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Gregory enchant
Some films you see at exactly the right time and they stay with you forever. The least cinematic (argue as much as you like) of my ‘inner circle’ of significant movies is Louis Malle’s MY DINNER WITH ANDRE. Camus is 21 again reviewing the Criterion Collection’s US region A Blu-ray…
 
  "Someone asked me the other day if I could name a movie that was entirely devoid of clichés. I thought for a moment, and then answered, My Dinner With Andre. Now I have seen the movie again; a restored print is going into release around the country, and I am impressed once more by how wonderfully odd this movie is, how there is nothing else like it. It should be unwatchable, and yet those who love it return time and again, enchanted."
  Legendary movie critic Roger Ebert reassessing
the film eighteen years after its release in 1981*

 

Let me introduce myself as one profoundly enchanted. If I can paraphrase what 'the narrator' says about Marla at the end of Fight Club... "My Dinner with Andre met me at a very strange time in my life." To those of you who read Cine Outsider's reviews and tolerate and forgive (or even enjoy) the personal connections we reveal intertwined with the films we cover, it's time to ask you for more patience than normal. Andre (and the 'é' is missing in the actual movie title) lives in my film-going past as a diving regulator appears before a drowning man. This film did more to rescue me in ways I cannot count at a time I really needed support. Let me get the autobiographical stuff out of the way so you can appreciate the film. I promise to be brief. Be aware that 'brief' is subjective. Three and a half weeks later... To skip to the review, avoiding the personal blather, off you trot down to paragraph four.

Wallace Shawn and André. Gregory in My Dinner with Andre

In the Spring of 1982, lots of very odd things were happening. I celebrated my 21st birthday in San Francisco and a day later started working on The Right Stuff. I later found out that my country had gone to war a few weeks earlier – war had been declared on my actual birthday. Margaret Thatcher had obviously been informed that prime ministers boost their popularity with gung-ho, tub-thumping and off the British Forces went to Argentina. The world wasn't as connected then but it was still an awkward feeling being away at such a tumultuous time. The road to The Right Stuff had been rocky. I'd spent $400, in 1982 that was over $1,000 today, on the est training, a two weekend course that sought to enable you, and I quote "to transform one's ability to experience living so that the situations one had been trying to change or had been putting up with, clear up just in the process of life itself." That still sounds good to me. I was staying with the training's recruitment officer so had little choice of avoiding signing up and came out the other end having had a spectacular experience but none the wiser and with no money and an offer of the next roof over my head from a kind, gay man who had seen the way I wore my keys. I'm not gay but apparently I was announcing that I was. Months earlier, I'd seen the Alan Whicker documentary where I learned the 'key code' but didn't twig that I was broadcasting fake news... The gay key code in the 80s included interpreting which side of your hip you clipped keys on to. At first it was a simple right meant gay, left meant straight. Then it mutated into right meant submissive and left meant dominant. Well, if you were straight, you were (I hesitate to say 'screwed') caught, two score and two times, a no-win scenario. Well, my kind host remarked upon which side my keys were clipped which was a blatant pass, one that I was too young to deal with maturely. He lived with three other gay men and I admit back then, I was a little anxious. I lasted one night before I told my new friend that I had to move on. Bless him, he gave me a little money to get back into the city. I promised to pay him back.

Wallace Shawn

He dropped me off at his landlady's place, a lovely woman who was a hoot and her daughter and friend took me to see My Dinner with Andre that evening (it was my birthday after all) while I stayed on one of their couches afterwards and talked into the early hours. I remember their kindness with such clarity as it was unbidden and absolutely needed at that time. I have never had an experience in the cinema where I wanted to write down everything that was being said. Ideas were going off like rockets in my head, supplemental thoughts and feelings prompted by this extraordinary film. And it took me to a mental place that made me see my potentially homeless and penniless predicament so far from home with almost a professional lucidity. A day later I got that job on The Right Stuff... Heady times. I owe Andre a lot. For years afterwards, I organised Andre parties because the resulting conversations were enthralling. It covers a lot of ground. It may interest you to know that I sent my gay friend his money back and he sent me a thank you card with the cover of a banana with keys clipped to it... I still have that somewhere.

Imagine the movie pitch. "Okay, it starts with a balding, downtrodden playwright trudging the back streets of New York in Winter. He's inwardly complaining via voice over about having been tricked into having a meal with a theatre director while being overtly concerned with the mundane aspects of his own existence. When he gets to the restaurant, one not suited to his status, he slips a pre-knotted tie over his head, goes in and starts having dinner with the director. The director does most of the talking until ninety minutes in, the playwright starts to react and the to and fro dialogue is electric!" I'm imagining the questions from the suits... "So when does the dimensional hole open up above Manhattan and the Chitari start invading?" "No giant waves?" "At least give me a sailor on leave dancing in the streets... Ma Ma Land?" "The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man?" Nope. Two guys talking. In a restaurant. We ride home in a cab with one of them to Erik Satie's sublime Gymnopédie No. 1. That's it. I have the faintest idea, dimly receding into the far off horizon that a film like My Dinner with Andre would not only never receive funding in 2017, it would be laughed out of the building. What's the best 'celebrity' pitch? Co-written by the Voice of Pixar's T-Rex from the Toy Story Franchise and the guy who played John The Baptist in The Last Temptation of Christ. You can just about fit that on a poster but it's never going to sell. No. And yet on its first release it was quite popular which shocked a lot of people.

