Friday, January 7, 2011

Roasted Quail, Gripping Existential Crisis On The Side

Hello dear readers! Happy new year and welcome back to Miss Ariadne's regularly scheduled programming: a discussion of food in my favorite films. If you have any film suggestions, please leave a comment or email me at! Now on to the main course - today's film: My Dinner with Andre.

Made in 1981, My Dinner with Andre at first glance offers a premise that feels entirely uncinematic. Two men at dinner, talking. That's it. It's the kind of 3-minute exercise you make your first year of film school to learn about shot-reverse-shot. It's not really material for a 2-hour long feature.

Well, luckily for us, French auteur Louis Malle didn't agree. And while 90% of the film is just two actors sitting at a table, his shots are precise, concise and perceptive. Every reflection is captured and interpreted, every bit of behavior meaningful: furtive glances with a very funny, very hostile waiter, the chewing (!) of soup, a flurry of hand gestures. As with much great filmmaking and photography, the longer you look at a shot, the more it has to tell you. In this way, Malle takes a simple, unassuming idea and turns it into a deeply engaging, often heartbreaking tête-à-tête between two artists examining the world they live in and the way they live in it.

However, this hostess is willing to bet even a film school exercise would be captivating if the dinnermates in question were Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn.
The script was developed and written by the longtime friends and collaborators and you can tell. The dialogue is specific, funny, intelligent and unembarrassed.

Wallace Shawn in The Princess Bride.

Wallace Shawn is most recognizable in popular culture for his roles as Vizzini in The Princess Bride - the little guy running around lisping "inconcievable!" - and as lovelorn debate teacher Mr. Hall in Clueless. His life's work, however, is in the theater as a sometimes controversial playwright - a role he plays in the film as well. At the film's outset, he tells us how he's about to go have dinner with a man he's tried to avoid for years, the man who gave him his start in the theater - Andre Gregory, a theater director, in the film as he is in life. (Though it is often said that the characters are autobiographical, Shawn and Gregory always reject this idea, saying if given the opportunity they would make the film again, each playing the other's role.)

And so theater with a capital T is the jumping-off point for a bewitching conversation about how to live. They quickly dispense with the ordering of food - to start, terrine de poisson for Gregory, a hearty potato mushroom soup called bramborova polevka for Shawn, and roast quail with raisins for the both. But let's be serious. This is not a film about food. This is a film about how thought provoking and challenging dinner conversation can be - something that feels like a forgotten art form nowadays.

Shawn is a pragmatist who believes in the simple pleasures of life. An electric blanket, for example, on a cold New York night, is a very pleasurable, comforting thing. Gregory argues the opposite. He says "I wouldn't put on an electric blanket for any reason. First, I'd be worried if I get electrocuted. No, I don't trust technology. But I mean, the main thing, Wally, is that I think that kind of comfort just separates you from reality in a very direct way."

Andre Gregory. NOT in The Princess Bride.

Having recently returned to "normal" life from a variety of what he calls "experiences," Gregory plays Quixote to Shawn's Panza. While not so foolish as the fictional caballero, Gregory, years earlier, abruptly abandoned his successful life as a director and disappeared from the theater community. He tells Shawn how a friend found him weeping in the street after seeing the Ingmar Bergman film Autumn Sonata, in which a classical pianist played by Ingrid Bergman (in her final film performance) says: "I could always live in my art, but not in my life."

He then tells Shawn about how he's spent the past few years, aggressively pursuing a way of life that verges on the fantastic. He spends the first hour of the film talking almost nonstop about his experiences being buried alive on Halloween night in Long Island as part of a performance art piece, talking to insects at a Scottish eco-village/spiritual community, being "baptized" by Polish actors in woodland paradise and speaking and communing with mythical creatures, most notably a bright blue creature with violets growing out of its eyelids and and poppies growing out of its toenails.

He talks about how these experiences led him to feel that there is no way to live but uncomfortably. To live by habit and comfort is to not be living at all...a notion Shawn, while captivated by Gregory's stories, completely rejects.

I'm sure a lot of this sounds a little cerebral and, for my taste, it normally would be. But as Roger Ebert correctly says about it, "it should be unwatchable and yet those who love it return time and again, enchanted." He's right. After seeing the film for the first time, I wanted to download it into my brain and carry it around with me, thinking and rethinking about the questions it poses about living a creative life.

On the Criterion Collection - oh, Criterion, I love you, but really, no Almodovar? - you can see a conversation between Noah Baumbach and Wallace Shawn, 30 years after the making of My Dinner with Andre and also, a short trailer. But these are just appetizers, don't skip the meal! Rent it, buy it, stream it, but watch it. Because let's face it. On a wintery night, nothing is better than a warm dinner, endless wine, and mindblowing, thought-provoking conversation.

Fun fact: in Waiting for Guffman, Corky St. Clair sells My Dinner With Andre figurines. I wonder where we can get our hands on some...

First ten minutes of the film here:

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