08/03/2011 06:10 pm ET | Updated Oct 03, 2011

The Movie Dinner

A few years ago my wife and I went to our first "movie dinner." It was not an evening at the movies, nor were we sitting in front of a screen with plates of food precariously balanced on our laps. There was no need to eat quietly lest any noise disrupt the viewing. Instead, we were a group of 10 people at a different kind of dinner party. Friends asked us if we wanted to come to a movie dinner, so we said yes. We were instructed to view two films that had been selected in advance of the evening and be prepared to discuss the films over dinner, led by one person who would moderate the discussion.

The evening began with the customary meeting of familiar and unfamiliar people, the serving of wines and cheeses and varied small groupings in conversation as we stood about the living room. There was little said about the movies we had seen; in fact, when the films came up, there was the expectation that we wait until we sat down to dinner. When we did, Bob, our moderator and a university professor who teaches film, took over.

We had joined a movie dinner group that had begun some years ago, but Bob reiterated the rules, I think not just for the sake of the newcomers. We would speak about each of the two films in turn and then about the two of them. Only one person would speak at a time: in other words, there would be no breaking up into pairs or small groupings, as so often happens at a dinner party. While technical considerations about lighting, set design, use of cameras, script construction and the like were fine, we were not a movie industry group, so we need not try to do more than share our thoughts, feelings and experience of the films. Bob did not offer why he had chosen these particular films.

I have been to many dinner parties in my life, and many have been lovely evenings, with fine conversation and food. But this movie dinner (and subsequent ones) was different, better, if you will: the conversation was focused on the films, but the topics they evoked were broad and about what matters most to us, like family; loss; love and its perturbations; desire; freedom; virtue and human failing; evil; generosity and selfishness; faith; hope and despair; aging, loneliness and community; home and country; and living and dying. The talk was unremittingly lively and not abstract, because it was rooted in the people and stories we had watched. The conversation moved around the table, and no one monopolized or was quiet. The moderator kept us to the rules, encouraged our expression and was never pedantic. We came to know ourselves and our dinner partners all the more from what was said.

We all had our ideas, as well, about why Bob had paired the movies he selected, although he usually said that he had not been so calculating. But good movies, new and old, renowned or arcane, tell timeless tales that touch our hearts and unleash our musings, so we never had trouble offering our thoughts about how the two films connected.

Since that night, we have gone to this movie dinner group two or three times a year. After talking it up with friends in Connecticut, we began another group there. Among the movie pairings we have watched are "Big Fish" and "Babette's Feast," "The Visitor" and "The Great Debaters," "The Magnificent Ambersons" and "Hannah and Her Sisters," "Hotel Rwanda" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" (not my doing!), "Cool Hand Luke" and "The Ninth Day," and "Joyeux Noel" and "The Bicycle Thief." Other notable films (that can be widely paired) are "Detective Story" (1951), "Chariots of Fire," "Twelve Angry Men," "Crash," "Dead Man Walking," and (of course) "The Godfather." So far, no one has chosen "The Hangover" or "Transformers" (or any of the "Harry Potter" films).

For sure, the choice of movies -- their subject, story, acting, meaning -- makes a difference. But it is the people that make the movie dinner an evening to remember, with the help of a good facilitator. The rules are important, especially one person speaking at a time so that the conversation engages everyone. An ongoing group with regulars and new additions grounds the evening in familiarity and comfort yet adds the garnish of welcome unpredictability. Food always helps, but the evening is not about the food, so don't get distracted by thinking there needs to be a gourmet meal. The dinner is actually about consuming and digesting the films, the conversation and the friendships. That's quite a meal in itself.

The opinions expressed here are solely Dr. Sederer's own as a psychiatrist and public health advocate. He receives no support from any pharmaceutical or device company. For questions you want answered, reviews, commentary and stories, visit Dr. Sederer's website at