Saturday, September 22, 2012


Starring/Written by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory

Also starring Jean Lenauer as the Waiter

Music by Allen Shawn 

Edited by Suzanne Baron

Cinematography by Jeri Sopanen

Directed by Louis Malle

My Dinner With Andre consists almost entirely of a meandering conversation between two friends, Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, who haven't seen each other in awhile and meet up at a nice restaurant. At least that's how it's supposed to come off. It is thematically focused and precise in how it explores two men who find themselves facing personal and professional challenges in their lives, but it is crafted in just such a way as to give the illusion of a long, free-form conversation between two friends catching up on recent events. It's similar to a play that has been directly adapted for screen with only minimal modifications to conform to cinematic values.

Except . . . it isn't quite like that. Basic techniques involving cutaway shots of the waiter's ambiguously irritated face (maybe he's just tired, maybe he just always has that expression on his face), and the realistic soundscape of a restaurant with its tinkling glasses, and subdued hush of conversation punctuated by an occasional laugh or raised voice give it a strange near-documentary feel. The two friends speak as though they are actually in a restaurant. The acting style is not theatrically elevated, and the audience is invited to listen in on things through Wallace Shawn's first person narration in the opening scenes as he makes his way down cold New York streets to meet his friend.

Wallace Shawn is a playwright and actor who finds himself short on work in both areas. He is supported by his wife who works as a secretary. Andre Gregory is a theatrical director who has spent a number of his recent years having unusual artistic experiences and spiritual journeys with people like Jerzy Grotowski and a Buddhist monk. Shawn has bills and debts. Gregory has a trust fund, perhaps, and never seems to worry about money. They are playing versions of themselves. That is to say, if you've never heard of either of these guys, Wallace Shawn is playing Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory is playing Andre Gregory, but I suspect there is some degree of fictionalization going on, but I couldn't, on a first viewing, tell you in what areas of the story, and to what degree.

Not that it's essential to know what's biography and what's fiction, but it is interesting to note that part of what Shawn and Gregory are wrestling with in their conversation has to do with how a person within a technological society can have a genuine experience of reality, and part of what I, as an audience member, was wondering was, "How much of this script is based on real life events, and how much made up?" Shawn and Gregory also talk about how people often times perform themselves in everyday life, how they take on roles, and here these two are playing themselves on screen. But they don't come across as characters in the usual sense. They actually seem quite candid and ordinary even when they are grappling with weighty philosophical and existential issues or describing bizarre adventures. The very fact that they are playing versions of themselves within a movie actually, in this case, seems to kind of tone down and distill who they might be in their everyday private lives, or in the course of their careers in the theatre. No grand declamations or sudden reversals, no cutting accusations, and no transformations into mythic beasts or thundering robots, although Gregory details at length some wild visions which seem right out of a Hayao Miyazaki film.

There is a kind of basic philosophic conflict between these two friends, although it is grappled with in a civilized fashion. Shawn is a skeptic, a believer in scientific knowledge and the joys and comforts of daily, domestic existence. Gregory is a mystic, seeing patterns and hidden connections where Shawn sees only coincidence and superstition. Gregory is concerned that the advance of high tech capitalism is creating a kind of hallucinatory hell on earth of hyper-consumption, alienation, dehumanization, and wage slavery that constitutes a new, insidious form of totalitarianism in which artistic elites such as himself are the new Albert Speers, holding the lower classes in deadly contempt. Shawn is sympathetic to Gregory's concerns, but cannot buy into mysticism, and sees no way of returning to a pre-rational point of view. The way these two men hash out their differences is a model of how people can agree to disagree and not shut each other out or retreat into ideological posturing or dogma. In this sense, My Dinner With Andre is, perhaps unintentionally, a moral film. Watching it, I felt like I wanted to try to be more humane towards the people I know in my life, even towards those I would consider enemies or fools. Shawn and Gregory model this kind of humanity and civility, once again probably unintentionally, for the audience.

These two guys need to get back together and hash out what has gone on in the world since 1981. I'd love to listen in . . .

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