I have long claimed that film, as an art form, is more an extension of literature than it is photography. By that I mean that, as John Huston, Orson Welles, Ingmar Bergman, and other great film directors believed, one simply cannot make a great film without a great screenplay. But, one can make a great film without great visuals. Never has there been a better exemplar of that reality than Louis Malle’s 111 minute long, 1981 drama My Dinner With Andre. It is a perfect example of what I have dubbed cinemature. There are some nicely composed shots, and some well-framed close-ups, but the film simply does little to play with the visuals; and the truth is that most films simply do not need such, if there is a good screenplay from which to feed off of. Of course, a great visual style, or visual flourishes, can add to a great screenplay, but, lacking that great bit of writing, no amount of visual wonderment can make a film that one will not yawn to after the third or fourth time watched. This is why so much of recent cinema, especially from Hollywood, is so forgettable. Video game level stories, paper-thin characters, and computer graphics simply do not add up to art. Individually, one of them can contribute to art, if done well, but done poorly, they are detractions. And, sans a good underlying screenplay, driven by character and not plot, nothing can save that sort of film from instant forgettability.
My Dinner With Andre is not forgettable. Nor is it many of the other things that bad critics and lazy thinkers have labeled (or libeled) it the last three decades. It simply is a tour de force dialectic between two slightly above average intelligence wannabe intellectuals. That neither man is as smart as he thinks he is, is not the point. Nor is the fact that both are demonstrably smarter than most of the people who will watch the film. The point of the film is that these are two individuals interested in things beyond themselves. They are not solipsists. Solipsism is one of the great flaws of modern culture, along with the attendant narcissism that seems to be inevitable with such types. And it is this factor- that both men/characters seem to be genuinely interested in each other’s opinions, that sets them apart from most viewers, and therefore sets them above, as well, and humans simply detest difference. Superiority is difference, and that it also means better makes it doubly annoying to most. This is something that the many Warholian arts films of the 1960s and 1970s, equally dependent upon talk, could not come close to matching.
The plot of the movie has been recounted many times, so here it is, in brief: Wally Shawn plays a character much like his real self- a playwright struggling to get along, and the scion of New York’s elite media. He is the film’s narrator, and is on his way to have dinner with an old friend of his, Andre Gregory. Via Shawn’s narration, Gregory is an eccentric producer and director of theater, who dropped out of sight some years earlier to pursue esoteric jaunts about the world, in search of himself, in midlife crisis mode, or some other such banality. While Gregory had helped Shawn’s career early on, Shawn developed an aversion to him, but via circumstances, felt compelled to join Gregory for dinner, especially after hearing that Gregory was in sad shape; having left Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata, after hearing Ingrid Bergman utter the line, and was shattered by this dialogue: ‘I could always live in my art, but not in my life.’
Their meeting is at a snooty New York restaurant. Yes, it really was a set in Virginia, but why do almost all the reviews have to insist upon this, since the film clearly is not set all in real time? In the beginning, there are clear elisions of things Shawn details, and ther differences between the two men are marked- Shawn is short, balding, rumpled, unsophisticated, whereas Gregory exudes élan, charm, and style. He is also the clearly richer of the two men, and knows his way around the restaurant. Both men are clearly political liberals, although Shawn leans toward working class humanism and Gregory toward New Age spirituality. Another point most reviews insist on is a claim both men made that they were not playing themselves, and if they redid the film they would play each other’s character. Yet, clearly, in quirks and acting, this would not work. While they may not be ‘themselves to the 100th percent, they are themselves to the 97th or 98th percent.
During the first 45 minutes or so, minus the first ten introductory minutes, Gregory dominates the conversation, speaking on all sorts of topics: his leaving theater in the mid-1970s; going with Jerzy Grotowski, a famed Polish theater director, to some forest in Poland to find inner peace by performing silly rituals, while acquiring the nonsense name Yendrush; a trip to the Findhorn colony in Scotland; a trip to the Sahara with a Buddhist monk named Kozan, who subsequently moved in with Gregory’s family; an attempt to do a dramatize Antoine De Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince; and a Halloween death ritual on the Long Island estate of photographer Richard Avedon, amongst others. He also claims to have had supernatural and psychedelic experiences, such as being at a Christmas Mass and seeing a huge creature appeared with violets growing out of its eyelids, and poppies growing out of its toenails. Midway through the film, Shawn starts to reassert his own views- particularly about the absurd need to go to extreme places just to feel alive, arguing that the cigar shop opposite the restaurant is just as interesting as the top of Mount Everest, because reality is fairly uniform (a position I have always maintained)- the trick to enjoying life is not in the perceived put the percipient, and as the film heads into its last half hour, he unloads on Gregory how he really feels of all his friend’s mystical nonsense; about hoe he understands but does not really understand Gregory’s plight; how he prefers the comfort of an electric blanket, and how he seeks more comfort, not less. He then declaims he enjoys reading the autobiography of actor Charlton Heston and defends rationalism and the scientific method, even if he sometimes reveals that he, himself, does not quite understand all he pretends to. His best moment comes in the scene where he questions the validity of fortunes from fortune cookies, and states that if the message says not to get on a airplane, he’ll pause a moment, but still get on because the cookie is in no position to know whether or not the plane trip is doomed.
