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.

Themes and Variations

I'll begin the first themed week on Saturday, October 29th. I've decided to go with the deceptively simple theme: MAN VS. NATURE As of now, I've got 2 movies in mind for this week, Little Otik and Fitzcarraldo. Part of the fun of doing themes will be finding movies that don't exaaaaaaactly fit in, but a case can be made. Please post any suggestions for movies that could be viewed on the theme "MAN VS. NATURE" here. Also, if you have any further ideas for week themes, let me know!

As you can probably see, I've got a feed service going now and an email subscription thingy. Try them out and let me know if there's any problems with them.

It's Day 23 and I'm doing all right. There's a feeling of obligation to the blog that, at times, is unpleasant. I've seen some great films in the progress, films that have inspired wonderful thoughts. I do feel as if I keep seeing the same plot over and over. I keep seeing women menaced by men or women controlled by men. Except in Who's That Girl? Which is probably why I was as nice as I was to that film. Last night, I watched My Dinner With Andre and that was also refreshing in that the man vs. woman factor was non-existent. The days are just flying by and I've realized how sad I'm going to be when this is all over.