How I managed to walk this earth for 50 years without watching My Dinner with Andre I simply don’t know.
Thanks to Melanie Friesen of VIFF and her ongoing series Cinema Salon, I was able to bask in this film’s elegance on the big screen.
The premise is audaciously simple: two friends Wallace Shawn (Wally) and Andre Gregory (Andre) that haven’t seen each other in years meet for dinner at Café des Artistes in Manhattan to discuss their careers as playwrights.
Wally laments the pending reunion via voiceover as he rides the graffiti laced subway of New York City. Dreading what he assumes is going to be an emotional rescue mission.
The excerpt below is just a sample of the astonishingly precise dialogue.
Wally appreciates comfort, an electric blanket to stave off the cold, dinners at home with his girlfriend, the familiar sights of the city he grew up in. (Shawn later confided to Noah Baumbach he wrote the character of Wally in an attempt to exorcise that part of himself). Andre ventures to places of profound discomfort, the dizzying heat of the Sahara, running around the woods in Poland, an emotionally gruelling enactment of death. Yet their camaraderie and mutual respect is palpable. They truly listen to each other. It’s reassuring to see two people so vastly different having a conversation that transcends beliefs.
It’s also spooky how predictive this film is. All the way back in 1981, in the grit of what was a nearly bankrupt city, both men were keenly aware of isolation. Of people hiding behind closed doors instead of connecting. Consumed by boredom, laziness, and fear. (sound familiar?)
Our phones have magnified this existential crisis. I was in a situation recently with someone who disappeared into their device for the better part of the day as we sat in close proximity. It felt so lonesome. After attempting to connect, I eventually followed suit and resigned myself to scrolling my Instagram feed, feeling increasingly insignificant.
But back to the conversation, when Andre talks about mankind being turned into robots and that an underground of sorts, a place of light, is the solution to the pervasive numbing out. Where people speak “…the language of the heart. A new kind of poetry. The poetry of the dancing bee that tells us where the honey is.”
He also refers to a Swedish physicist who stopped reading the news and watching TV. Brilliant. It made me realize I need to fight for the quality of life I want. Which means March is a news free month. Even though I locked down my smart phone from the forced news of Siri, I still get caught in moments of torpor drifting to the New York Times, which usually leads to follow up on the Atlantic, then over to Medium, and then to the New Yorker, and on. This can gobble up hours of precious time. And I never feel more informed afterwards. Just powerless. I also know more about the rapidly deteriorating American political system than I ever have and I’m not convinced that’s valuable. As a Canadian, I should be more concerned with what’s happening here, but that’s for another post.
What is never mentioned outright but struck me immediately was the class gap between the two men. As Wallace struggles to make ends meet Andre seems to have an endless supply of funds for adventure.
I’m starting to believe having financial privilege leads to manufacturing ordeals in order to grow and expand. I was particularly struck with the severe lengths to which Andre went in order to feel the heaviness of death, the capacity for raw creativity without language or structure. Beautiful experiences all and as he told the story, I was transfixed by his zest and authenticity. And yet.
This weighs on me a lot. Some months in last few years have felt like financial ordeals as I’ve struggled to make rent in this expensive city. But these are not experiences I’ve sought out, at least not consciously. They’re the messy toil of the creative class in a capitalist system and my health within this system relies on my earning capacity (which is healthier than it’s ever been, thankfully).
It came up in a conversation not long ago, I was complaining about all the moneyed people hiking, biking, and doing yoga challenges while I tried to figure out a way to reduce my phone bill to fit within my monthly budget. Is it another form of privilege to bitch about people of privilege? I mean, I have housing. I breathe clean air and have enough food in the fridge. Still, I experience a searing resentment when I hear of the seekers with financial means reaching ever higher spiritual realms while I often spend my almost daily meditations visualizing spreadsheets. (so mindful!)
After the film, there was a dinner at a nearby pub and I got to chatting with a retired teacher about the film’s subject matter. She identified most strongly with Wally, with wanting the familiar comforts of home. I wondered aloud if the seekers are filling an important need: to show us what lives out beyond our comfort zones, even if it does feel insufferably smug sometimes.
I appreciated the Buddhist themes, which were still fresh in the Western narrative in the early 80’s. I thought of what Leonard Cohen said about his years at a Zen monastery, that the biggest adventure of his life was exploring the landscape of his mind. I’m also keen to learn this language of the heart, to forge an interior adventure that is expansive and real. A safari of the mind that fosters connection and empathy.
There is so much more to this story as the two men discuss their relationships, both to others and their careers. It’s a mind and heart expanding experience, this film. I often felt I was sitting at the table with them and that’s the deft directorial guidance of Louis Malle.
My Dinner with Andre offers a blueprint for the creative life. Approaching from the place of expansiveness and abundance (Andre) or from the place of comfort and rigorous toil (Wally). Ideally, I’d love to embody both philosophies. Although it’s unlikely I’ll put myself through the rigours of Everest anytime soon. But I am going on a meditation retreat in late March. We’ll see how that goes.