The Lost Art of Conversation


The Academy Awards are being handed out this week, and excluded from the ceremony will be Avatar: The Restaurant Conversation. I had intended to call it My Dinner with Cameron, but Jim wouldn't return my calls.

This film of mine takes the Avatar story and alters the setting, and thus a good deal of the action. The entire futuristic tale is told through a supper chat in a Manhattan restaurant. The two participants are a U.S. Pentagon official and an Eastern mystic.

No one would confuse my screenwriting abilities for those of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, but I have to say it's a respectable piece of work. It returns to the big screen the art of extended dialogue, something long missing from Hollywood's ADD-addled darlings.

The film My Dinner with Andre is close to 30 years old now and remains as daring an artistic endeavor as anything James Cameron has ever imagined. That has to bother Jim, because word is My Dinner with Andre cost much less to produce than Avatar. Where Shawn and Gregory saved some dough was in shooting the entire film at a single table, and paying only three actors (themselves and a waiter). Cameron never considered this, and I think more film writers should, if for no other reason than to see if their story still holds up when reduced to a simple spoken tale.

These days you can find the words "lost art of conversation" in over 40 million places on the internet. There seems to be a sense that what Shawn and Gregory present in their film is damn hard to duplicate in the real world. Wonderful, meandering chats over wine or coffee that exceed mere chatter, never lose a sense of civility, and go beyond the pedestrian world of people and things into the rarefied air of profound ideas have apparently become as infrequent as a Scorsese acceptance speech.

With this in mind, I recently went back and watched the greatest conversation film of all time. Sensing an Oscar tsunami for Cameron's high-tech, big-action tour de force, it was refreshing to venture off to a simpler time in film, where one could be dazzled by mere dialogue. Movie critic Roger Ebert, with utter sincerity, once referred to My Dinner with Andre as "a thrilling drama...with more action than Raiders of the Lost Ark."

That's high praise for a bull session.

When was the last time you had a talk with someone in which you wished a recorder had been present, not because the information could later be used against that person, but because the richness of the dialogue, the unique qualities of the ideas bandied about, and the beauty of the language left you longing to preserve it?

When reaching the end credits of My Dinner with Andre, I felt a desire to both see more films of such simplicity (or disguised complexity), and to find more people in life capable of conversing with the ease and intensity of the featured characters.

A great conversationalist is a treasure to me, whether I'm part of the conversation or not. When I'm out and about I'm an avid eavesdropper and enjoy listening in on the lives of others, if only to capture a snapshot of their world. About once a year I come across a discussion that has me scheming for a way to thrust myself into the mix, less to add my two cents than to directly experience the spellbinding give and take.

These talks could be movie scenes in and of themselves—not an entire film, but a solid scene. I have yet to participate in, or overhear, a conversation that could make for a full-length feature film, but I bet there have been some throughout history.

I've always thought there is a film, or play, waiting to be enjoyed that offers nothing more than the collected private discourse of Hillary and Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal. The production would work solely because of the fascinating complexities of the couple involved, not because of the tawdry material or gossip factor. You couldn't make a workable play out of John and Elizabeth Edwards nor Mark and Jenny Sanford. The characters are the key, and Bill and Hillary are without peer in their Shakespearean presentation.

Until more of this sort of thing is attempted, however, I'll resign myself to this world of calamitous action and special effects, while continuing to long for extended and complex dialogue—the kind I can participate in, the kind I can eavesdrop on, and the long, beautifully scripted rhapsodic kind I can experience from the comfort of my theater seat.