The two men soon come to the close of their night. Gregory chimes in by asking who he and Wally are, and his description of the growth of a man reminded me of one of my own dad’s favorite songs, Sunrise, Sunset, from Fiddler On The Roof. Shawn then heads home, as Erik Satie’s great Gymnopaedie #3 plays (in the film it is incorrectly labeled the first Gymnopaedie, but it is the 3rd, the same tune that recurs in Woody Allen’s 1988 drama Another Woman). He decides to take a cab home, after having taken the subway to meet Gregory (and what a treat, in an odd way, it is to see the bad old days of over-graffitied subway cars). He then notices that almost everywhere he looks in Manhattan he is surrounded by memories of times spent with family, friends, and lovers. He then heads home and lets us know that when he got home, he told his girlfriend, Debby, all about his dinner with Andre.
But, as in all great art, it is not necessarily the what that the art conveys that lends it its greatness, but the how. Despite almost all the critical focus on what the two friends in the film discuss over eats, it is the how captured that defines the film. While there are no great masterful compositions nor daring framings in the film, the very understatedness and conventionality of the close-ups, and half body shots, and the reaction shots of both men (often in reflected shots off mirrors), is what forces the reader to subliminally focus on the words that are stated. And this is where the film does something truly remarkable, and something no other conversation-based film (including Melvin Goes To Dinner, Before Sunrise, Mindwalk; but, interestingly enough, not Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation) does. In an interview, I once compared My Dinner With Andre to Chris Marker’s La Jetee and Bela Tarr’s Satantango, in terms of its innovatory quality:
Marker’s film is 99% still photographs with narration, but, in recall, the mind animates the scenes. Marker thus achieves empathy in a profound manner, by literally altering the remembered reality in the viewer. Tarr’s film does a similar thing. This seven hour magnum opus focuses so relentlessly on the tiniest moments for the longest time that, again, in recall, the mind compresses the seven hour film into a recalled film of about the same length as a typical new release. The mind is forced to filter out things, as it does in real life, and thus we are empathizing with characters in a more ‘real’ sense. Another remarkable achievement in storytelling, which, after all, all art is about. There is no such thing as non-narrative nor non-representational art. Those who claim differently simply are showing their intellectual limits. Finally, Malle’s film is basically all conversation, yet, again, in recall, there are scenes the viewer will swear he witnessed- like the ritual burial of Andre in a Polish forest. I will get the new DVD of this film soon and review it, since it’s been a decade since I watched it, yet the aforementioned scene, and many others, are seared into my memory of the film, even though they were never actually filmed! Like Marker and Tarr, Malle really and truly did something extraordinary.
Of course, I erred in my claim- it was in Long Island that Gregory was buried, not the Polish forest, but it’s not my mismemory of details, but the act of imposed visuals via sheer literary means, that is why the film is so great, and why it so devastatingly proves my claim that film is essentially literature with pictures, not pictures with ad hoc narratives strung between them. In this film, there are any number of scenes that, upon rewatching this film, visually rocketed back into my mind, as if they were a memory from my own dim past.
The DVD package, by The Criterion Collection, is solid, but there simply is no reason that the package needed to be on two disks. Disk One has the film. That’s it. No audio commentary, although a film like this begs for one. No theatrical trailer. The only bit of information to impart is that it’s in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and the transfer is merely good- there is a bit of touch up and contrast sharpening (a bit too much graininess at times) that could have been done, but since the movie is not a visual splendor to begin with, one can see why Criterion skimped in that department. But skimping on the lack of an audio commentary is becoming unfortunately too common with Criterion, these days. Disk Two has only two features, but both are good. There is My Dinner With Louis, in which Shawn interviews director Malle for the BBC program Arena, in Atlantic City, in 1981. It runs about an hour, and gives some insight into Malle’s career in film. The better feature is a more recent pair of interviews with Shawn and Gregory, conducted by filmmaker Noah Baumbach, which delves a bit more into the core of the film at hand, although the truth is that Baumbach is a terrible interviewer- a bit too fawning and mealy-mouthed, and often sputtering to get the words out of his mouth. Gregory has not aged well, as his mien seems a welter of age and liver spots, whereas Shawn comes off much more confident than the character he portrays in the film. They both talk about acting out chatracters based upon themselves, and this evinces the reality that both men do a wonderful job in a difficult situation. Credit goes mostly to Shawn for the bravura screenplay; one of the best in film history. Jeri Sopanen’s cinematography is what it is- functionary, for the reasons earlier mentioned, and Akllen Shawn’s and Jean-Claude Laureux’s soundtrack also serves its purpose well. There is also a booklet that is included, buts its content is meager- a pair of essays from the published screenplay, by Gregory and Shawn (having the screenplay, I’ve read it, and wish, instead of merely republishing it, that there would have been some noting of some of the differences between the film and that published work. Then there is an essay on the film by film critic Amy Taubin, but it offers little in the way of anything new. So, overall, a mild endorsement for the package. While I’m glad the film is back in print, Criterion really was trying to milk the public with this overpriced package.
