My Dinner with Andre (1981)
March 14, 2015 3:34 PM - Subscribe

This film depicts a conversation between Gregory and Shawn (not necessarily playing themselves) at Café des Artistes in New York. Based mostly on conversation, the two discuss experimental theatre, rebirth experiences, and the importance of electric blankets.

It was filmed in the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, which was decorated to look like the well-known Café des Artistes in New York; more about the Café des Artistes at Wikipedia.

Roger Ebert writes in his film review:
"Like many great movies, 'My Dinner With Andre' is almost impossible to nail down. 'Two men talk and eat (in real time) at a fancy New York restaurant,' writes CineBooks. Wrong, and wrong. 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.'"
Structure

The film may seem like one long, rambling conversation between two friends, but it actually contains a careful structure; Graham Daseler points out the possibilities in his excellent piece that appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal in 2011:

"A basic three-act breakdown of the film could, for example, read like this:
ACT 1 (The Setup): Where Wally and Andre meet, their meeting is explained, and Andre begins to recount his stories.

ACT 2 (The Confrontation): Where Wally rejects Andre's worldview and Andre, in turn, defends it.

ACT 3 (The Resolution): Where Wally and Andre each accept the other's point of view without actually choosing to adopt it, and where Wally begins, for the first time, to talk, and Andre, for the first time, to listen.
"Conversely, in terms of a mystery story, it could read:
ACT 1 (The Problem): Where Wally must face a dinner with a strange and possibly unhinged man.

ACT 2 (The Clues): Where Andre, contrary to expectations, is shown to be an inspiring man-of-action, and Wally, exactly according to expectations, is shown to be a timid intellectual.

ACT 3 (The Twist): Where Andre reveals himself to be more close-minded and inhibited than we first thought, and Wally reveals himself to be more wise and brave.
"
Giving the final word to Roger Ebert:
"What 'My Dinner With Andre' exploits is the well-known ability of the mind to picture a story as it is being told. Both Shawn and Gregory are born storytellers, and as they talk we see their faces, but we picture much more: Andre being buried alive, and a monk lifting himself by his fingertips, and fauns cavorting in a forest. And Wally trudging around to agents with his plays, and happily having dinner with Debbie, and, yes, enjoying Heston's autobiography. We see all of these things so vividly that 'My Dinner With Andre' never, ever, becomes a static series of two shots and closeups, but seems only precariously anchored to that restaurant, and in imminent danger of hurtling itself to the top of Everest (where, Wally stubbornly argues, it is simply not necessary to go to find the truth)."
“When I was young and rich, all I thought about was art and music. Now I'm 36, and all I think about is money.”

Links
YouTube: Siskel & Ebert "My Dinner with Andre"
The Tortoise and the Hare: My Dinner with Andre - Graham Daseler for Bright Lights Film Journal
Film trivia at IMDb
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (24 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Seems to be on youtube at the moment.
posted by sammyo at 4:09 PM on March 14, 2015


Debbie is Shawn's SO Deborah Eisenberg.
posted by brujita at 7:34 PM on March 14, 2015


The writer.
posted by brujita at 7:35 PM on March 14, 2015


I'm waiting for the 3D remake that's coming out in August. Matthew McConaughey is going to be great as Gregory.
posted by uosuaq at 8:16 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]


'Two men talk and eat (in real time) at a fancy New York restaurant,' writes CineBooks. Wrong, and wrong. 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.

No, the movie takes place in a NYC restaurant, not a studio set. Remember when Wally says that if you could be fully aware of everything going on in "the cigar store next to this restaurant," it would "blow your brains out"?
posted by John Cohen at 8:58 PM on March 14, 2015


But I like the ending of Ebert's review:
What they actually say is not really the point, I think. I made a lot of notes about Andre's theories and Wally's doubts, but this is not a logical process, it is a conversation, in which the real subject is the tone, the mood, the energy. Here are two friends who have each found a way to live successfully. Each is urging the other to wake up and smell the coffee. The difference is that, in Wally's case, it's real coffee.
posted by John Cohen at 8:59 PM on March 14, 2015


No, the movie takes place in a NYC restaurant, not a studio set.

