Thursday, July 22, 2021

Art House Watch: My Dinner With Andre (1981)

Watched:  07/22/2021
Format:  HBOmax
Viewing:  First
Decade:  1980's
Director:  Louis Malle

I would guess more Gen-X'ers know My Dinner With Andre (1981) by reputation than have actually seen the film, by a country mile.  Held up as the epitome of intellectualism in film by the time I hit film school in the mid-90's, I remember an art teacher in fifth grade (circa 1985) telling us about the movie, the same guy who also showed us Talking Heads videos, including what I think was Stop Making Sense.*  

As much of a reputation as the movie earned, it also became a sort of cultural shibboleth and punchline.   In the era of "Woody Allen is an intellectual genius" and last days of New York as the cultural epicenter for America (arguably shifting to LA by the late 1980's), the idea that a film would take on such heady topics as the nature of performance and theater, and, in fact, consciousness with a bent that's new-agey post-hippie "awareness" dressed up in tweed and fine dining was like pushing every button for the culture, especially in outposts outside of New York that longed to see themselves embroiled in such conversations.  Of course it played well to both the audience it portrayed and the audience of art-majors and film critics across the country.  That's not a dig - I'm just not surprised.

On the flip side, in college I watched all of My Breakfast With Blassie, Andy Kaufman's film where he eats breakfast with pro wrestling personality/ star Classy Freddy Blassie.  And, of course, the famed Waiting for Guffman action figures of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory from the film.  

But, yes, famously this is the film where Wallace Shawn (yes, the pirate who says "inconceivable!" a lot in The Princess Bride) spends the run-time/ real-time of a movie discussing performance, performative behavior and the meaning of it all with Andre Gregory (Demolition Man).  Both play fictional versions of themselves, using their real names.  The only other character who isn't basically an extra in the dining room is the waiter, played by Jean Leneaur, who seems to be half listening and also irritated with his customers.

Essentially, Andre is in crisis, but has - for reasons never explained - invited Wally to dinner, despite the fact they haven't seen each other or spoken in years.  And, Wally has been avoiding him, hearing he'd gone weird.  

We spend the better part of an hour hearing Andre monologue about his experiences across the globe and how they've reshaped him, a result of his disillusionment with theater and now insistent that everyone is living in a dream state.  Wally pushes back with a more humanistic standpoint.  

But, look.  It's very hard not to watch the movie and not remember (a) late night conversations in college where you sat around discussing the nature of consciousness and existence, and (b) the rich kid who came back from Europe where they'd de-camped for the summer and now insisted you were not as worldly/ enlightened as they, and you were now a lesser being for having not eaten squid in Greece or whatever.  All filtered through the weird lens of perfecting make-believe in the theater and reading pop-psychology of the late 1970's.  

Here, 40 years after the fact, I have no reference for the turmoil in the life of the theater that the characters describe, that theater is dead (arguably true as Disney takes over Broadway and there hasn't been a name dramatic playwright of the last 30 years).  By this point, the still-popular acting methods and name instructors still emulated today, were already in place.   The big bang of The Group Theatre was now a faint echo.  

What does surprise me is how little the movie acknowledges or discusses class, the privilege of wealth, the actual outcomes of experiences, and even how that plays back into the theater or the world.  (I mean, let's not even get into both the limited number of people who can see a show in New York, afford to live in New York or afford tickets to shows on a regular basis - and how you'll change the world with that audience).  A value judgment and assessment of the lives of everyone as "asleep" or, maybe as Holden Caulfield would put it, as "phonies" never really goes examined.  It gets mentioned, certainly, that most people can't run off to the forest and have no job, but it becomes a conversation of privilege and admiration of that privilege by someone who had money once.  The movie wants to push back, but no one involved seems to know how (or maybe why), exactly.  There's a distinct flavor of the prep-school kid who talks of the mysticism of anyone they meet in a foreign land, as both simpler, purer, and more "real" while also treating those same people as fetishistic props that you can see in any commercial for Kashi cereal.  But it refuses to see the same mysticism in the people around them - and maybe that's the stink-eye from the waiter.  Maybe not.

Still, I'd argue, the film at least does take on some weighty subjects of consciousness, identity and what we do on this mudball for the time we've got.  Which, holy hell, I can't think of another movie that does (no, The Matrix does not.  Shut up.).  And, perhaps most impressively, makes it entertaining.  It's funny - there's points where you genuinely wonder if Andre has gone bananas, and Wally is just like "go on....".   

And, the movie does recognize it's own bullshit in some ways.  It's very concerned, as people used to be, about what is fascistic behavior and what it not.   It knows pitching a "new consciousness" idea, or that "we need to wake up the sheeple" is it's own fascism, even if it never quite sticks the argument.  

Wally represents the idea that you can show people something to stir them about the human condition via his plays (see: Barton Fink), but is also trying to have enough money to eat.  He's found joy in the mundane and his love of his girlfriend.  He's also channeled his native introversion and social anxiety into a revulsion of the very crowd he wants to partake in.  But Andre has lost faith in the church of the Theatre.  And, of course, like a good high schooler coming into realization of the complexities of humanity and situationally performative behavior, Andre wants for people to blow up their illusions and live.  Without ever saying what he means by that.  But, man, money sure makes it easy to be prescriptive about how other people should be.  

Funnily enough, the movie does remind me of the heavy suggestion we all received in Screenwriting 101, which was not to write that screenplay that was you and your buds sitting around a bar talking about life, which every undergrad screenwriting student wants to do. After all, the film reads like two people sorting through their liberal arts educations over a bong while listening to Dark Side of the Moon as much or more than it reads like two guys having an expensive meal.  

Look - a lot of people like this movie, and as I'm want to do when I'm told "this is the best thing ever" for four decades, I tend to look for flaws in the diamond.  That's how I'm wired, and I know it's kind of unpleasant - and a reflection on me more than the film.  The movie is singular - I'm sure there's other stuff like this now, but this is ground zero for such a thing (in it's own way, Clerks is a weird mutant cousin of this movie).  It isn't afraid to be heady, name drop books they want you to read, and have an actual conversation about whether existence precedes essence.  I mean, at best we get to discuss those things in sci-fi terms most days at the movies.  It is, in fact, a good film.  I get why people like it.  It's also inevitably going to get kind of snooty, and as a character-driven film, not cover every possible persepctive.

Weirdly, for all the pretensions of the movie, I noticed it was produced with the assistance Troma films, including Lloyd Kaufman in the credits.  Nice to know the same folks making this also put out Toxic Avenger.

*Austin used to be full of artists and musicians who'd had to find day jobs, and about half of the teachers I had in elementary school in Austin were folks who needed insurance but also wanted to continue on with their slacker lifestyle during summer breaks.  Having an elementary school art teacher who was talking Malle movies is, in retrospect, hilarious, but I do appreciate that he wasn't above challenging a room full of kids about their perceptions of movies and art.  Also, he was a talented painter.


Steven said...

I believe Shawn is performing some of the revision and privilege questions you detected presently:

The League said...

well.. this is fascinating