Monday, April 18, 2011

When Andre Met Shawn: A Meal To Remember

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in My Dinner With Andre (1981).

Have you ever been in a restaurant and tuned out your companions in order to eavesdrop on a more interesting conversation taking place at the next table? Such behavior is taken for granted by the late director Louis Malle in his eloquent My Dinner With Andre (1981), which remains an appetizing treat. Three decades later, the talk is still illuminating as playwrights Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, also an actor, portray some semblance of themselves when they discuss everything from the universal to the intimate. Permitted to listen in, the audience can satisfy its nosiness while being nourished by the encounter.

There is virtually no physical activity in the 110-minute film, generating the satirical collection of My Dinner with Andre action figures in Christopher Guest’s Waiting for Guffman (1996). After an initial journey from New York City’s Lower East Side on the subway, Shawn arrives at a posh eatery (actually shot in Virginia!) to meet Gregory. The two men just sit, savor the food, drink wine and chat, with a few brief interruptions by a slightly disdainful waiter (Jean Lenauer). What keeps it all lively is the sparkle of the dialogue, written by the duo and culled from hours of their taped discussions. 

Shawn is a cherubic little guy with a nasal voice and a bemused outlook. Gregory, tall and thin, comes across as intense, bordering on possessed. The contrast in demeanor is played out in their respective philosophies: Shawn the pragmatist versus Gregory the mystic, a man beset by omens and synchronicities. Earlier, the former character explains in a voice-over that he hasn’t seen his old friend for four years and has, in fact, been avoiding him. During that time, rumors have filtered back to Shawn of Gregory’s near-nervous breakdown following a series of restless, relentless travels throughout the world.

At first, Shawn seems as if he’d rather not know the details, but soon becomes entranced, emitting an occasional “Wow!” about Gregory’s work in experimental theater and pilgrimages to Poland, India, the Sahara, Tibet and Scotland. When the vagabond describes his vision of a minotaur at a Yuletide mass, however, the skeptic can only say “Well, so that was Christmas?”

Shawn and Gregory, still enjoying their dinner
As Gregory’s monologue turns from globetrotting to his gloomy assessments of modern life, Shawn starts to resist. He vigorously defends feeling attached to some conveniences, which his ascetic pal sees as a buffer against reality.  “I would never give up my electric blanket,” Shawn complains. “New York is cold...I’m looking for more comfort because the world is very abrasive.”

Gregory counters with: “But, Wally, don't you see that comfort can be dangerous? I mean, you like to be comfortable and I like to be comfortable too, but comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquility.” He’s in a back-to-the-land phase, partly inspired by his visit to Scotland’s Findhorn community, where residents communicated with the “nature spirits” overseeing plant life. (Broccolis reportedly were so happy that they grew to gigantic proportions.) He thinks the rest of Western civilization by contrast resembles a concentration camp, built by the inhabitants imprisoned therein. Disillusioned with theater, he feels compelled to examine death – his own and that of the planet, where everyone is somnambulant: “People today are so deeply asleep that we put on superficial plays that help them sleep better.”

Boredom, in his view,  is “a self-perpetuating, unconscious form of brainwashing created by a world government based on money... Somebody who is bored is asleep and somebody who’s asleep will not say, ’No!’” In a chillingly apocalyptic discourse, Gregory intones that “The sixties was the last burst of the human being before he’s extinguished. History and memory are right now being erased.” The only way to prepare for increasingly “savage” lawlessness, he warns, may be to find “pockets of light, like Findhorn... Islands of safety to maintain the species through the coming Dark Ages.”

In the previous Middle Ages, Gregory points out, an underground mystical order existed to preserve the light. He quotes Martin Buber: “Every action should be a prayer.” Shawn, a bit spooked, does not wish to explore the enormity of this doomsday scenario. He wants to live as peacefully and pleasantly as possible, free of forebodings.

The viewer can identify with each of their mindsets – Gregory’s pessimism bordering on divine madness and Shawn’s escapism tinged with hope – so My Dinner with Andre is a perfectly balanced film. Yin and yang. Humorous despite its morbid subject matter. Demanding wakefulness from those who dare to overhear.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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