Tuesday, October 11, 2011


Conversation Piece

"Entirely devoid of clichés…There is nothing else like it. It should be unwatchable, and yet those who love it return time and again, enchanted." — Roger Ebert

By John Cochrane
Today marks the 30th anniversary of the release of Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre (1981), not only one of the best films of recent decade, but a unique viewing experience that redefines what great filmmaking can be. Essentially an unbroken 100-minute conversation between two men in a restaurant, it has no right to work at all cinematically. It succeeds marvelously however — not only as a philosophical discussion — but as a portrait of two friends who often disagree yet are bound by mutual respect and the search for significance in their own lives.

The idea for the film came from its stars — experimental playwright and character actor Wallace Shawn and New York theater director Andre Gregory — who in 1975 became disillusioned and left his career to travel the world, in a soul-searching quest for creative inspiration. After hearing about some of these experiences upon Gregory’s return, Shawn suggested they write a screenplay revolving around their talks — with the two of them playing characters loosely based on their own personalities.

As the film opens, Wally walks across a dirty New York street to meet Andre for dinner. As he boards a graffiti-strewn subway, Shawn tells us in a voiceover that he is stressed about the scarcity of work and money, and the last thing he wants is to meet an old friend he hasn’t seen for years, and who — according to colleagues — appears to have suffered some sort of mental breakdown. Shawn is the more conventional character who most people will identify with — inquisitive, pragmatic and a little skeptical. Gregory is idealistic, easily excited, open to unconventional ideas and quick to give his honest opinion. Their differences are immediately apparent when greeting one another inside the restaurant. (Shawn: “You look terrific!” Gregory responding enthusiastically: “Well, I feel terrible!”) After some initial small talk, Shawn presses Gregory to tell him about what he’s been up to. It’s here where the film really takes off — with Gregory spinning fascinating stories for 45 minutes about working with theater groups in the Polish forest, traveling through the Sahara desert with a Buddhist monk and stepping off the societal grid in order to rediscover his self-identity.

In a typical movie, most filmmakers would create visual set pieces to dramatize what Gregory talks about — but director Louis Malle never does. He keeps his camera focused on the two men talking. (Malle received the script from a mutual friend of Gregory’s and enthusiastically offered his services as director unsolicited — while also strongly advising that there be no cutaways from the conversation in the restaurant.) Because of this stylistic choice and the director’s steady rhythm of two-shots, close ups and reactions, not only do we focus on the events and concepts that Andre describes, but we actually can see Wally and Andre's friendship evolve. This creates a wonderful instance of "theater of the mind." Instead of being shown Gregory’s stories of “beehives” and a simulated “death and burial” that others created for him, the viewer imagines and experiences them himself. In a recent interview, Gregory correctly states that the film has a canvas just as big as an epic such as Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — the difference being that it all takes place in the audience’s imagination.

Though the film begins with stories and ideas about theater and dramatic techniques, the last half of the movie morphs into an ideological debate about what it means to be human — whether you’re really alive or just doing things out of habit and avoiding real expressions of feeling and connection. Shawn begins to speak more in this part — passionately defending the scientific method and suggesting that some of Andre’s experiences (which Gregory interprets as fated signs or supernatural messages directed at him) are mere coincidences. He also argues that while many people may live their lives on autopilot, why should they have to go to Mount Everest — which is expensive, impractical and difficult — in order to have a life-changing experience when they could just as likely have an epiphany in their own home? Upon repeated viewings, it becomes even more evident that the film is as much about friendship and fear as it is about ideas. Shawn himself stated in an interview that in the beginning of the film, Wally is hiding behind silence, and Andre is hiding behind words. Sometimes Wally interjects an awkward tangent — like mentioning a submarine drama Violets Are Blue when Andre talks about a hallucination he had during a Christmas church service. By the movie’s conclusion though, both men have opened up — as they actively listen to and passionately question each other’s points of view.

