What does it mean to be a human being? As with most human-related philosophical endeavors, there’s probably not a single answer to this question. Luckily, we have art to help us solve such riddles. Thanks to it, we can tap into an infinite source of knowledge and wisdom on what it means to be a human being.
Throughout the history of movies, films have tried to offer different perspectives on this crucial philosophical issue. Diving into the essence of being human is no easy task. One runs the risk of being too intellectual or too trivial. Hitting the sweet spot is a difficult task.
If there’s one movie that does it well, that’s My Dinner with Andre. Released in 1981, the film portrays two old friends, who, after years of being out of touch, reunite one night to have a casual dinner. Unexpectedly, the gathering ends up being a spiritual exercise of some sort.
Before we discuss how My Dinner with Andre helps us make sense of what it means to be a human being, let’s first review some important aspects of the movie.
The Movie: Sit and Wait (for an Impulse)
The film itself is a very peculiar creative exercise. Most of it takes place inside a restaurant called the Café des Artistes. This was a traditional New Yorker restaurant that became known for being the meeting point of some of the most important twentieth-century artists. This setting helps situate the movie within an artistic mood since the beginning.
It is here where the two main characters, Wallace (Wally) and Andre, two fictional characters interpreted by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory respectively, have their conversation throughout the movie; this seems like a rather interesting choice, considering that both, in real life, are intimately related to theatre. As a result, this gives the impression that what goes on in the movie is a replica of life, or in other words, a meta interpretation of the characters by the characters themselves.
“I could always live in my art but never in my life.” – Ingmar Bergman
There’s a third character who’s not an active participant in the conversation between Wally and Andre. However, he does seem to play a crucial role (don’t worry, I won’t spoil what happens) for a brief moment. I’m referring to the waiter, and if you pay close attention, you might see what scene I’m referring to (hint: it’s about the only time in the movie where Andre seems to get angry).
In general, throughout the movie, it is as if the characters are the alternative versions of Shawn and Gregory’s real-life personas. However, this is hard to tell since we don’t really know them. Nonetheless, one can tell that something is going on along those lines due to the nature of the conversation.
Shawn and Gregory talk endlessly about a number of things. They start discussing Andre’s whereabouts in the last years, which leads to him sharing some unusual exercises in his career as a theater director—for example, filling up a forest with actors wishing to quit their careers and asking them to improvise, just to end up being buried alive as a recreation of one’s death. After all, that’s about the only thing you can do when your creativity meets a dead end. If you think this all sounds like Jodorowsky, don’t worry, you are not the only one.
The conversation then branches to many other topics: coincidences, the nature of improvisation and impulsivity, what does it mean to be, death, and of course, how Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s ‘The Little Prince’ is really a fascist all-time favorite.
The entire film is itself an exercise in theatrics. The characters and the setting determine everything that goes on, and what goes on is at the same time defining the characters and the setting.
The Context: Zombieland
You’re probably starting to see how all these ideas connect to what it means to be a human being. Up to this point, I’ve discussed the obvious setting of the movie, but there’s another more significant setting that’s’ not easily at sight. I’m referring to what was going on in the world, particularly New York, at the time of the movie.
After a chaotic decade, there was a lot of global uncertainty about what would happen. The 70s had been an age of chaos: for the first time in human history, the economy seemed to control everything. Milton Friedman was the go-to economist, Margaret Thatcher was already in power in the UK, and soon would be Ronald Reagan in the US. Neoliberalism was about to be born.
That is somehow in the background of the movie. But what does this have to do with two ordinary guys sitting in a restaurant talking nonsense? It turns out that a lot. Our two main characters, especially Wally, are burdened by the world. Everything has become too complicated, and everyone is just so busy that there’s no time left to stop and be. Dues need to be paid, science is in charge, and symbols no longer represent sacredness.
The outcome: we are all too busy performing in a world that does not allow us to express ourselves freely. There’s nothing left to think beyond goals, plans, our careers. Individualism is king. The human in us cries. We are imprisoned in a world built by technology, disconnected from nature, a comfort dreamworld where we can’t leave aside our electric blankets and remind ourselves what it is to feel.
The Human in Us: Too Busy Performing
Don’t try to make sense of everything I’ve said. I’m aware that all these ideas feel like an assorted collection of random thoughts rather than a coherent discourse. It’s difficult to listen through the noise.
Most likely, you won’t be able to put the pieces together just from this text, not because you are unable to, but rather because it’s hard to look. Even more terrifying, even if you were able to, would you be able to keep things alive? Would you go back into the world only to keep on playing the game, or would you create a new language?
After all, that’s what My Dinner with Andre is all about. That’s what human beings are all about: the invisible worlds we create.
We need to learn how to be a human being.