Well, Ebert didn't have Wikipedia available to him in 1981, so saying "studio set" seems like a reasonable approximation of "closed hotel in another city serving as a practical location, while playing another".

I think it's telling of both Siskel's and Ebert's individual and joint passion for this film that I remember watching that episode all these years later.
posted by dhartung at 11:49 PM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]


Speaking of brains, the movie is seen in your brain, the movie takes place in an open restaurant in New York, and the movie was shot in a closed restaurant somewhere else. Andre seems to think it's necessary to go to extreme lengths to and at various geographical locations to find out whether he and the theater are really still alive and whether, if alive, it is only and horrifically as one of the last surviving human beings on earth. Wally thinks that we're all alive, right now, and we need only open our eyes and choose to see what is happening right where we are, in a restaurant, in the cigar store next store, in a cab driving by the city's shops, at home reading the autobiography of Charton Heston, or sitting around watching "My Dinner With Andre" for the 20th time. Andre challenges us, Wally throws us a life line, and we all go home afterwards to tell Debbie all about it.
posted by Alizaria at 4:44 AM on March 15, 2015 [2 favorites]


Wally and Andre invented the podcast.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 4:52 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am film lover that came from a family of film lovers, and grew up in the 80's, when VCRs made repetitive film viewing possible. My Dinner with Andre has always been one of my parents' favorite films, and I remember them watching and rewatching it from when I was very young.

During childhood, I saw it as the sort of film in which 'nothing happens' and so its title was shorthand, between my brother and I, for boredom. I had no concept then that film could be good in a way that was different from the way that Airplane or The Day the Earth Stood Still was good.

As I matured and began revisiting my parents' favorite films in college, I watched it again; I felt an association with Andre's ideas about life, and like Wally was a coward and a wet blanket. Years later, I flip-flopped to completely identifying with Wally and thinking that Andre was quixotic and deluded. Nowadays I've come around to valuing both of their attitudes equally (or near equally, depending on the day) and seeing each character as "correct" and "incorrect" in perspective and ideation at different points of their conversation.

This is an absolutely excellent film that has demonstrated for me personally the value of art.
posted by heatvision at 4:59 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


So, how are we supposed to take Andre's stoner-ish ramblings? His stories reminded me both of some of Linkletter's movies and also of McConaughey's infamous monologues in True Detective. Are we to take it all at face value and really think that all that stuff really happened to him (included seeing a roof levitate)? Or is he supposed to be seen as a nutcase bore? Shawn seems close to rolling his eyes at some points but never quite does and the epilogue in the cab seems to indicate that he was genuinely moved by what he had heard that evening.

I know that it was still essentially the '70s at that point and lots of normal seeming folk believed in a lot of wacky stuff about pyramids and crystals so I'm not sure if Shawn, Gregory and Malle want us to have a mind expanding experience listening the stores of spiritual journeys or to laugh at the rich guy's wide-eyed innocence.
posted by octothorpe at 6:50 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I think you've hit the nail on the head: it was very, very close to the 70s, and seeking out transcendental moments, discussion of stuff like this, was not such an outlandish thing to be doing. I think Wally is showing up for this dinner out of a sense of obligation (they used to be friends, worked in the theater together - I think?), and, afterall, Gregory is a theater director and has some status and authority and respect. He's not just a wacky, eccentric guy - he's made "magic!" in the theater, people follow him, etc.

I mean I'm surmising all this. So, while Wally sees and respects Gregory's artistic history, we don't see this - we only see, as you put it, a "nutcase bore". Someone who is eccentric and has some questionable ideas and, most importantly, someone who can tell a great story.

