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My Dinner with Andre


I’m inclined to suggest a failure to appreciate the delights of My Dinner with Andre is inconceivable, but it takes all sorts. One might be a Wallace, one might be an Andre, or one might be suffering un grand Malle. The film, a protracted dinner conversation between director-writer-actor Andre Gregory and playwright-actor Wallace Shawn, has received increased exposure over the past year or two, owing to one of Andre’s detours into the idea that we’re all being brainwashed by “a world totalitarian government based on money”. There’s much more than just that in the film, of course, its appeal being that it doesn’t simply nudge up against pseudishness, it wrestles with it with wholehearted abandon, as erudite artiste Andre’s insights and anecdotes find an attentive but baffled and, at times, mortified audience in man-of-the-people Wallace.

The picture became an instant favourite when I caught it on TV one night, way back when (I had an increasingly dog-eared off-air VHS for years until it eventually arrived on DVD), and I used to enjoy gauging reactions of the uninitiated to its various courses, covering as it does territory often shied from in the movies. Andre is a questor to Wally’s stay-at-home comfort seeker, and the degree to which they’re chalk and cheese infuses and informs the film; even though they never have it out, they’re clearly politely in disagreement. 

Andre’s experiential flights derive from his need to find sustenance the theatre has not provided, and the early stages of his anecdotes, as he relates workshop experiences in Polish forests, elicit a “You wouldn’t want to be seen dead near any of this”, but they are never less than fascinating to hear. His mission is to discover a core reality, and as his quasi-theatrical excursions seek to encompass this, whereby, instead of exploring the character, the individual is the character: “You’re asking those same questions that Stanislavsky said the actor should constantly ask himself as a character: Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I come from…and where am I going? But instead of applying them to a role, you apply them to yourself”.

Or, as Pauline Kael put it, his “outpourings are those of the men and women of the theatre who became dissatisfied with the limits of stage performance and began to delve into para theatrical cults”. She celebrated the picture, but suggested “we’re put in the position of feeling, as Wally does, that Andre is talking ethereal gibberish”. Which isn’t my response at all. Quite the contrary, in fact, even if one might argue, by virtue of his very presence at this dinner with Wallace, he is revealed as a dabbler rather than a dedicated troubadour of the spiritual journey.

It’s the encounters that spring from these forays that yield the philosophical meat of the piece, however. The juxtaposition of Andre and Wally is itself curious. These are obviously roles engineered from their actual personas for effect. But while Wally is more the down-at-heel, salt-of-the-earth type to Andre’s suggestion of culture and wealth, both went to Harvard. Further, Wally admits in his introduction “When I was ten years old I was rich, I was an aristocrat… surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now, I’m 36, and all I think about is money” (Shawn’s movie career began a few years earlier with fellow New Yorker Woody Allen’s Manhattan). Wally presents himself as following his artistic muse, but in a self-effacing way (“The life of a playwright is tough. It’s not easy, as some people seem to think”, before detailing his daily tribulations, such as buying stationary). 

At least in terms of their movie avatars, Wallace, whose father edited The New Yorker, is hard-up (his girlfriend has to waitress). Both are Jewish, but it is Andre who peppers his anecdotes with Holocaust references; as much as he announces his intent is breaking the shackles of standard framings of reality and exudes the classical pose of the New York intellectual, he doesn’t seem to perceive the essential Hegelian thrust of fascism as another entrenchment mechanism (we aren’t quite talking the morbid wallow of Max von Sydow in Hannah and Her Sisters, but the subject nevertheless seems to be a recurrent baseline). There’s a tension between the privileged and the abstemious, the indulgent and soul-searching with Andre; it’s one that invites his own self-abnegating charges of hypocrisy. From the start, the choice of restaurant surprises Wallace (“Andre’s tastes used to be very ascetic. Even though people have always known that he has some money somewhere”).

