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My Dinner with Andre, Revisited

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It is rare that I go a second time to a movie I didn't enjoy the first time, but in the case of My Dinner With Andre, I suspected the fault might be with me and not with the movie. Like the Parisian audience at an Arthur Rubinstein recital who booed a new piece by Ravel and were rewarded with--what else--a second performance of the same piece, I wondered if I might benefit from giving this supposed masterpiece a second chance.

I am glad to report the Rubinstein theory proved correct. Seeing the film last week at the Walter Reade Theater (as part of a short Louis Malle festival), I wondered how I could have failed to enjoy it the first time. The difference was partly the big screen. It is remarkable how even a movie as intensely talky and indoorsy as this one improves when seen as it is meant to be seen--not on a twenty-inch screen with DVD skips courtesy of Netflix. The immersion in Andre and Wally's world, in every facial nuance and change of camera angle, was complete.

Strange to say, the time of year--a certain New Year's state of mind--also added to the enjoyment. So much of Wally and Andre's conversation, manically miscellaneous as it at first appears (especially on Andre's part), boils down to the question of how to live a satisfying and worthwhile life. It is a question I think we are likelier to ask ourselves in the quiet of January than in some other, busier month.

In the persons of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, this question seems to have two opposing answers: we can live life in the comforts of routine, domesticity, and the enjoyment of small, daily pleasures, such as reading a book, drinking coffee, or making conversation. This is the Wally Shawn view of life, and as Shawn is both the first-person narrator of the film (it is his dinner with Andre) and the more immediately likable of the two characters, we naturally are inclined to agree with him.

The Andre Gregory view, by contrast, seems at first to hold little appeal. An experimental theater director in real life as in the film (there is a fraught border between the two here), Gregory monopolizes the first half of the conversation with increasingly bizarre stories of New Agey theater projects and avant-garde happenings around the world, all of which appear to be funded by some unmentioned trust fund. There is something of the aging prep-school eccentric in his character: only someone this well-educated and this well-capitalized could be this weird. An uncharitable reviewer on Netflix, who I am certain gave up halfway through the movie, titled his review "Dinner Guest from Hell," and the response is partly understandable.

But what is the Andre Gregory view of life? It seems to be that the great danger is of falling into a kind of auto-pilot, of failing to live fully awake and present. His theater experiments in the Polish woods or the Sahara, his out-there opinions--that New York is the model for "a new type of concentration camp, built by the inmates," or that it is good to use one's non-dominant hand to open doors as not to be lulled into a "dream world"--are all manifestations of this search for a more vivid life. As bizarre as the manifestations are, Andre's outlook shares something with those Eastern philosophies that seek to cultivate an awareness of the present moment. One doesn't need to be a New Age zealot to see the value in this.

As the movie went on I found myself, to my surprise, frequently sympathizing with the Dinner Guest from Hell. This is not to say Wally Shawn's character and his way of seeing the world--healthy, earthy, sociable, and sensible--isn't still appealing. Indeed, the ideal of any Eastern philosopher might be to find some balance between Wally's contentment and Andre's questing alertness. But for me, as the new year began, it was Andre who captured my imagination and reminded me that, sometimes, to be unsettled may in fact a good thing.