This is, afterall, a movie about storytelling.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:37 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well, Ebert didn't have Wikipedia available to him in 1981,

What does that have to do with anything?

so saying "studio set" seems like a reasonable approximation of "closed hotel in another city serving as a practical location, while playing another".

But his statement is ridiculous. It'd be like if someone described the movie "The Wizard of Oz" as "A girl named Dorothy gets taken from her home in Kansas to a magical land," and you disputed it by saying: "No, it was a girl named Judy on a studio set in California!" The latter describes how the movie was made. But normally, when you describe a movie, you're describing what happened in the fictional world which the audience enjoys by suspending their disbelief about whether that world is real.
posted by John Cohen at 7:39 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


But Wizard of Oz is very obvious to anyone as fiction populated by fictional characters while My Dinner could (and was) mistaken as being almost a documentary of two real people eating at a real restaurant. What Ebert was saying is that it's a mistake to think that this film is any less a carefully constructed drama than other much more overtly fictional movies.
posted by octothorpe at 7:52 AM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


In very general terms, this is how I interpret the movie: Andre and Wally are two aspects of the human psyche. Andre represents the unconscious and Wally the conscious mind. Andre has had a severe break from his conscious mind (objective reality) and has been drowning in his unconscious. The man is literally seeing visions popping up from the deepest recesses of his mind. Andre, perhaps because he is helpless to do otherwise, is a seeker. A very creative one, but also a dangerous one. He has risked his sanity, his physical health, and even the well-being of his family in his search for a way to feel he is truly alive, not only in his work, but more importantly in his personal life. Andre went through an incredible psychic ordeal, but he has survived and is telling his friend, in the most lucid manner he is capable, what happened. Wally, OTOH, is strictly consciousness. He fears any part of his mind he can't control. Andre's recital of his "adventures" has literally frightened Wally into a defense of reason and the scientific mind. The kicker is that Wally is an artist just like Andre, but he is holding on so tight to his conscious viewpoint that he is stifled personally and professionally. Many an artist has dived deep into their mind searching for an artistic vision. Wally is terrified to take that chance. Andre jumped into the fire because it was his nature. Wally has never even gotten close to the edge.

By the end of the movie, the message seems to be that human life is both rational and irrational. The question seems to be, "Can anyone say that life and fate are completely rational?"

Andre got completely lost in the irrational and lived. Wally never accepted any irrationality at all, and because of his dinner with Andre, Wally left that dinner a somewhat changed man. Seeing life in a different light and possibly willing to take some chances.
posted by cwest at 8:01 AM on March 15, 2015 [5 favorites]


But Wizard of Oz is very obvious to anyone as fiction populated by fictional characters while My Dinner could (and was) mistaken as being almost a documentary of two real people eating at a real restaurant.

I've never heard of anyone mistaking My Dinner with Andre for a documentary.* Obviously, anyone who makes that mistake should be corrected. But the description that Ebert called "wrong, and wrong" was not calling it a documentary. It simply said: "Two men talk and eat (in real time) at a fancy New York restaurant." That's how you normally describe a fictional movie: by stating what happens in the fictional world as if it were real.

* I know Wallace Shawn has said he wishes they had reversed the roles, so that people wouldn't have thought they were playing themselves. But actors are often annoyed by audiences assuming they're like their characters.
posted by John Cohen at 9:13 AM on March 15, 2015


As I matured and began revisiting my parents' favorite films in college, I watched it again; I felt an association with Andre's ideas about life, and like Wally was a coward and a wet blanket. Years later, I flip-flopped to completely identifying with Wally and thinking that Andre was quixotic and deluded. Nowadays I've come around to valuing both of their attitudes equally (or near equally, depending on the day) and seeing each character as "correct" and "incorrect" in perspective and ideation at different points of their conversation.

