Notes from ningyo editions studio and gallery

Lobby Card #11: My Dinner with Andre

david curcio

Lobby Card: My Dinner with Andre: “We’re ghosts, we’re phantoms.  What are we?  And that’s to face the fact that you’re completely alone.  And to accept that you’re alone is to accept death.”

With no plot as such, My Dinner with Andre uses one of the most simple concepts imaginable – two people having a conversation – and crams it with enough ideas to chew on for a lifetime, or at least to keep us coming back for multiple viewings.

Wally Shawn seemingly plays himself: a down-at-heals playwrite, burnt-out and exhausted as he tries to make ends meet in the punishing world of theater.   (Although the actors use their real names and recount many events that actually happened to them, Shawn insists that they are not to be mistaken for their actual selves.  In an interview he said “I wanted to destroy that guy that I played, to the extent that there was any of me there. I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film, because that guy is totally motivated by fear.”)

A world-weary Wallace Shawn, on his way to dinner with Andre.

A world-weary Wallace Shawn, on his way to his dinner with Andre.

Invited to dinner at a posh Upper West Side restaurant by the playwrite Andre Gregory, Wally is seized with fear – this is an invitation he has been dodging for months, having heard strange accounts of Andre’s behavior since he dropped out of the scene a few years ago.  When Andre arrives at the restaurant he is all hugs and joviality, and the two settle into a cozy booth wherein Andre commences to recount the wild, almost primal escapades that resulted from his search for a pure form of theater, as he is convinced that any real truths are impossible in contemporary theater as it exists in its current form.  Drastic new measures must be undertaken to restore it to its original purpose.  Andre’s accounts of his time spent in jungles and deserts with experimental troupes, his odd house guest and revelatory moments tell us he has been looking very hard indeed.

Wally and Andre

Wally and Andre

As Wally listens to Andre recount his peregrinations, strings of uncanny coincidences and unusual people he has befriended during his absence from the scene, he finds himself dumbfounded.  To buy time, he asks feeble questions (e.g. “So then what happened?”), in an effort to fend off the inevitable need to participate in the conversation himself.  When he does finally open up, it is with an admixture of incredulity, fascination and confusion.  In discussing the role of chance in art and life, Wally uses the example of the ancients sending their ships into battle based on the way a bird’s eggs fall from its nest, insisting it is insane, nonsensical, and could have no real effect, to which  Andre asks him just what should they have done – what did they have had to go on – what would he have had to go on?   Wally becomes heated, and the conversations shifts and builds as he insists that a fortune cookie message with dark portents telling him not to take a plane trip would certainly give him pause, but he would still take the trip as he knows that message was produced in a factory by someone who could have absolutely no idea about him or his travel plans.  The roles of chance and coincidence are debated in great depth, with Shawn’s squinting eyes gradually opening to the vast, unknowable possibilities that lie outside of our consciousness.

    The original screenplay described the waiter as having a concentration camp tattoo on his hand, underscoring the death motif in the film.

The original screenplay described the waiter as having a number from a concentration camp tattooed on his hand, underscoring the death motif in the film.

No less a dialogue on the nature of fate, life and death, My Dinner with Andre is a film that the two writers believed could not only bring to light the issues facing theater, but expand upon the nature and uses of cinema.  French legend Louis Malle (The Fire Within, Murmur of the Heart, Atlantic City) saw the screenplay and readily agreed to direct.  Despite comments from the predictable detractors (“Nothing happens!”), the film brings us into the minds of two serious thinkers, quick to realize they know no more about the nature of existence than anyone else, but willing to have a go at it, at least for an hour or two.


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