “The Cotton Club” “Dracula,” “Peggy Sue Got Married,” and “Tucker.” And we can look at this guy who has reinvented himself over and over again using calamity as a fulcrum. People talk about how he’s become young again at 70 but of course that’s ridiculous. He was always at war when he was young and now he’s become the enlightened general who presides over the peace. This is just his latest reinvention, when he doesn’t need to struggle any more to find his greatness. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we get another Coppola at 75. If he has the desire to make something like “Megalopolis” in the future, and feels up to it—he will.
But for the moment, he’s utilizing his experience as Roger Corman’s assistant (45 years ago!) to bring these movies in on budget, the same skills he drew on when he headed off on that trip with “The Rain People.” I can’t wait to follow him wherever he takes us.
David Poland's interview with Francis Coppola
Monday, June 08, 2009
Last week, I read that beeTV, the latest in a series of so-called “recommendation engine” technologies that have emerged lately, announced they had raised eight million dollars. Here’s their video:
I think you’re all aware of the way Netflix uses complex computer algorithms to calculate what movies people like and make suggestions. Although I’m not crazy about the idea of reducing people’s tastes to mathematical formulas and psychological theories, apparently a lot of people find it quite useful. If you’re not a movie buff, but just enjoy movies, how else can you make a choice out of over 100,000 titles?
This kind of technology comes under the rubric of “data mining,” something that makes sense out of tremendous amounts of data, as Wired put it, “trying to make useful sense out of a gigantic dataset, typically rather noisy, completely unintelligible to the naked eye, and, despite its size, often painfully incomplete.” Sounds like an online video service to me. In addition to Netflix and beeTV, other recommendation engines I’ve discovered include WHiWA (“What I Watch”) and jinni.com. (And of course there are things like Pandora in the music world.)
Do these things really work? Netflix has a well-publicized contest going now which is offering a million dollars to anyone who can make their system 10% more effective. While no one has yet been able to reach that goal, some of the entrants have already made the algorithm over 8% more effective. (One of the top competitors for that million is Gavin Potter (aka “just a guy in a garage”), who is now working for….beeTV.)
So it does seem to be effective. Many people are watching the films that the software is recommending. (Of course there may still be a few bugs in the system, as this actual Netflix page above suggests.)
Another aspect of some “recommendation machines” is they allow you to pick a movie based on your mood, as you can see in the beeTV video.
Do you want to see a thriller? How about a sexy thriller? How about a sexy thriller comedy spoof? Jinni.com allows you to search by mood, plot, genres, time/period, etc. It even features “Story Tuners,” which are little sliders where you can fine tune your searches in the various categories, in case you’re in the mood for something approximately 70% Fantastic and 30% Well Known.
All this stuff raises what I think is a very important question: will “recommendation engines” become an ever-increasing part of the way people choose which movie to watch? After all, Rotten Tomatoes already has definitely had that kind of impact. Local critics used to have much more influence in their communities. Now that you mention it, there are a lot fewer formerly influential critics nowadays, largely due to the impact of the internet on newspapers’ bottom line.
Last week, Scott Kirsner asked the readers of his blog, “How Do You Discover Movies?”
“If you think about the last few movies you've seen (whether in theaters, on DVD, via iTunes or BitTorrent), how did you hear about them? Was it via a Netflix suggestion, a Variety review, an e-mail or Tweet from a friend? (Or maybe even an old-school billboard or TV commercial?)”
The large majority of Scott’s commentators made their choices because of recommendations from actual human beings--trusted friends, critics, and bloggers. They watched trailers. They heard about stuff from friends and acquaintances on Twitter and Facebook. They went to films made by their favorite directors and featuring their favorite actors. And even though they readers of Scott’s blog are likely to be very knowledgeable about film, I think this is the way it is for most people. But there are people investing millions of dollars in the belief that a lot of people will be open to the idea of letting their computers do the shopping.
These recommendation engines make me more than a little uncomfortable. I’d like to believe that people are more complicated than that. But even if I’m wrong, as my friend John Pierson told me, “it’s a terrible indictment of the state of public herding.”