My Dinner With Andre may seem more conventional by today’s standards, but it was a revelation back in 1981. The film defied easy categorization, and although seemingly improvised, was crafted painstakingly by its creators. Shawn and Gregory taped their conversations for months, and Shawn then took an additional year to fine-tune the script. Likewise, Louie Malle shot the film not in an actual restaurant, but at the then abandoned Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Va., over several weeks — carefully finalizing the script, editing takes and framing shots down to the inch to maintain the illusion of a busy public establishment. The movie almost died a quick death upon its initial release, but thanks to critics and word of mouth became a sleeper hit that rose to the forefront of independent American cinema. The picture played in some cities for more than a year and attained a beloved cult status among film buffs that remains to this day.

Since his death from lymphoma at the age of 63, it only has become more obvious that Louis Malle (1932-1995) was one of the great underappreciated masters of world cinema. A Palme d’Or winner at the age of 24 as a co-director and cameraman on Jacques Cousteau’s The Silent World (1956), Malle went on to be a founding member of the French New Wave, along with the likes of François Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard and Eric Rohmer. Malle then quickly went his own way, avoiding repetition and often creating films that were vastly different from one another — other than a unifying technical virtuosity and a fierce intelligence and curiosity about people.

Because he worked in both France and America, making both fictional features and documentaries, Louis Malle never was accepted completely by either country. But his filmography of more than 30 movies speaks for itself. In addition to the one-of-a-kind Andre, some additional highlights include The Lovers (1958) — an adult fairy-tale, in which a bored aristocratic woman abandons her family and privileged existence when she falls in love with a stranger. In the controversial Lacombe, Lucien (1974) a teenage outcast joins the Gestapo, after being rejected by the French Resistance, only to later to have everything jeopardized when he develops feelings toward a Jewish girl. Revisiting this theme from a different angle toward the end of his career, the very personal Au Revoir Les Enfants (1987) is a semi-autobiographical account of a young boy during World War II, who discovers that his best friend at Catholic boarding school is one of several Jews that the priests are hiding. A possible companion piece to My Dinner With Andre is The Fire Within (1963), which tells the story of an alcoholic writer who decides to commit suicide after he finds he can no longer meaningfully connect with another person, or accept the life compromises that his friends and family have made. While that earlier character gives up his struggle, Andre and Wally continue to search for personal happiness and fulfillment.

Louis Malle’s last motion picture, Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), reunited him with Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory in a filmed rehearsal-performance of Gregory’s long gestating workshop of Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya (1899) — translated by David Mamet, and starring Shawn in the title role. Performed in a decaying Manhattan theater and featuring actors in street clothes with a minimal set of paper cups and card tables, Malle once again showcased his ability to make an engrossing film utilizing only great dialogue, ideas and performances. (Louis Malle was fascinated with sound, and was said to be able to tell if a take was good, just by listening to it with his eyes closed. “I like the talkies”, he once responded when questioned by Andre during Vanya’s production on why he made unconventional films like their two collaborations together.)

My Dinner With Andre ends ambiguously with an epilogue that’s just about perfect. As Wally takes a quiet taxi ride home, with Erik Satie’s beautifully pensive piano piece “Gymnopedie No. 1” playing on the soundtrack, the reflective mood is in stark contrast to the garbage cluttered landscape that Shawn travels through at the beginning of the movie. What the film seems to say is that it doesn’t matter whether you go to Mount Everest, or what answers you come up with on the meaning of life. It’s that you ask the necessary questions for continual growth, that you take the time to appreciate everyday things, and make the essential connections to others that make us all human beings — which includes the very important act of listening. As Andre so aptly puts it, “If you’re operating by habit, you’re not really living.” In today’s fast-paced world of technological advances, polarizing opinions, increased narcissism and decreasing communication, My Dinner With Andre remains a beacon of hope — and just as riveting and relevant as ever.

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If nothing else, I think My Dinner With Andre came along at the perfect time to preserve the art of conversation in movies and, eventually when pay cable pumped up quality dramas, television and not just segregate it to the realm of theater. Not all films are as direct descendants as say Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise, but we do still get movies and TV shows -- not across-the-board mind you -- that aren't afraid to love language and let scenes linger instead of being trapped with nothing but quick cut, short scene movies and TV shows dictated by the commercial break.
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