Every time I see My Dinner with Andre (1981), in addition to all the thoughts and ideas that it sparks, related or unrelated to the themes within the film itself, I find myself having the same experience. It starts with eager anticipation over the concept of the film, literally, a feature-length dinner conversation between a down-to-earth playwright named Wallace Shawn—played by Wallace Shawn—and a director named Andre Gregory- played by Andre Gregory—who accounts his many metaphysical and existential adventures over a desperate period in his life in which he attempts to redefine for himself the meaning of being. And within 20 minutes of Gregory’s enthusiastic hijacking of the conversation I begin to feel my mind retreating to the mental equivalent of that noncommittal frozen grin on Shawn’s face as he queries Gregory and becomes more and more resistant to the man’s rather elitist and confounding notions-- which include, but are by no means limited to, bizarre, ritualistic group theater experiences which have no structure other than the experiencing of the other people involved (and the strange things they do with, say, Teddy bears), or nebulous ideas about retreating into conceptual communes in order to fashion new languages through which to communicate honestly and directly with each other and to ultimately facilitate the salvation of humanity.
These are feats Gregory endorses with the fervor of a true seeker but which he apparently believes are impossible to achieve for a culture so deeply asleep as to be unaware how robotic and meaningless their existence has become. Upon each viewing my defenses toward Gregory (the character—I have no idea how closely this on-screen portrayal is meant to reveal the man himself) rise like a drawbridge over a moat right on schedule. And even though I know that I will eventually agree with his point of view regarding how difficult it is to actually interact with another person over an extended period of time, and how doing so means to unmoor yourself from the expected, the reliable, and to set off sailing into uncharted waters, the getting to that point is never any less frustrating and annoying for me. And that’s why it’s so satisfying when Shawn (the character—I have no idea how closely this on-screen portrayal is mean to reveal the man himself), about 80 minutes into the dinner, offers to honestly respond to the contentions Gregory has served up to this point. By the end of the film Shawn’s encounter with Andre over dinner will cause him to look inward, revisit memories and indulge in a taxi ride home during which he seems to at least be beginning to look at the familiar streets of New York, and perhaps the world, anew. (This sense of wonder manages to similarly cut through my own defenses against Gregory's point of view, which is why the movie remains a rich experience for me upon multiple viewings, despite my overall level of annoyance.) But all of Gregory’s initial, faintly condescending blather about discovering a series of connections between himself, three other men named Andre and Antoine du Saint-Exupery, the surrealist magazine Minotaure and being open to experience only by taking oneself out of one’s comfort zone and immersing oneself in a wild retreat in a Polish forest or getting buried alive on Long Island (“on Dick Avedon’s property out at Montauk”) eventually does cause Shawn to finally throw up his hands, metaphorically speaking, and the result is the movie’s most satisfying five minutes, a monologue that, despite where the movie ends up, encapsulates perfectly Shawn’s everyman reason in the face of Gregory’s privileged flights of fancy:
SHAWN: "I’m just trying to survive, you know? I'm just trying to earn a living. I’m just trying to pay my rent and my bills. I live my life. I enjoy staying home with Debby. I'm reading Charlton Heston's autobiography. And that's that. I mean, occasionally, maybe, Debby and I will step outside, we'll go to a party or something. And if I can occasionally get my little talent together and write a little play, well, then that's just that's just wonderful. And I mean, I enjoy reading about other little plays people have written and reading the reviews of those plays and what people said about them and what people said about what people said.
And I mean, I have a list of errands and responsibilities that I keep in a notebook. I enjoy going through the notebook, carrying out the responsibilities, doing the errands and crossing them off the list. And I just don't know how anybody could enjoy anything more than I enjoy reading Charlton Heston's autobiography or, you know, getting up in the morning and having the cup of cold coffee that's been waiting for me all night, still there for me to drink in the morning, and no cockroach or fly has died in it overnight. I mean, I'm just so thrilled when I get up and I see that coffee there, just the way I wanted it. I mean, I just can't imagine how anybody could enjoy something else any more than that. I mean, obviously, if there
Whereas, you know, you seem to be saying that, uh, it's inconceivable that anybody could be having a meaningful life today and, you know, everyone is totally destroyed and we all need to live in these outposts. But I mean, you know, I just can't believe-- even for you-- I mean, isn't it pleasant just to get up in the morning and there's Chiquita, there are the children, and The Times is delivered, you can read it? I mean, maybe you'll direct a play, maybe you won't direct a play. But forget about the play that you may or may not direct. Why is it necessary to-- Why not lean back and just enjoy these details? I mean, and there'd be a delicious cup of coffee and a piece of coffeecake. I mean, why is it necessary to have more than this or to even think about having more than this?
I mean, I don't really know what you're talking about. I mean, I know what you're talking about, but I don't really know what you're talking about. And I mean, you know, even if I were to totally agree with you, you know, and even if I were to accept the idea that there's just no way for anybody to have personal happiness now, well, you know, I still couldn't accept the idea that the way to make life wonderful would be to just totally, you know, reject Western civilization and fall back into some kind of belief in some kind of weird something-- I mean, I don't even know how to begin talking about this, but you know, in the Middle Ages, before the arrival of scientific thinking as we know it today, well, people could believe anything. Anything could be true-- the statue of the Virgin Mary could speak or bleed or whatever it was. But the wonderful thing that happened was that then in the development of science in the Western world certain things did come slowly to be known and understood. I mean, you know, obviously, all ideas in science are constantly being revised. I mean, that's the whole point. But we do at least know that the universe has some shape and order and that, you know, trees do not turn into people or goddesses, and there are very good reasons why they don't, and you can't just believe absolutely anything. Whereas, the things that you're talking about-- I mean, you found the handprint in the book, and there were three Andres and one Antoine de Saint-Exupery. And to me that is a coincidence. And then, you know, the people who put that book together, well, they had their own reasons for putting it together. But to you it was significant, as if that book had been written 40 years ago so that you would see it, as if it was planned for you, in a way.
I mean, all right, let's say, if I get a fortune cookie in a Chinese restaurant, of course, even I have a tendency-- Of course, I would hardly throw it out. I mean, I read it. I read it, and, uh, I just instinctively sort of-- You know, if it says something like, “A conversation with a dark-haired man will be very important for you,” well, I just instinctively think, you know, “Who do I know who has dark hair? Did we have a conversation? What did we talk about?” In other words, there's something in me that makes me read it, and I instinctively interpret it as if it were an omen of the future. But in my conscious opinion, which is so fundamental to my whole view of life-- I mean, I would just have to change totally to not have this opinion-- In my conscious opinion, this is simply something that was written in the cookie factory several years ago and in no way refers to me. I mean, you know, the fact that I got it-- I mean, the man who wrote it did not know anything about me. I mean, he could not have known anything about me. There's no way that this cookie could actually have to do with me. And the fact that I've gotten it is just basically a joke. And I mean, if I were gonna go on a trip on an airplane and I got a fortune cookie that said “Don't go,” I mean, of course, I admit I might feel a bit nervous for about one second. But in fact, I would go because, I mean, that trip is gonna be successful or unsuccessful based on the state of the airplane and the state of the pilot. And the cookie is in no position to know about that.”
(The Criterion DVD of My Dinner with Andre is scheduled for a June 23, 2009 release. The published screenplay has been available in paperback form since 1994.)