Talking Heads: My Dinner with Andre (1981)

MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981)

Last week, I delved into documentaries and asked how much was real and how much was fiction. Specifically, I was looking for the appearance of reality and wondering if documentaries and their overlap with fiction was a problem at all or just something to be expected when watching someone’s account of what happened. All of this led me to ponder a movie I have long considered a fictional documentary, My Dinner with Andre (1981), which is currently streaming under the Food for Thought theme in FilmStruck. The movie itself has become the butt of jokes from The Simpsons (Martin Prince plays the My Dinner with Andre game in an arcade) to movies like Waiting for Guffman (where Corky sells My Dinner with Andre action figures). Both of those jokes play well but let’s be honest, it’s pretty damn easy to parody a movie that is almost entirely two men sitting at a table, talking. The fact that such an undertaking not only had a director (instead of simply a cameraman saying, “Okay, I think we’re ready… I mean, action!”) but the internationally famous, highly acclaimed director Louis Malle, is a miracle in and of itself. Surely Malle saw this decidedly uncinematic scenario as an irresistible challenge as a filmmaker and set out to see what he could do with two men at a table talking. So what did he do? And what is the point of all of this anyway?

Here’s the plot description for My Dinner with Andre: Wallace Shawn is meeting an old friend, Andre Gregory, for dinner, that he hasn’t seen in years. They both worked in the theater together and now, as they eat, they talk about the last five years and debate their philosophies of life. The mildly interesting Andre Gregory talks much more than the very interesting Wallace Shawn which is unfortunate because his stories aren’t a tenth as interesting as he seems to think they are. Then they pay the bill and go home. Oh, sorry, spoiler.

my_dinner_with_andre_1981

That’s it. That’s pretty much the movie. The conversation was written by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory based on conversations that they actually had. So by editing those conversations down and filming them, they were, in effect, doing a reenactment for the camera of actual events. A kind of documentary reenactment where the reenactment is the whole thing and we never get anyone onscreen talking about the conversation, not that anyone in their right mind would welcome such a development. But here’s the thing: in interviews after the film, they both claimed that the characters were not actually them even though they were based on them and that they could have easily switched roles to prove it.

MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981)

Well, I don’t know about you, but if you can watch My Dinner with Andre and imagine Wallace Shawn convincingly pulling off Andre Gregory’s stories, or Andre Gregory convincingly coming off as grounded and rooted in reality, you’re seeing something I’m not. It’s one of those things said in interviews that I fully believe to be genuine but misguided. They’re trying to get the viewer to see the work as more than just a compilation of conversations they once had and see two characters in a movie instead. But it’s hard to believe those words would fit well with either person switching seats.

And if the goal is to not just record the conversation but bring it life, via either a play (which they opted against) or a movie, why not make it more than one evening at dinner? With the power of film at your disposal, why not make it a series of conversations over many weeks or months, just as had happened to them in real life? Why not fully develop the characters into two old friends getting reacquainted over time and make the movie about their philosophical clashes? I think the answer is that they were not only trying to condense everything into one convenient package but that they were also trying to take up the challenge that the cinema could indeed be static visually while still stimulating intellectually. I suppose.

MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981)

Louis Malle does little with the camera and I can’t imagine anyone wanting him to. The idea was to present the conversation with minimal interruption and in doing so Malle achieves an intimacy with the characters that allows their speech to predominate. In other words, he keeps the camera close enough to let the cinema work its magic of zooming us in on the action without moving the camera around like he’s trying to convince us this is a visual extravaganza.

So what is My Dinner with Andre and what does it hope to achieve? I take it as a rehearsed documentary. What do I mean by that? Well, let’s take one of the docs I did last week, The Fog of War (2003). Instead of Robert McNamara answering Errol Morris’ questions by speaking on the spot to the camera, imagine if after they recorded all of that, they whittled it down to two hours of back and forth, rehearsed and memorized the lines, and then set it at a restaurant in which Errol Morris narrates that he’s going to meet Bob McNamara tonight. He’s anxious to see him and curious what he has to say. And then they have dinner and McNamara does the talking, the same talking he did before, only now it’s being filmed like it’s not a documentary. That’s what I mean. That’s what My Dinner with Andre is, in my opinion, but it doesn’t quite succeed. I honestly would have much rather seen a real life back and forth between the two, filmed at various locations, in which it is presented as a documentary. As it is, it doesn’t feel like the effort went far enough to justify the format they chose over documentary.

The fact is, movies that don’t quite succeed at what they are attempting to do are some of my favorite movies. I look upon My Dinner with Andre as a fascinating attempt at fictionally documenting something real by transforming it into a narrative movie rather than just making a documentary. That right there is enough to bend one’s mind and I’d welcome more of it. I just wish Gregory and Shawn and Malle had done more with it.

My Dinner with Andre is streaming in FilmStruck until March 3, 2017, after which point it will be available on The Criterion Channel.

