Henry Miller December 26, 1891 - June 7, 1980
Dinner With Henry (1979)

Director: Richard Young

It's a classic question: Name a famous person, living or dead, you'd like to have dinner with. I imagine that a number of readers of this blog would say 'Henry Miller.' Indeed, he had a reputation for holding court at the dinner table, regaling his fellow eaters with opinions and reminiscences.

Dinner With Henry is a rare, 30-minute documentary about Henry Miller. It is exactly what the title implies: footage of Henry having dinner. With him at the table is the film crew, and actress/model Brenda Venus, to whom Henry was enamoured in the final years of life. Henry - at age 87 - spends the majority of his time speaking on a number of subjects, the most persistent of which is Blaise Cendrars. Occasionally, he complains about the food. That is all. It may not be of much interest to a general audience, but is a curious "slice of life" for any Miller fan who likes to imagine being at the table with him.

Brenda Venus wrote about the filming of this dinner, in her 1986 book Dear, Dear Brenda: The Love Letters of Henry Miller. Although her placement of the anecdote implies that it took place at the end of 1977, Miller says on film that he's in his "88th year," which would place the filming year as 1979 [1]. As Venus recounts, two filmmakers had requested to film Henry speaking freely about wine. When they arrived at Henry's home, he was in "an ill temper" explains Venus, who guessed that he'd had a bad sleep. When dinner time arrived, Henry was asked to "speak frankly and spontaneously." At first, his comments seemed negatively focused on the meal. It's unclear who prepared the meal, but Henry does not spare anyone's feelings by calling it "pitiful" and refusing to eat certain things, or complaining about the order of courses. With some coaxing from Brenda, Henry is finally set on track to various personal commentaries. Although he does offer some comparison between French and American wines, he doesn't offering any real opinion of the wines set before him, which had been the whole point of the film. "I kept encouraging Henry to say something about the various wines he was sipping," write Venus, "but he pointedly ignored me while regaling the camera with his powers as a raconteur" [all quotes from Venus, pp. 124-125].

The resulting footage was viewed a few days later. Although its purpose had not been met, it was still "so funny" that it would be used in a documentary about Henry. The history of this documentary gets a bit fuzzy after this. The Bibliography Of Primary Sources (Shifreen & Jackson) lists it as "F7," and states that it was produced in 1980. It is not listed with the Library of Congress or The California State Library, nor is it listed on the Internet Movie Database or any other film database on the net. The global library database, WorldCat, does have listings for it. VHS tape copies exist in the libraries of the following institutions: University Of N Carolina, University of Delaware, Southern Illinois University, and University of California, Santa Cruz.

WorldCat also helps identify the fact that one version was distributed on VHS in 1984, and the second was distributed in 1991. The earlier version is said to have been distributed by the Henry Miller Memorial Library. I was fortunate to have been hooked up with this film by a blog reader—thanks D.! I'll try to find out if the HM Memorial Library still has copies, or knows how it can be accessed by the public.

Henry Miller in UbuWeb Sound