The Taser's Edge

My Dinner with Andre (dir. Louis Malle, 1981)

If you like Richard Linklater (Waking Life, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset) or a host of Woody Allen films, then you will likely enjoy My Dinner With Andre.  If those films make you want to run away, then this one will make you want to run away even faster.

In My Dinner, Wallace Shawn (most famous from The Princess Bride, and yes, he does say the word “inconceivable” at least once in this film) and Andre Gregory play versions of themselves, acting out a script drawn from their own recorded conversations, about subjects from their own lives.  And all but a few minutes of the movie are set as a conversation between the two men at a table in a Manhattan restaurant.

The whole movie is available, happily, in 13 videos on YouTube.  This section from late in the film doesn’t really spoil it, but it does give you a good feel for the main points-of-view.  Here Andre Gregory (played by Andre Gregory) talks about hope for human existence after the fall of Western society due to our lack of truly experiencing life, and then Wallace Shawn (played by Wallace Shawn) responds:

As I already said, this movie was based on real conversations.  In a Criterion edition interview by Noah Baumbach, Andre Gregory says that the transcripts of the conversations (3 months worth, with 2-3 conversations a week) on which the script were closely based was 1,500 (yes, 1,500) pages long, single-spaced, on about 80 different themes, which were then pared down and revised for the 110 minute movie.

The time in which My Dinner with Andre was written and produced (late 70s to 1981) is important to understanding its characters’ outlooks.  Andre is an interesting spokesperson for relatively new New Age ideas of the time and the hope they offered for a brighter human future.  Although I don’t think he ever uses the phrase ‘New Age,’ Andre does talk at length in the film about his experiences with the pioneering New Age community at Findhorn, Scotland.

For me, by the end, Andre’s quest for enlightenment comes off as entirely self-absorbed.  One of his own crazy stories metaphorically sums this up (from 31 minutes in, long before the excerpt above).  Here Andre is talking about how he travelled by camel through the Sahara Desert to stage a version of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince on location, with the title character played by a Japanese Buddhist monk named Kozan, whom Andre had met in New York.  For my reading of these lines, replace “the desert” with “life”:

The desert was pretty horrible, and it was pretty cold.  We were searching for something, but we couldn’t tell if we were finding anything.  You know that once Kozan and I, we were sitting on a dune, and we just ate sand.  No, we weren’t trying to be funny.  I started, then he started, and we just ate sand and threw up.  That’s how desperate we were.  In other words, we didn’t know why we were there, we didn’t know what we were looking for.  The entire thing was just completely absurd, arid, and empty.  It was like a, like a last chance or something.

To me, this movie is fascinating and entirely worth seeing.  I highly recommend it.  And I’d be interested in knowing if Andre comes off as completely self-absorbed to you, too.

Interestingly, in the Criterion interviews, when Noah Baumbach interviews Wallace Shawn, Shawn says he really didn’t like his character (or the part of himself which it portrayed), whom he saw as entirely fear-based.  My read was different (an odd thing to say, since Shawn is effectively talking about a version of himself).

While Shawn’s character’s defense of the Enlightenment science-ification of everything as a means to making the universe more ordered and less scary (found at the end of the excerpt above) doesn’t work for me at all, the biggest ray of sunlight I found in the entire film (which is, at some level, a film about hope and our sources of hope) was from his character, when he talks about enjoying his quiet life.  Admittedly, his character clearly does not actually enjoy that life and has previously complained about his lack of success, but the joy in the everyday that he claims to have is something I find incredibly admirable.

I really desire to have that greater contentment, greater joy, in daily life, in simple things, which Wallace Shawn’s character argues for.  Most of the time I am much more like Andre, constantly asking myself those Stanislavsky questions (Who am I?  How did I get here?  Where am I going?  How do I get there?) that Andre, a theatre director and actor, says we must ask of ourselves in order to have an awakened life, and not realizing the danger which Andre bears out–curving and winding our way ever deeper into self-involvement.

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