Many people, professional and amateur critic alike, have harped on the fact that Gregory’s character is a hypocrite- he toots his horn about the New Age way of life, yet he revels in his wealth; but this hypocrisy makes moments, such as when he wonders why his black doorman called him Mr. Gregory while he calls the doorman Jimmy, all the more telling. That Gregory and Shawn (whom the film clearly sympathizes with) have flaws makes them real. The fact that they are trying to overcome them (even if not succeeding) makes them even more real. They are at least aware of life. Clearly, many of the film’s critics do not share that quality, much less the far more rudimentary awareness of the act and art of fiction. Another critical claim that is often tossed around is that the film is pseudo-intellectual and takes itself too seriously; but this is a classic case of bad critics conflating the way certain characters behave, and/or the messages that they give off, with the message of the film. My Dinner With Andre is actually a non-preachy film. Its two protagonists are not, but the camera eye is the real message maker of the film, and its is looking at the two characters, not empathizing with them.
And, like most great works of art, there is not single message to the film. It’s almost amusing how people want to both conflate art that they like with other things, yet also simultaneously reduce it to a bumper sticker. On certain levels the film is about art and theater, purposiveness and the ability to not get stuck in rote ways of living. After all, purpose is what makes life worth living- not love. Without it we would merely be extant beings, and that is no accomplishment, for even rocks exist, even if they do not have the ability to know it. Yet, there will always be those who simply lack the ability to get great art. No, this is not being used as a justification for bad art, but as a realization that there are simply people who are not intellectually capable of more than the simplest levels of entertainment. And to those sorts, there is only one response: fuck you. Go revel in your ignorance and rationalizations. The film works on many levels, but not on the Lowest Common Denominator, and praise be to Malle for that. Is the conversation realistic? Yes and no. There is, save for a few bumps by Shawn, none of the umming and er-ing that punctuates real time conversation, and there is a sense of time compression in the conversation, but so what? Even the ‘plain speech’ poetry of William Carlos Williams was a sham. If one regards his most famous poems (which were his best) one can see they are anything BUT plain speech. Yet, they effectively enough convey that illusion so that decades worth of so-called literary and poetry experts declaim something like that, which is demonstrably false. Similarly, Shawn’s and Gregory’s conversation is both real and ‘real.’ One would be better off lamenting not that the conversation is too cerebral (for it isn’t; nor is it stilted)- for the actual words spoken, but lamenting that so few people even care enough about the topics discussed, in any patois. What passes, these days, for in depth talk is bloggerese about Obama or Bush or the idiotic wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The sad thing is that three decades ago, the two stars of the film hoped that their film would spur deeper and more meaningful discussions amongst an audience they, then, thought verged on deliteracy; while, looking back, one can see only how far discourse has plummeted since. This is actually a point Gregory laments in his Disk Two interview with Baumbach.
Another point to make is that film critic Roger Ebert, upon the film’s 1999 re-release, wrote, ‘Someone asked me the other day if I could name a movie that was entirely devoid of clichés.’ He then chose My Dinner With Andre. But many people, especially online, have mistaken what Ebert meant by that claim. Yes, both the Shawn and Gregory characters are, to a degree, clichés and stereotypes of liberal New Yorkers (especially liberal Jewish New Yorkers whose very existence seems permeated with references to the Holocaust), and both of them utter a few banalities, here and there, but, as with the claims of preachiness and self-seriousness, this is merely a conflation. Malle uses two rather stereotypical (and sometimes fatuous) characters in their rather trite milieu as a jumping off point; as a way to show the audience that if these two old stereotypes can seek something more, why aren’t you, the watcher of this film doing so? The seeming clichés, as it were, are thus undermined, because they are utterances that go 180º against what they seem to be stating, for there is a dissonance between the character’s statements and their resultant actions: witness Wally’s cab ride home to end the film. The rather trite conversation he has had has undermines the banalities into action. That both men/characters are lacking, not fully formed, is a plus, because they are therefore relatable. Yet, they also undermine cliché in a very unique way. When one watches the film, both men actually look at each other, and often in the eye, when they speak. Even in most restaurants, most men assume the posture of looking off into the distance (as if sitting side by side at a sporting event) when they speak, to abstractly conduct their mind’s-eyes. Not these two.
And this is just one more reason, out of many, why this film is truly audacious, as well as great. It exemplifies all that is best about true art, as well as the primacy of The Word in art, above all other things for, literature is the only art form based upon a purely human construct. The Word is the most human thing we have in art- other animals can match our other sensory and physically based arts: mime, music, acting, mimicry, dance, visual arts, etc. But only literature is all human, and it is for this reason, the gift of the screenplay, that film is upraised beyond the rest of the visual arts. And My Dinner With Andre is the best and purest example of that gift. Forget what anyone says about this film; including me. Go watch it. Go see it. Listen to it. Experience it. You will be better for it.