My Dinner with Andre poster

Okay, we could have gone with Louis Malle's credits. He was a serious talent having made both the controversial Pretty Baby and the poetic Atlantic City a few years earlier. It just wouldn't have been as much fun. My Dinner with Andre is a beautiful, singular, unique one-off. The fact that it is directed by a very famous film director is almost incidental. The man had to have the smarts to cover his two talkers and provide the editor, Suzanne Baron, with coverage so the cuts could be timed as per the conversational segue points. This film was word-driven in a way cinema usually isn't. And despite this, it has a magic that is unquantifiable. I may be under-appreciating Malle's efforts (I really do not mean to demean anyone's efforts on any film because I know how hard it is to conjure magic and how easy it is to fail) but it is a conversation. You have limited directorial choices. Shoot Wally or shoot Andre. Close ups or mid shots. Frame the mirror behind one or both of them. Give us a wide so we can check out that literally hard blinking waiter letting us know the soup is "quite delicious..." A GoPro on the table shooting through the condiments just wouldn't have cut the mustard.

There is very little point in reviewing this in any standard way. It's a film about two men having a conversation, one at first fanciful and spiritual which then mutates into pushing reason forward and how those ideas (and indeed men) clash and the result is what gives the film such a frisson. It's not surprising that the following piece from Andre found its way on to Facebook recently... It's André talking to Wally...

"OK. Yes, we are bored. We're all bored now. But has it ever occurred to you Wally that the process that creates this boredom that we see in the world now may very well be a self-perpetuating, unconscious form of brainwashing, created by a world totalitarian government based on money, and that all of this is much more dangerous than one thinks? And it's not just a question of individual survival Wally, but that somebody who's bored is asleep, and somebody who's asleep will not say no?"

André Gregory

The world needs dinners with Andrés, now more than ever. I was prompted to write this review by seeing the clip quoted above on Facebook and the irony struck me harder than most. One of the things promoting this culture of boredom and disconnection is the ironically named 'social media'. I wouldn't be on Facebook if I didn't think it had some value but like most fun things, too much can cut you off from other things that might need attention – like real human beings. Facebook almost certainly put that ignorant clown into the White House. The other reason was the introduction to these shores of the great Criterion Collection, which started in April last year. My November Jabberwocky Blu-ray is on pre-order. The actual disc I'm reviewing is the US Criterion Collection disk issued in 2015. The new cover inserts the 'é' on the title despite it being absent in the film and all of André's credits but we'll be forgiving just this once. Someone accused me of being a pedant a week or so ago. I replied that I saw myself more of an 'exactuarist' and no, I don't know what that means either. Onwards.

sound and vision

Presented in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio, so the black bars will be on the sides of the wide screen, the film has never looked better with a caveat. For obvious budgetary reasons, this movie was shot on 35mm's little brother, 16mm but the 2K transfer has soaked up every bit of detail available from the hard working format. But grain is more visible on a 16mm blow up but hey, the contrast is good, colour timings and exposure is fine. There are a few focus issues in the first few minutes while Wally is trudging the streets but we're fine once we're inside the restaurant. The booklet tells us of thousands of little repairs done with three post production devices, all much appreciated. There is a technical issue I'd like to resolve. It all hinges on whether the film was shot on 1.33:1 16mm and subsequently cropped top and bottom to achieve the 1.66:1 aspect ratio or was it shot on Super 16mm with the aspect ratio of 1.66:1 to start with? I strongly suspect the former because in a clip contained in the My Dinner With Louis extra, you see so much more at the top and bottom of frame... Were the first VHS versions, full screen 1.33:1 for the same size TVs of old? Here's what I originally thought with comparison frame grabs. One of the trials of shooting on physical film were physical objects, notably hairs in the camera gate which would then be exposed and if you were unlucky it would pull the eye as it wiggled around at the edge of frame as the film moved through the gate. Well, this movie has a doozy.

A comparison between the Criterion and an earlier 4:3 transfer

In the BBC Arena extra feature, have a look at that beauty of a hair in the movie clip shown at 45' 57". It reoccurs because the shot is intercut with close ups. Have a look at the shot from the actual film (57' 10"). The entire shot and subsequent cuts of the same shot has been artfully zoomed in and moved according to the movements of the waiter. It means we miss seeing the food placed in front of André (the move down to show the dish proves the shot has had its aspect ratio altered).

