Sunday, October 23, 2005

Day 23: My Dinner with Andre

Wallace Shawn: I don’t know what you’re talking about!

Now this is how you do a movie about ideas. Two men, who were friends some time ago, sit down, have dinner, and talk for an hour and fifty minutes. Their conversation, philosophical and heady, contains some of the most riveting moments I’ve ever seen in a movie. I sat, rapt, leaned forward in an attempt to soak in every word. At times, it wasn’t even what they were talking about that held me in such sway, but how they were talking about it. There’s a frankness, an honesty, and an earnestness to the discussion between the two men that’s moving. Though they’re talking about concerns that can be readily dismissed with a flippant remark or a hostile joke, both men are game to probe their own minds and to take each other seriously. When they challenge each other’s positions, it’s in a friendly enough way but, nevertheless, still contains a great deal of suspense and tension. I never knew how extreme the emotions would get or how they’d be expressed.

Wallace Shawn (who actually utters the word “inconceivable” at one point in this film, bringing a meta-chuckle to everyone who’s familiar with his role in The Princess Bride) and Andre Gregory play the two men, presumably as themselves. Shawn is a struggling New York playwright, Gregory a once successful stage director who’s gone away for five years to indulge in consciousness expanding experiences. He’s done things like go out into the woods for days with a large group of people who don’t speak the same language, where they do… whatever feels natural. They talk about the state of the theatre, the way people conform to certain roles, science, and the nature of perceptual experience. Shawn starts off the movie distant from Andre (he’s going to the dinner out of obligation) and, for a while, humors the other man as he talks about things like the power of meditation and mind-over-matter. Soon enough, Shawn is swept along by Andre’s enthusiasm and engages with him. It’s here, where the two men begin challenging each other’s points of view, when the movie really takes off.

The overall theme of the conversation is consciousness itself. It’s amazing that, for its subject matter, the movie never comes off as pretentious or overly simplistic. A lot of this can be attributed to the two actors in the film. I don’t know how this movie was made, but the acting in it is so natural and honest, it feels like the director, Louis Malle, sat down with four cameras and just recorded these two intelligent men talking. Andre, in particular, is absolutely spellbinding as he relates his consciousness expanding experiences, nutty as they may seem to us and Shawn. He does most of the talking in the movie, and the way he talks about these moments in his life is evocative, creating images in the mind that are far more compelling than any filmic representation could be. Indeed, most of the experiences he describes would seem cheesy or cheap if they were shot on film, but how they affected him is so clearly written on his face that they can’t help but feel entirely genuine. One moment, in particular, when he describes a moment when he was buried alive, is so effectively delivered that it’s impossible not to share the fear and terror he felt.

But, if watching the movie is a great experience, what happens afterward is even better. When Shawn tells us, in a voice over closing the film, that he went home and told his girlfriend Debbie all about his dinner with Andre, I wanted to know all about that conversation (I thought it was too bad Malle didn’t make a follow-up film featuring Shawn and Debbie talking about the dinner with Andre). When the movie was done, I felt the way I always do after having one of these conversations myself, only, not being allowed to participate between these two men, I hadn’t yet gotten to say what I had to say on these subjects. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence or a desire for self-exploration will surely ponder the questions this movie asks, talk about these questions (as I did) with a similarly intelligent loved one, probe the thoughts and feelings this movie brings up. There’s a certain privilege in being able to think about the topics brought up here (a point the movie makes by having Andre, who’s clearly coming to the conversation having thought these subjects through more than Shawn has, pay for the expensive dinner at the end) and the film inspires one to take full advantage of that privilege.


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Phoenix said...

So much spam in these comments. I almost hate to interrupt it.

Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory play the two men, presumably as themselves.

From Ebert:
Gene Siskel and I did a question-and-answer session with Gregory and Shawn after the first anniversary screening of the film's New York run. What I remember best from that night is that the two men, asked what they might do differently a second time around, said they would switch roles--``so that no one would think we were playing ourselves.''

it feels like the director, Louis Malle, sat down with four cameras and just recorded these two intelligent men talking

Also from Ebert:
Not in real time but filmed with exquisite attention to the smallest details by director Louis Malle over a period of weeks. And not in a New York restaurant but on a studio set. The conversation that flows so spontaneously between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn was carefully scripted. ``They taped their conversations two or three times a week for three months,'' Pauline Kael writes, ``and then Shawn worked for a year shaping the material into a script, in which they play comic distillations of aspects of themselves.''

I fear I can't add my own comment on the movie, as it is still on my "to watch" list.

Great blog, by the way.

Mama said...

Coincidentally this movie sits next ot my set unseen. My mother just loaned me 2 flicks. I opted to watch A Mighty Wind. Ironically a Christopher Guest film, who also starred in the Princess Bride with Shawn. I hadn't made the connection until now.
Good luck with your efforts. Sounds like a worth task.

Kerrie and Brad Turton said...

If all you have seen Wallace Shawn in is the Princess Bride, then you have only scene a small shade of what he is capable of. His characters are always well thought out and acted with a human pathos that few people can show in real life, let alone on the screen or stage. If you can get a copy of Vanya on 42nd Street (another Louis Malle film, with Andre Gregory also starring) you will see Shawn play one of his best characters ever. It is the film version of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya and Shawn plays the lead. The reason I say he is so good in this particular role is that he is completely cast against type. The role usually goes to a leading role actor in his late 30s - early 40s.

David, I would be very interested in what you had to say about Vanya on 42nd Street, as this film is set up as a dress rehearsal for a production of the play, but I remember being swept away by how Malle made me forget this was a play and instead showed me a movie, with all the filmic qualities one would expect.

David Wester said...

Phoenix, thanks for the info. I'll put it up on the main page.

Tabby Rabbit said...

Fantastic blog. A great read - it has also saved my TV - I was going to remove it from my flat (have given up on UK terrestrial TV and on cable) but I might hold on to it a while longer and look into some film recommendations....thanks!