I've seen the movie many times, beginning when I was a kid, and I've shown it to many people. I've been surprised that most people I've shown it to identified with Andre, not Wally. I've always identified with Wally and assumed Andre was insane.

Yet Wallace Shawn himself says (in an interview on the Criterion Collection DVD) that when he watches the movie, he hates Wally!
posted by John Cohen at 9:15 AM on March 15, 2015


I'm totally on Team Wally.
posted by octothorpe at 9:18 AM on March 15, 2015


Andre Gregory represents a sort of theater person that has always terrified me. They used to go into the woods in the 70s and rehearse for 18 months, everybody living on mushroom soup, and come back having created a new version of Timon of Athens that was only comprehensible to them, and the cast would have the wild look of cult members, and when they discussed their time in the woods, it was like hearing someone talking about being in a cult, with the director behaving like some sort of self-appointed god on earth, dictating when people would eat, who they would sleep with, when they could move their bowels, all in the name of some unidentifiable idea of a transcendent art, and art that reflects but is greater than life, which of course the Times crucified but they would, wouldn't they, and of course half the audience walked out when George actually assaulted Mark on stage and drew blood, because they are so very small-minded, so timid, so middle class.

God, those people just always seemed so awful to me. Not that Gregory did this, but he was from the generation and had their stink on him.

In the meanwhile, the actual plays of the actual Wallace Shawn are tremendous.
posted by maxsparber at 12:18 PM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I'd like to comment at how beautifully made this film is. It's just wonderfully lit and shot and edited and I loved seeing the big grainy artifacts from the 16mm transfer.
posted by octothorpe at 1:03 PM on March 15, 2015


The best thing about this movie are the action figures shown in Waiting for Guffman. (SLYT)
posted by Ideefixe at 1:40 PM on March 15, 2015


But normally, when you describe a movie, you're describing what happened in the fictional world which the audience enjoys by suspending their disbelief about whether that world is real.

I'm sure this difference of opinion could be teased into a two-hour movie in a restaurant, closed or open, and while exploring the metaphysics of a film that is in part about metaphysics is interesting to me, I think I'll just leave it at a difference of opinion. A review is not a plot synopsis and does not have to take the movie's mise-en-scene at face value. Most reviews touch at least a little bit on production. Why does it bother you so that Ebert raises the point?
posted by dhartung at 4:31 PM on March 15, 2015 [1 favorite]


I wanted to rewatch this before this thread but didn't get to it.

I vividly remember watching the At The Movies profiling this as a kid and being struck by how weird and different it sounded. I don't think I watched the film until I was in my 30s and old enough to fall in love with it. I watched a whole run of Louis Malle films which are delightfully different from each other. Au revoir, les enfants is probably my favorite - no surprise there - but I liked all of them Elevator to the Gallows is very creepy. He made some short films early in his career that are available on one DVD that I really liked. Just kind of quiet, amused observations. Vive le Tour is an awesome documentary about the Tour de France in the old days when the bicyclists used to barge into stores and steal bottles of wine during the race.

Anyway, My Dinner With Andre, I guess I agree that it is about two ways of interacting with the world, and the limitations of each.

I have come to adore Wallace Shawn. He wrote this great little book called The Fever. I don’t really understand how but I guess it was adapted by HBO – anyone seen it?
posted by latkes at 11:22 AM on March 16, 2015


I had the most incredible experience with The Fever. I was wandering through the Radcliffe quad and notice a line and there was a sign that Mr Shawn was doing a one man play, for free. I got the last seat. Obstructed. Really half a seat directly behind a pillar, had to twist and lean to even see the stage. Legs fell asleep from the position. Worst seat evah. Started late of course.

Two sentences in I forgot where I was and didn't surface from the place he took the audience until I got outside. I don't actually remember that much detail, it was about a fever dream in a foreign hospital or hotel but just enraptured by the path of the story and how it crept up on the awareness.
posted by sammyo at 5:18 PM on March 17, 2015 [1 favorite]


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