Friday, December 9, 2011

Louis Malle | My Dinner with Andre

the world comes in quite fast
by Douglas Messerli

Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn (screenplay), Louis Malle (director) My Dinner with Andre / 1981

My Dinner with Andre was a kind of perfect match between two friends working in the theater, since Andre Gregory was seeking a way to share his experiences and Wallace Shawn was looking for a plan that was structured around a dialogue, just two people talking. How that was transformed into a film—almost inconceivable outside the most experimental of film endeavors—with a well established international director such as Louis Malle, is almost a kind miracle. And that the film succeeds, that we can sit back and enjoy this exhilarating conversation between the two men is even more astounding!

     Although the experiences that both are sharing come from actual events in their lives, the pair argued that they are not, necessarily, playing themselves, and that they would have loved to switch roles to prove that fact. Yet we sense a bit of exaggeration here, particularly in the case of Andre Gregory, simply because the experiences he relates, and evidently encountered, are so utterly original that it would be hard link them with another person, and they are so brilliantly recounted that it is difficult to imagine another playing his role.

     For nearly half the film Gregory is dominant as, answering occasional questions Shawn poses, he explains why he had left a successful career in the theater and his own family, moving temporarily to Poland to work with the famed Polish experimental theater director Jerzy Grotowski. Asked by Gregory to join his actors in their seminars, Grotowski turns the tables and asks Gregory to run the seminar. The American agrees on the condition that the actresses consist only of 40 Jewish women who speak neither English nor French; Grotowski agrees, and organizes a forest retreat in a Polish forest (although men are included in the group). The theatrical experiences and the descriptions of Grotowski's "beehive" reveal the elemental and spiritual changes that these actors undergo in creating a new kind of theater, one that alters the soul.

     Yet Gregory goes even further in seeking new enlightenment, joining an unusual agricultural community of men and women  in northern Scotland, traveling to the Sahara desert with the Japanese monk Kozan in the attempt to create a play based on seemingly miraculous coincidences with regard to the fiction The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and being buried alive on Halloween by a theatrical group in Long Island. In short, Gregory's life is one of a search for enlightenment as many individuals attempted through the later 1960s and early 1970s. His vision is akin to aspects of the hippie movement, in which society was declared dead or destructive, wherein personal possessions, cultural habituations, and political dogmas were perceived to have destroyed the individual, turning beings into robots instead of thinking and feeling people. Speaking of the culture of his time, Gregory notes:

                     They've built their own prison, so they exist in a state of schizophrenia.
                     They're both guards and prisoners and as a result they no longer have,
                     being lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they've made, or to
                     even see it as a prison.

In such an unfeeling world, the speaker summarizes, "I mean it may very well be that 10 years from now people will pay $10,000 in cash to be castrated just in order to be affected by 'something'." As Gregory notes, for a few moments during love one loses oneself, in a moment of ecstasy one is merged with the other, but then a few seconds later, the everyday routine of being returns, "the world comes in quite fast."

     During the second half of the film, the more nerd-like Shawn takes over, arguing that, although he comprehends what Gregory has been saying, the kinds of experiences that his friend has sought out are not available to most people, and that most people do not take Gregory's seemingly startling insights and coincidences in the same way. There is, he argues, a world of magic or science: although he might think twice about taking a trip after receiving a fortune cookie saying "beware of a voyage,"  he would still take the trip: "That trip is going to be successful or unsuccessful based on the state of the airplane and the state of the pilot, and the cookie is in no position to know about it."

     After Gregory argues that we have lost touch with the moon and the sky and the stars through our demand for being surrounded by things of pleasure, such as the electric blanket his friend has mentioned, Shawn speaks out:

                  Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. I
                  mean, because New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment
                  is cold! It's a difficult environment. I mean, our life is tough enough
                  enough as it is. I'm not looking for ways to get rid of a few things
                  that provide relief and comfort. I mean, on the contrary, I'm looking
                  for more comfort because the world is very abrasive.

Ultimately, what Shawn argues for is simple, a cup a coffee, the presence of his girlfriend, Debbie.

     In his wanderlust the brilliant raconteur Gregory has surely convinced those of us from a generation who grew up after World War II of his moral position. Many of us might agree with his summaries of life in the latter half of the 20th century. When I shared this film, however, with a class of students, most of whom were born after this 1981 film was made, there was almost no sympathy at all with Gregory's activities. My students nearly all sided with Shawn.

     And why should they not? These are young people in a depressed economy who have paid hard-found money to get a higher degree to help them in their careers, and maybe, allow them to find a market for their creative endeavors. They are, despite the differences of their cultural experiences and perceptions, the character Wally Shawn portrays.

     In fact, Gregory himself later questions his mad search for a new reality, for a way of living outside of what he sees as the frozen world of dead thought. Who did I think I was? he asks of himself, outrageously comparing his activities to those of Nazi architect Albert Speer, a cultured man who thought the everyday rules of life did not apply to him. Gregory, despite his declared perceptions, seems to have returned to the groove of everyday life, living his wife Chiquita and dining in fine restaurants such as the one the men are sitting, dining on quail, drinking good wine.

     There is throughout the film, despite its serious philosophical questions, a slight sense of satire about the whole thing. Gregory, after all, could only undertake his immense searches throughout the world by having enough money to do so, although others sought out such international enlightenment with little more than a knapsack and thumb. He is, quite obviously, a man with connections and some wealth. In one of the earliest speeches of the film Wallace Shawn describes his own changed life: I've lived in this city all of my life. I grew up on the Upper East Side. And when I was ten years old, I was an aristocrat. Riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now, I'm 36, and all I think about is money." One does not necessary need to know that Shawn was the son of New Yorker editor William Shawn and journalist Cecille Shawn to comprehend that he has undergone his own big changes in life. If theater has made Gregory successful, for Shawn it has made life difficult, forcing him to live at an almost impoverished level.

                      The life of a playwright is tough, it's not easy as some people think. You
                      work hard writing plays and nobody puts them on. You take up other
                      lines of work to make a living—I became an actor—and people don't
                      hire you. So you just spend your days doing the errands of your trade.

His girlfriend, Debbie, works hard at two different jobs. The wonderful dinner Gregory offers him of two quails, results only in Shawn's observation that he didn't realize that they would be so small.

     While Gregory hates what people call reality because it reconfirms the ordinary and deadening of life, Shawn argues that serious plays are about human alienation and help to make people aware of reality.

      Does our acceptance of the ordinary destroy our lives, turning what might have been the extraordinary into an inability to think, even to feel?

      These philosophical opposites have been at the heart of great, and not-so-great literature for centuries. From Plato's Cave to Lear's madness authors have created dialogues centered upon these very issues. It is less important to find a definitive answer to the questions these two viewpoints pose, I suggest, than it to ask ourselves these questions again and again. In the end, Gregory goes home, it appears, to what has now become a rather comfortable existence. Shawn, having the last word, observes:

                           I treated myself to a taxi. I rode home through the city streets.
                           There wasn't a street, there wasn't a building, that wasn't con-
                           nected to some memory in my mind. There, I was buying a suit
                           with my father. There, I was having an ice cream soda after
                           school. And when I finally came in, Debbie was home from
                           work, and I told her everything about my dinner with Andre.

And so the banal is linked to the sublime.

Los Angeles, December 8, 2011

1 comment:

  1. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Minimalist Wednesday at

    Keep up the good work!