On 8 October 1981, it was morning in the US—Ronald Reagan was in the White House, the hostages were back from Iran, and the “malaise” that Jimmy Carter had said had affected the nation was being forgotten—and a film with two people talking over dinner made its way to the cinema halls. Louis Malle had directed the film, and it was called My Dinner with Andre.
Like High Noon (1952), the old Gary Cooper classic, here was a film that operated in real time: It was a simple, direct film, about a conversation between men who had not met each other for some time, and it began with their arrival in the restaurant, and ended with their departure. Over the course of that meal, they not only ate fine food; their conversation covered an astonishing span, with profound thoughts expressed effortlessly as though they were from a well-planned script, and inverted the meaning of that Brechtian dictum—eating comes first, morality later. Here, morality came first, eating was incidental.
Last Sunday, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London, Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, the two friends whose conversation the film celebrates, spoke about the film, its deeper resonance, and their work in the past 30 years, including several projects done together. These projects include the workshop production of Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), now also a film, and Master Builder, based on an Ibsen play. Together, the three form a formidable, Proustian trilogy of our time.
Proustian: A still My Dinner with Andre (AFP)
And it is an erudite film—the conversation includes informed references to the English novelist Jane Austen, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, the American writer of the “beat generation”, Jack Kerouac, the surrealist Andre Breton, the French pilot and writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the Austrian philosopher Martin Buber, and the Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski, among others.
When you put together a list as eclectic as that, you might think that this is the beginning of a good Woody Allen joke: After all, think of that wonderful scene in Annie Hall (1977), when Allen, as Alvy Singer, is stuck behind a pompous academic in a queue to buy tickets to a film, where the man pontificates about how the media critic Marshall McLuhan would have interpreted something. Allen, as Singer, ridicules him, at which the man bristles, and informs Singer that he teaches a course at Columbia University about TV, media, and culture, so he knows what he is talking about. At which point, an older man interrupts the conversation, saying: “I heard what you were saying! You know nothing of my work…. How do you teach a course in anything is totally amazing.” He is Marshall McLuhan. If only the real world were like that, Singer says.
Shawn has acted in a few of Allen’s films—Manhattan (1979), Radio Days (1987), The Curse of the Jade Scorpion (2001), Melinda and Melinda (2004). And while My Dinner with Andre is set in the Allen habitat, it is not satire. It distils the angst of the human condition, a topic of perpetual fascination for Allen, once you penetrate through the layers of humour. Indeed, My Dinner with Andre depicts the Ivy League-educated New Yorker-reading Upper East Side (or make it Upper West Side) bhadralok of Manhattan, whose world view gets formed by the op-ed pages of New York Times (some of them even write those pieces) and who eagerly await the next issue of The New York Review of Books. Describing that class, though not intentionally, early in the film, Shawn says: “When I was 10 years old, I was rich, I was an aristocrat. Riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I thought about was art and music. Now, I’m 36, and all I think about is money.”
The film’s setting is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s world.(Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images/AFP )
The film began as an experiment, with Gregory and Shawn talking to each other over extended periods, and Shawn recording the conversation and creating a script out of it—not by adding new material, but by editing it skilfully. Shawn is a playwright and actor; Gregory is a writer, director and actor. At their conversation in London last week, Gregory related how eager Louis Malle was to make the film. He was tearful when he called them, saying he really wanted to direct the film, and if they didn’t want him to direct, he wanted to produce it. In the end, they made a gem, and like Samuel Beckett’s absurd play, Waiting for Godot (first staged in 1953), it reveals how much you can do with two men on a stage, no props, and little else (Godot has two other characters playing minor roles; Andre, too, does, with even less significant roles).
The central premise of their conversation is simple: What is the meaning of life? They don’t go about deciphering it and exploring it with that aim, nor do they intend to reach a conclusion by the end of the dinner. In fact, neither knows what they will talk about when they meet. We aren’t even sure how close they are as friends. They have not met each other in some time, and Shawn knows that Gregory has an annoying habit of disappearing from New York for extended periods, doing unusual things. What those things are, he doesn’t know, until they meet at this restaurant.
Wallace Shawn, one of the two protagonists of the film.(Central Press/Getty Images)
Shawn is more down-to-earth, aware of his immediate surroundings and his worldly obligations; Gregory gets inspired by a whim and takes off, abandoning his family in New York, returning months later as if nothing has changed. Shawn is wary about meeting Gregory, and begins by asking questions, aware that it would relax them both. Gregory takes off, his conversation meanders from what he did when he disappeared, and tells fascinating stories about being with Grotowski in a forest, going off to the Sahara, meeting a Japanese monk, and carrying on as if the quest of self-discovery, which many Americans underwent in the 1960s, hasn’t ended. Shawn, on the other hand, has stayed in New York, tried making a living, and realizes what it means to live up to one’s expected obligations and responsibilities. Neither is judgemental about the other; Gregory wants to experience the heightened sense of awareness life offers; Shawn doesn’t necessarily want to explore the parts of the unconscious best left undisturbed. Shawn understands what’s functional, Gregory explores the spiritual. Gregory fears apocalyptic visions, and sees deeper meaning—even messages—in what Shawn sees as mere coincidences. But towards the end of the conversation, Gregory reminds Shawn of the virtues of being sceptical of science and modernity, and Shawn acknowledges the mystical world that Gregory has experienced, and you realize how his world view has altered, even if slightly.
Gregory said something striking towards the middle of their conversation in London: He referred to a young man who was inconsolable after he had broken off with his boyfriend. With the wisdom of age, Gregory told him—you are going to hate me for saying this, but it gets better. And 10 years later, anything that’s tragic seems funny.
The first part of what he said made sense—time heals wounds. But the second part—that anything, however tragic, seems funny a decade later—seemed odd—they were speaking within weeks of the 10th anniversary of 11 September. The US wasn’t ready for Bill Maher’s humour then, it isn’t ready for any attempt to mock anything about 9/11 now either. You can mock the idea of freedom fries—but what else? So it was a provocative thought: Is every tragedy funny a decade later? Is there a statute of limitations to pain and tears? Does it make a difference if one is personal, the other political?
That weekend was an unusual one for me: It was the fifth anniversary of a personal bereavement, and it was the weekend my younger son went to university. The first parting was final; the second parting painful, but temporary. My son will be back in a weekend with his laundry. The immediacy of a child’s growing up and departing for college seems more overwhelming; the finality of a more permanent grief is of a different scale. Where Gregory wants to lead us is to possess equanimity and grace that allows us to laugh like the Buddha because, in the end, life is absurd.
Vladimir: That passed the time.
Estragon: It would have passed in any case.
Vladimir: Yes, but not so rapidly.
(Waiting for Godot)
Salil Tripathi writes the column Here, There, Everywhere for Mint.
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