Sunday, January 5, 2014

CANON OF FILM: "MY DINNER WITH ANDRE"

MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981)

Director: Louis Malle
Screenplay: Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory



“I could always live in my art, but never in my life.”
                                                            ----Ingrid Bergman in Ingmar Bergman’s “Autumn Sonata”


            At the beginning of “My Dinner with Andre,” we learn that a friend of Wallace Shawn has seen Andre Gregory while walking his dog crying in the park after he had watched “Autumn Sonata,” and heard Ingrid Bergman say that line. This informs us that this line has a great impact and importance for Andre; it doesn’t give us any foreshadowing per se about the movie. Sure, even though the line or the movie is never mentioned again, it is a subject that’s in a roundabout way discussed, but that’s because it’s what the characters, and particularly Wally’s interested in talking about, or to be more precise, what he seems to be interested in trying to get out of his old friend and colleague Andre, for a little while anyway.  You might know Wallace Shawn by his distinctive appearance and voice and some of the famous parts he’s played in such movies and TV shows as “Murphy Brown,” “Manhattan,” and “The Princess Bride.” (He’s the little bald-headed guy who keeps saying “Inconcievable!” in the latter) In real life, he’s a famous New York playwright, whose plays had been notorious for often being intense. (By some reports, audiences in his plays would scream almost as though they were on a roller coaster) Andre Gregory is an even more famous theatre writer/director/producer, and in fact he put on one of Shawn’s plays when he first started out. His work with an infamous theatre group known as “The Manhattan Project,” is legendary, as is his production of “Alice in Wonderland,” although strangely he left the theatre abruptly and out-of-character started traveling the world, almost cliché-like mid-life crisis search for a reason for being or something another. I don’t know why I’m explaining all this, because they go over much of it in the film, which Shawn and Gregory wrote out of numerous conversations they had together which Shawn tape-recorded and then structured into a movie script about two fictionalized versions of themselves, playing themselves and having a long elaborate conversation about everything from death, money, life, eh, Hitler’s architect, the dining practices of Tibetan monks, a theatre class taught in the Polish forest with a teacher who didn’t understand the students and vice-versa, and about a hundred other things. I can’t think of anything more redundant and unnecessary than giving a play-by-play of the conversation, it’s hardly important. What’s not said is just as important anyway. Louis Malle got a copy of the script, and told Andre, that he didn’t care whether he was hired, but make sure you don’t do anything other than the two of you and do nothing else. With a few exceptions at the beginning and end, Malle basically directs the film with just the two having the conversation, a couple perspectives, close-ups and a well-placed mirror that reveals the surrounding world around them as they discuss such things as whether climbing Mt. Everest is more realistic than the day-to-day happenings at a cigar shop. By the end of the movie, we've been all around the world, and seen two countering and coinciding perspectives on life, love, friendship, the theater, money and human behavior, and who knows what if anything will happen in the future for either of them. The result is not only one of the most influential films of all-time, but also one of the best and one of the most unique. Even for Malle, this film is the epitome of minimalism. Don’t mistake it for easy or simple; generally one of the toughest things to shoot is a dinner scene, much less an entire movie that composes of a dinner. (I personally in my writings, try to avoid them as much as possible knowing how hard they are to direct) It’s become not only an essential as a filmgoer, but has crossed into pop culture lore, even to being the inspiration for numerous parodies, the most famous of which is probably “My Breakfast with Blassie,” which stars pro wrester “Classy” Freddie Blassie and comedian/performance artist Andy Kaufman. I’ve watched the movie three times, and can’t wait to see it again and see and hear things new in it. I’ve definitely discussed certain films that might have been somewhat influenced by this film, but “My Dinner with Andre,” is as unique an experience as “2001…” is. The theater, dinner, two playwrights, the meanings of life, and idle intellectual conversation… just another one of those New York evenings.  
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