It was Andre who introduced Wallace to theatre (he’s a decade Gregory’s junior), and there’s the sense in the latter of the mystified pupil, inclined to quit class in the face of the encounter (or as Kael has it, describing the former as “pragmatist and sensualist” and the latter as the picture’s “the star and the hero”, with Wallace “the earthly clown to Andre’s fool of God”). The comedy of Wallace’s incomprehension (but not out of stupidity) and small-mindedness (but not out of ignorance), is emphasised from the off in his fretting over their meeting and puzzled but inspired turns of phrase (“Apparently, George had been walking his dog in an odd section of town the night before, and he’d suddenly come upon Andre leaning against a crumbling old building and sobbing; Grotowski was a pretty unusual character himself. At one time, he’d been quite fat, then he’d lost an incredible amount of weight, and become very thin and grown a beard”). 

Up to the point where philosophical outrage gives him tongue, Wallace is limited to pressing for further details, offering input that goes nowhere (“Oh, when…when you mentioned the violets, it…it reminded me of that. It…it was about…um…people being…uh…strangled on a… on a submarine”), and observations regarding the courses (“Mmm, God. I didn’t know they were so small”). He even says “inconceivable” at one point.

Andre’s discourse takes in synchronicity (The Little Prince), the Findhorn community and its enormous vegetables, their naming of inanimate objects, feeds into Hassidism and the belief there are spirits in everything, animism, a flag with a Tibetan swastika infested with evil entities, a building with an unattached roof in order to welcome UFOs, and elementals (an encounter with a faun is detailed). 

The Montauk reminiscence particularly stands out; Gregory sets the scene in sinister fashion (“and the country out there is like Heathcliff country, it’s absolutely wild”). Montauk is perhaps best known in the conspirasphere for the MKUltra-with-bells-on Montauk Project, the inspiration for Stranger Things, and Andre does nothing to dispel the notion that it’s a deeply strange place. With regard to the specific location, he comments that “we borrowed Dick Avedon’s property; Dick Avedon was a NY fashion photographer who bought his place on Long Island in the late-70s (amongst his achievements was a decade-long affair with movie director Mike Nichols). Which serves to underline that, as indie and iconoclastic as Gregory presents himself, he’s very much part of the privileged classes. 

That Montauk should be the location of a death-and-rebirth ritual – or theatrical, if you like, but it’s very much in line with Simon Buxton’s Darkness Visible brand of shamanic practice – is striking in itself, then, its own kind of synchronicity (before the Montauk Project had entered into the mythic consciousness). 

Andre:  I think we’re all in a trance. We’re walking around like zombies, I don’t… I don’t think we’re even aware of ourselves or our own reaction to things, we… we’re just going around all day like unconscious machines and meanwhile there’s all of this rage and worry and uneasiness just building up and building up inside us.

There’s the nominal superfluity of theatre – no arguments there – due to the idea that “we’re all too busy performing” There’s a certain flourish in many of Gregory’s comments (“that I was squandering my life”), couched in the hindsight of the consummate raconteur, but his essential riff on the entrainment of society remains cogent and smacks of the kind of prescience only either the programmers or the awake can boast. Andre speaks of it in terms of basic interactions and inability to be honest or open, and also why the idea of using art to wake people up is redundant:

Andre: I mean, you know, they know their own lives and relationships are difficult and painful. And if they watch the evening news on television, well, there what they see is a terrifying, chaotic universe, full of rapes, and murders, and hands cut off by subway cars, and children pushing their parents out of windows. So the play tells them that their impression of the world is correct and that there’s absolutely no way out. There’s nothing they can do. And they end up feeling passive and impotent.

Of course, Gregory reveals himself as the sort who considered it legitimate to pass around an actual severed head during a performance of The Bacchae, so we have to couch him, at very least, in terms of one prone to glazed hyperbole for effect, and it’s curious that his agreement with Wally that societal malaise is a consequence of boredom comes as a result of talking about all his (to use the term loosely) New Age dabbling, yet he never once uses the word “spiritual”, or “God” (except in reference to Christian tradition). It’s an acute omission, because his entire discourse is essentially keyed to the absence of spiritual nourishment in the average life (and even more so, the average urban life). 

Andre: But has it every occurred to you, Wally, that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating, unconscious form of brainwashing created by a world totalitarian government based on money? And that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks. 