The remix of the original mono soundtrack is crystal clear (for this film, thank God) and has a pleasing low-end aspect to it that was absent on other versions I own. There are English subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing.

extra features

BBC's Arena: My Dinner With Louis (1984) (52' 12")
Narrated by Wallace Shawn, I actually remember this (and recording it on VHS) from whatever year it was broadcast – quick Google search...1984. Malle's career is gently inspected with Shawn being the reverent interviewer. It's curious that clips from some of his early films were in really questionable quality but what am I saying? It's standard definition and God knows what media was used to pull the clip from.  Malle was always an interesting filmmaker willing to go to places most directors would not dare to go today (child prostitution anyone?), Malle comes across as erudite and quietly enthusiastic. He mentions at the end that he wants his audience to leave the theatre with more questions than they came in with. That's an artist talking. "Since I am pretty confused myself, I don't see why my spectators shouldn't  be as confused as I am." Indeed!

Interviews from 2009 of both André Gregory and Wallace Shawn conducted by their friend and fellow filmmaker Noah Baumbach (1 hr 00' 35")
The way the two men actually crossed paths is utterly charming and you should find that out for yourself. A spoiler in an extra, whatever next? These interviews are appealingly intimate and I didn't realise how much Louis Malle wanted to be involved... And creatively he suggested that there should be no striking visuals in the film, which is an extraordinary idea for a feature film. I loved the idea that Wally is hiding behind silence and André behind words. It's such a beautiful insight, which of course mirrors towards the end. I'm getting teary eyed at André's ambition for the film – to get people talking, really talking. I wrote earlier not having seen this extra that this is exactly what I did with the film, used it to crack open quiet friends and really talk. I didn't think I could love this movie more. André admits having an electric blanket on his lap throughout the shooting (ironic, see the movie) as it was way too expensive to heat the real abandoned, southern hotel in which the movie was mostly shot. Words are hugely powerful, an idea that has been all but discarded in modern cinema. Discuss! Louis Malle as a deep-sea diver! Wow! He burst his eardrums, which led to his filmmaking career! Double wow. And we are only halfway through this extra. Enter Wallace Shawn... The one idea that resonates with Shawn's interview is that they made the movie about being asleep and waking up. Is it any wonder that my favourite podcast is actually entitled 'Waking up'? Please Google Sam Harris for many podcasts of wisdom and enlightenment. Wallace Shawn comes over a little more strident than André but he's still the man we know from his cinematic alter ego. This is a loving tribute to both men and is to be applauded.

Wallace Shawn

Booklet
Again, this is utterly charming and shows that someone really loves this movie. It's formatted as a standard courier font filled script and it has red wine stains and glass circles and the metal pins used to hold scripts together are photographically present. It is so nicely done that it actually makes me smile. The chapter headings and cast and crew details are joined by an essay on the movie by Amy Taubin entitled "Long, Strange Trips" and André and Wally's own "On the Origins of My Dinner with André." Taubin's piece is a detailed examination of the film with lots of supplemental information and is a wealth of goodies for this Andre fan. To be fair, it is reprinted from the 2009 Criterion DVD release. The other piece by the boys themselves is their intro to the published screenplay, which of course I bought as soon as I could in 1982. Re-reading it today is like visiting a friend I'd not seen for quite some time. It's a terrific booklet, bravo Criterion.

summary

I'm not in the least bit objective when it comes to this film and I am stunned how relevant and how resonant it still is. Given the mess we're in right now, it's probably more relevant than ever. It's about reclaiming a lost humanity and a connection between people that has been elbowed aside or at least put on pause by the global digital takeover. To be glib, don't Facebook, book a time to meet that face. The film is at times confounding, irrational, rational, off the wall, angry, funny and loving. It shows on screen what friendship is and how inspired we can be if we just made eye contact and listened as much as we want to talk. I simply adore this film and the effect it has had and continues to have on my life.

 


* http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-my-dinner-with-andre-1981

My Dinner with Andre Blu-ray packshot
My Dinner with Andre

USA 1981
110 mins
directed by
Louis Malle
produced by
George W. George
Beverly Karp
written by
Wallace Shawn
Andre Gregory
cinematography
Jeri Sopanen
editing
Suzanne Baron
music
Allen Shawn
production design
David Mitchell
starring
Andre Gregory
Wallace Shawn
Jean Lenauer
Roy Butler

disc details
region A
video
1.66:1
sound
LPCM 1.0 mono
languages
English
subtitles
English SDH
extras
Arena: My Dinner with Louis
IUnterviews with André Gregory and Wallace Shawn
Booklet
distributor
Criterion
release date
16 June 2015
review posted
24 October 2017

See all of Camus' reviews