Even if people are as predictable as that, movies aren’t. Take a movie like “Anvil.” On the outside it looks like a real-life “Spinal Tap,” and yes, it is funny in that way. Using one of these algorithms you might pass it by, as it’s a genre of one. If you hate heavy metal, it takes a persuasive human being to slice through your resistance and explain why you might like it. That’s the kind of thing that critics like Pauline Kael excelled at. She was a rock star. She led audiences through the power of her writing ability, intellect and persuasive gifts. Her reviews were thrilling events (sometimes more exciting than the movies she was championing). And I’m sorry, Rotten Tomatoes doesn’t fulfill that function. There are many wonderful critics working now, but the great age of the movie critic is over. And that’s a very sad thing.
Maybe this line from the jinni demo video says it all:
“Searching on jinni is like talking to someone who’s really listening to your words.
Sometimes you need a machine for that.”
Monday, June 01, 2009
I see that Criterion is bringing out Louis Malle’s “My Dinner with Andre” on June 23rd. That’s a cause for rejoicing.
I happened to be working at New Yorker Films when that film was in production, and as my boss, Dan Talbot, had a long-standing personal and professional relationship with Louis Malle, I got to read the script. I recognized it as an extraordinary piece of writing, but I told Dan that it was a terrible idea for a film. “This would be an award-winning off-Broadway play,” I said. “Why on earth does Louis want to film it?”
I wasn’t a complete philistine. I loved Rohmer’s “My Night at Maud’s” and I knew that you could make something very exciting and cinematic out of a conversation. But that was Jean-Louis Trintignant who’s interested in a kind of boring blonde woman, spending the night talking to the hot Francoise Fabian. Even in a Rohmer movie, you could always hope they would drop the Pascal and get down to business, but this was two guys chatting in a restaurant and they weren’t even gay. The words were fascinating, but they didn’t fly off the page like when I finally heard them out loud. Or more likely, as I’ve thought many times since, I read them, but I didn’t read them.
I saw “My Dinner with Andre” for the first time at the New York Film Festival. If you’ve seen it—and if you haven’t, do!—you know how mesmerizing it is. But because it was so good, I had trouble getting into it at first. I was somewhere else, punishing myself for not understanding its potential in advance. What a colossal dope I’d been! But even as I beat myself up, it was impossible to resist the film’s power, or Andre Gregory’s hallucinatory bassoon voice. Once I was able to listen, it hit me: he was actually talking right to where my mind was at that very instant. I wasn’t present in that theatre--I was back in my apartment, reading the script, maybe eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with the TV on in the next room. He was telling me that I wasn’t alive, or at least not as alive as I could be, and he was explaining why. Of course, by telling me that I didn’t have a full awareness of life, he was imbuing me with one right then and there.
People say that film, unlike theatre, is fixed. It’s not different if you see it on Wednesday instead of Saturday. I disagree. Each film changes as you change. Sometimes you see a film and it’s perfect for the place in time that you’re in at that moment. Years later, you can watch it and it might not have the same impact. For me, that night, my film was “My Dinner with Andre.”
If you know the movie, then you remember the ending, you can see Wally Shawn in that cab; you remember the Satie music; you remember how it made you feel. Lots of movies can leave you weeping, but “My Dinner with Andre” leaves you looking at the world a lot differently than when you entered the theatre. I remember the exact spot where I shook hands with Louis afterwards, right next to a certain door where people were spilling out into the lobby. He had that “really?” look that filmmakers often have when their films have just had their first major screening, so delighted that people liked it.
“My Dinner with Andre” moved down the street from Alice Tully into our (New Yorker’s) theatre, the Lincoln Plaza, where, despite great reviews, it didn’t do much business. Nowadays, Dan Talbot would pull “My Dinner with Andre” out of the Lincoln Plaza in a week or two, but those were different times. After a month or so, “My Dinner With Andre” started to do a little more business, then a bit little more, a little bit more, until it was a hit, and played for a year.
I doubt many people would argue with me if I say that “My Dinner with Andre” has become recognized as a classic.