That is where he’s going, though; the world totalitarian government has enforced materialism as god through brainwashing, which inevitably gives way to boredom and torpor. Andre mentions a friend (Swedish physicist, Gustav Björnstrand) who no longer watches TV or reads newspapers or magazines: “He really does feel that we’re living in some kind of Orwellian nightmare now, and that everything that you hear now contributes to turning you into a robot”. 

Over the last three years, anyone vaguely aware has been required to do likewise in order to escape the effluent of lies. He also (using his concentration camp analogy) suggests New York is the perfect petri dish for the experiment (“They’ve built their own prison. And so they exist in a state of schizophrenia where they are both guards and prisoners, and as a result, they no longer have, having been lobotomized, the capacity to leave the prison they’ve made or to even see it as a prison”) What’s better than social media for inculcating both guards and prisoners? 

Andre: I mean, it may very well be that ten years from now, people will pay ten thousand dollars in cash to be castrated, just in order to be affected by something.

And then there’s the above… Some of Andre’s detail doesn’t stack up in the name of making a point, for example his objection to Wally’s electric blanket, as “comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquillity. Because it separates you from reality in a very direct way. But what would be an acceptable level? Central heating? A fireplace? Wearing warm clothes? Perhaps walking through NYC in your underpants in the winter months because “I like the cold” is the only honest option. I’d actually hasten more to the dangers of electric frequency on the system in repose (EM-wise), rather than simply disavow being toasty in bed, but the comfort analogy extends itself from the blanket to the iPhone; anything that distracts or insulates us too much from reality, to pacifying effect, is potentially dangerous. 

Which doesn’t mean Andre is correct when he asks “What’s the difference whether you accept the fortune cookie or the statistics of the Ford Foundation? It doesn’t seem to matter. The remark doesn’t make much sense, as Wally points out. Nor is his phrasing in response to other cultures looking askance at western responses well judged (“I mean, really, the… the Africans would have probably put their spears into all four of us, cause it would have driven them crazy”). 

Andre: I mean, science has been held up to us as a magical force that would somehow solve everything. Well, quite the contrary, it’s done quite the contrary, it’s destroyed everything.

But I’m wholly on board with his denial of Wally’s refutation of concepts of synchronicity and concomitant invocation of (mainstream) science: indeed, Andre very cogently compares science to magic, which is precisely what it is. The issue howver, is being able to see the problem and then overcome it. Andre has returned from his foray, retreated if you like, into the arms of that which he professed he was trying to escape. So while he critiques Wally’s embrace of purposefulness, of always doing, doing (like buying stationery) –  Because I really do believe that if you’re just living mechanically, then you have to change your life he knows well that his very presence at their dinner is part of the same (he’s the one who gave Wally the call, for an audience, hardly the kind of thing someone on the farm in western Tibet would have done).

Andre finishes on “the semblance that there’s firm earth” and the ephemeral nature thereof: “A wife. A husband. A son. A baby holds your hands, and then suddenly there’s this huge man lifting you off the ground, and then he’s gone. Where’s that son?” It’s a moment where Louis Malle allows himself the smallest stylistic flourish, if you will, leaking in Erik Satie’s First Gymnopedie as a poetic sign off. Some have labelled Gregory’s discursions solipsistic; they’re anything but. He isn’t questioning the existence of a broader reality, only society’s presumption in restricting its parameters or accounting for its paradigm under false pretences.

Perhaps it’s Kael’s closing observation in her review that is most trenchant, as My Dinner with Andre’s construction, in drawing the viewer in as it does, announces itself as self-reflexive, opining the demise of meaningful theatre by presenting a piece of theatre (or stagecraft) that is meaningful: “the story of the search beyond theatre turned into theatre, or, at least, into a movie”. There is profundity here, but it’s spun by those in positions of consummate comfort, who had and would offer variably rewarding sustenance for entertainment and/or edification in Hollywood movies across decades to come. As much is announced in Andre’s choice of venue (even if it was actually filmed at Jefferson Hotel, Richmond, Virginia): Café des Artistes.

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