My essay on the new Criterion released of My Dinner With Andre, one of the most unlikely American independent cinema success stories of all time, is now running on Turner Classic Movies Online. It’s a fiction based on autobiography, with theater director Andre Gregory and playwright (and sometime actor) Wallace Shawn portraying fictionalized versions of themselves, named Andre and Wally, in a staged conversation shot on the elaborate set of an expensive (but imaginary) restaurant in the manner of a documentary by French director Louis Malle.
It’s at once awesome and unreal. Gregory really did travel as a spiritual pilgrim seeking meaning in life and he recounts his tales with the dynamic intensity of a performing storyteller. His stories and philosophical musings can be compelling if you let yourself get carried away by Gregory’s passion, which is as genuine (if exaggerated for the film; Gregory credits Malle with bringing out a somewhat manic quality) as his adventures. But there’s also an element of the pretentious New York dilettante who escapes the yoke of work to indulge in the travel and cultural wanderlust out of the reach of the rest of us. Wally, meanwhile, is skeptical of the spiritual odyssey and defensive of his own modest experiences and his way of life. Perhaps he takes Andre’s critique of the modern life as an empty existence a personal criticism. Perhaps it’s a competitive streak that compels him to intellectually wrestle with Andre.
The result is an intellectual bull session as cinematic performance piece, a dynamic dinner conversation between active artists who have known each other long enough to let down a few defenses and let loose some wild ideas and confessions. It is also the pretentious proclamations and justifications of two privileged men who can afford a meal at an upscale New York eatery, batting around the meaning of life while working folk, more noticed by the audience than the characters themselves, modestly wait on them and then wait for them to finish: Andre and Wally are the last left in the restaurant at closing time. The dynamism of the film lies in the tension between these two poles – the passion of their positions and the abstraction of their dialogue, our ability to identify with them and our dislocation from their rarified position of Upper East Side New York artist/intellectuals – while the pleasures are in the company, the ideas and the intrigue of the conversation itself.
Read the complete essay on the TCM website here.