Greg Ferrara

10 Responses Talking Heads: My Dinner with Andre (1981)
Posted By susan : February 10, 2017 12:32 am

I saw My Dinner with Andre in its theatrical release—must watch, again. I’ve seen Wallace Shawn, several times, at peace rallies in NYC.

I never got around to posting on your Fog of War column. I saw it, in its theatrical release, but you pointed out things that I missed, so I should really see that, again, too.

Posted By EricJ : February 10, 2017 3:01 am

Most people don’t remember that MDwA pretty much made Shawn a household name–”Inconthievable!” wasn’t until six years later, and Rex the Dino another seven after that.
Up to that point, he was the dark, quirky, intense Off-Broadway playwright/actor he mentions in the stories, and you can see it in the other Criterions when Malle and Gregory brought him back for “Vanya on 42nd St.” and “The Master Builder”.

It would be hard to see him switching for Gregory’s role, though, since the movie also establishes Andre’ as the “mad director”, which he would also play so well in movie roles like “The Mosquito Coast” and “Last Temptation of Christ”. (He also did a memorable Mad Hatter for PBS’s 1983 Alice production.)
That’s why we keep thinking it’s “real”: We can believe Andre’s wild-eyed stories of mystical encounters, but that’s what makes Shawn’s defense of the newsstand on the corner so much more believable.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 10, 2017 10:19 am

Susan, I’d love to see what you have to say on The Fog of War when you watch it again, and this one too.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 10, 2017 10:27 am

Eric, that’s an excellent take on the film’s skill at establishing the characters as who we are seeing on film rather than who they are in real life. They heighten their own reality to draw out the differences between the two more distinctly. Which would give them more of a justification for doing a narrative film over straight documentary.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : February 10, 2017 6:13 pm

This is one of my favorite films, and it’s the film I’ve seen more than any other (more than 200 times). I think it succeeds completely at what it’s trying to do. It’s a philosophical dialogue. Wally comes to some understanding of Andre’s point of view (and the major changes Andre has went through) over the course of the dialogue. He doesn’t come to agree with him completely, but his own views change somewhat. I don’t see it as a “documentary” in any sense of the word. I also believe it would have worked just as well if the roles were reversed, because in 1982 almost no one knew who either one of them were.

Posted By EricJ : February 10, 2017 10:25 pm

You can pretty well see the artificiality in “Vanya on 42nd St.” that Malle isn’t actually making a documentary–It’s trying to look “verite’”, but you can see the director’s hand when Gregory talks to the woman about setting the scene. (“Now, y’see, this scene is taking place a month later…”)

Going back to MDwA, it’s easier to take this as the same kind of staged Shawn/Gregory play adapted for film than an actual fly-on-the-wall documentary, but since it’s two characters who’ve spent their careers writing and directing plays, that’s just part of their outlook.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : February 11, 2017 11:34 am

Ed, wow, 200 times! I don’t know if I’ve ever seen any movie 200 times. I agree that it would have been easier to switch roles at the time since both were more unknown quantities but still think there’s an air of sophisticated worldliness to Andre Gregory that lends itself to the role he plays and a groundedness with Shawn that helps out his. I just can’t see Gregory talking about reading his Charlton Heston biography, with that voice and those mannerisms.

Posted By Ed Buskirk Jr. : February 11, 2017 12:55 pm

He’s an actor. If he can play both the Mad Hatter and John the Baptist, I think he could play Wallace Shawn. And I don’t think the Andre of this film is entirely Andre Gregory. Wally wrote the last few drafts and the final screenplay, and they both have said they contributed to each other’s dialogue. These are two fictional characters. Like I said before, I don’t think this film has anything in common with a documentary.

Posted By George : February 11, 2017 3:14 pm

‘in 1982 almost no one knew who either one of them were.”

I had seen Wallace Shawn’s memorable bit in MANHATTAN, but I may not have known his name before ’82.

Posted By SeeingI : June 23, 2017 11:10 am

I have only seen this twice, but really enjoyed it both times and found it very stimulating. And I never fail to be tickled by the sudden turn in the narrative when Shawn decides to call BS on Gregory’s pretensions. It’s quite wonderful.

What would seeing them play out these conversations in multiple locales achieve? It would only take away from the meditative mood of the piece, its almost hypnotic quality.

I for one would love to see a role-reversed version of this, a staged reading or something. Maybe I wouldn’t totally “buy” the reversal but I bet it would be fascinating.

For the very best spoof of “Dinner,” seek out the TV series “Community,” Season 2, episode 19, “Critical Film Studies.” It’s the only time I’ve ever seen a spoof actually engage with the content of the film, and puts the characters on a somewhat comparable journey of self-revelation. Plus it somehow manages to incorporate a “Pulp Fiction” parody into the mix as well. It’s quite wonderful!

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