Die Softly

Action movies may seem old hat these days, but they had to start somewhere. We go back to the pre-Schwarzenegger years, when a movie audience thirsty for speed and thrills could only turn to My Dinner With André.

The beginning of My Dinner with André is an absolute blitzkrieg of action. Let’s say it right up front: It’s the definition of action in cinema. It’s hard to remember now that early action movies, the Die Hards and Rambos and Toxic Avengers with their flame-prone vehicles and tumble-happy characters, were merely extending the idea of action already developed in films like MDWA. Directed in 1981 by Louis Malle (and written by Wallace Shawn and André Gregory), the epic requires all commentaries on action to necessarily reference the genius in its opening scene. And what is more, the painful synthesis of life and art in that scene is something I still carry within me.

I remember the scene well, and my interest is actually less with MDWA specifically than it is with the personal sentiment and allegory it brings up, because I first saw it with Rebecca, my ex, fresh off a huge fight. We were at dinner ourselves, first quibbling over who would balance the checkbook, then escalating into a reexamination of our lives. It wouldn’t work out, we both knew it, and the movie was probably the last thing we’d do together. The Reagan recession and my own time bomb of inner turmoil clashed almost daily with the vestiges of Becca’s previous failed marriage, lost sibling (overdose, not Vietnam), and Datsun with its two-toned passenger door. Seriously, the door was a marker of our larger failures, our inabilities to blend. The funny thing was, we got pissy with the waiter as a way to resolve the intra-dinner fight, making us almost late for the movie. We ran down the street—I can see the puddles I missed, and the one Becca hit, splashing dirty water on her apricot skirt—and shuffled inside before the door swung shut. Then, remarkably and symmetrically, the pattern of our lives was rebroadcast when the titles rolled.

In technical terms, the moment I have in mind is called the ‘opening’ scene. It shows Wallace Shawn walking across a street. Purposefully, it isn’t just any street—it’s a street in New York, a city now famous for its frenetic pace and general atmosphere of action. (I’m not sure if MDWA was the movie that gave New York its reputation for fast action, but it now seems likely. David Denby, writing in the New Yorker, neglects to associate the two, but he also denigrates Tarantino.) Shawn immediately—out of nowhere!—has to avoid a car, which we take to symbolize hurried modern technology and its concomitant pressures of efficiency and productivity. His face is tired, frustrated. Remarkably, though, the action is peppered between street and subway—street, then subway, then, like that, back to street. It’s nearly subliminal, it’s so fast. And this is just the setup.

Superior action scenes depend on layering and staging for their effectiveness. We know this now from Schwarzenegger, but we learned it from Malle. So, as it were, we see all of this at once: Shawn continuing down the sidewalk, foot after foot, coat held closed against the prevailing wind, hand on buttons, head down, then up, then down, cars on the street, clouds up above, bricked buildings on all sides, extras everywhere, either on the sidewalk or in their cars or barely visible—wait, visible at all?—in the buildings up above. The multiple and dizzying storylines barrage our senses: He’s on the sidewalk, but it’s partly cracked, and we can’t help but wonder who’s responsible for fixing those cracks, the city or the building owner? Because different boroughs I know have different regulations. This open-endedness deepens the swirl of motion as pacing arcs from stage right to stage left, layer upon layer of movement, cinematic baklava.

It almost goes too fast to catch it all. The blinding wind that attacks Shawn’s jacket, can he withstand it? What about the piercing voice-over we can barely keep up with? He’s supposed to meet Gregory, the Broadway director—will he make it? He has to if we believe the title of the film, but there’s so much motion, like a microfilmed spool of 1930s Pravda on fast-forward, that we hover on the end of our seats and hold our breath.

Finally, finally, Shawn gets to the restaurant. Unbelievably, to cap it off—Jesus, how much can we take? I remember asking Becca, a reprieve in the icy aura—Shawn reaches a clenched fist into his pocket and extracts a tie. He ties it around his neck, and then, utterly, strongly, without much sweat, opens the restaurant door and cuts inside.

The scene is behind us. We need the rest of the film to catch up.

After the movie, Becca and I walked our final walk to our apartment, talking about Shawn and Gregory’s conversation, even though that small part after the action was anticlimactic; people don’t go to see MDWA for the tagged-on dinner scene. So Becca and I talked, into all hours of the night. Like Gregory, she had seen Bergman’s Autumn Sonata and had been taken by the character’s line, ‘I could always live in my art, but not in my life,’ and she also didn’t know how to react to having that point beaten into her with one Woody Allen movie after the next.

But that night, when we made love for the last time, after ginseng tea in clay mugs we had once thrown ourselves—that night was about the pace of life. Knowing we had to run to catch the movie, and that the movie itself was about running, was eerily significant. Realizing the beautiful symmetry between Shawn’s deliberate leaps and dashes and our lives was nearly unbearable, density of action reverberating in the density of meaning. Perhaps for the first time I had sweated with anxiety over the movement of art, of life. Becca and I took that singular moment to break away. Forever.

As all action scenes refer to MDWA, for me all thoughts on a life no longer lived return to that day and that dinner.

Benjamin R. Cohen teaches at Lafayette College and lives in Easton, Pa., with his family. He is the author of Notes From the Ground: Science, Soil, and Society in the American Countryside (2009) and Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food (2019). More by Benjamin R. Cohen