MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981)
PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Aesthetics, meaning of life, postmodernism
CHARACTERS: Andre Gregory, Wallace Shawn, Chiquita (Andre’s wife), Debbie (Wallace’s live in girlfriend)
OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR LOUIS MALLE: Atlantic City (1980), God’s Country (1985), Au Revoir, Les Enfants (1987)
SYNOPSIS: The movie consists of a conversation between Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn, both of whom were active in New York theater at the time of the movie. Two themes tie the entire dialog together: (1) should we live spontaneously in the moment, disconnecting ourselves from the purposes of our actions (a la Hindu Karma Yoga), and (2) what is the purpose of the theater. Andre answers yes to the first question and argues that experimental theater can help facilitate this. Wally answers no to the first question and argues that theater has the more modest task of awakening us to new views and issues. In spite of the movie’s dialogically-driven format, it nevertheless follows the standard three-act formula of movie making (i.e., beginning, middle, and end). In Act 1, Wally displays reluctance to meet with Andre, thus creating the tension that is carried throughout the film. For about a half hour, Andre, with brilliant story-telling ability, describes his quests around the world in an attempt to find meaning. In Act 2, Andre defends his philosophy of life (point 1 above), while Wally uncomfortably listens and politely even concedes some points. In Act 3, Wally reveals his true opinion of Andre’s views and, defending common sense, hammers away at Andre’s notions of purposeless action, outposts of enlightenment, and the supernatural. Andre listens graciously to the attack. Both leave the dinner unconvinced of the others’ views, but rewarded by the debate. Like philosophy itself, this movie is for selective audiences, which the filmmakers themselves clearly understood. The format of “My Dinner with Andre” has influenced two other philosophical movies. In “The Quarrel” (1991), a conservative and a liberal Jew discuss the moral implications of the Nazi Holocaust. In “Mind Walk” (1991), a poet, politician and physicist discuss the relation between quantum physics and environmentalism.
1. Andre describes hallucinations that he had, which, from the perspective of an impartial observer, suggest that he was schizophrenic. Does his intellectualism and association with the theatre legitimize his hallucinatory experiences – more so than if, for example, an accountant had similar hallucinations?
2. Although we might explain away Andre’s experiences as the product of schizophrenia, what are we to make of all the people who went through the same experiences with him – e.g., the Polish theatre group, Gratovsky, Kozan?
3. Now rejecting his extreme adventures, Andre compares himself to Nazi architect Albert Speer, a cultured man who didn’t think that ordinary rules of life applied to him. Is anything about this comparison appropriate?
4. According to Andre, Gratovsky gave up the theatre since he felt that people were performing so well in their lives that the theatre was superfluous. Do we really perform in our daily lives in the way that actors perform on the stage? If so, then why do most people seem so unnatural when they attempt to perform on stage?
5. Andre describes a Scottish mathematician who would attempt to “break the habits of living” through a series of exercises, such as doing things with his left hand rather than his right. This would force him to learn things. What are the benefits and disbenefits of breaking such habits of living?
6. The electric blanket: Wally finds it to be an important creature comfort, but Andre believes that it separates us from reality; that is, like a lobotomy, comfort can lull us into a dangerous tranquility. Who’s right?
7. Andre discusses Martin Buber’s book “On Hadism” which describes the Hasidic view that there are spirits chained in everything, and prayer is the act of liberating them. Each moment of our lives, then, should be a kind of prayerful sacrament. Wally, by contrast, states that he has to block out large sections of the real world – such as people starving in Africa – in order to be happy. Who’s right?
8. Wally believes that serious plays about human alienation may make people aware of reality. Andre believes that such serious plays do more harm than good by only reinforcing the views of alienation that people already have. Theatre, he believes, should be eye-opening, like some of his experiences with the Theatre group in Poland. What’s the purpose of theatre?
10. Wally asks whether we need an extraordinary experience such as a trip to Mount Everest in order to perceive reality. Is there any kind of literature or theatre that can do this without taking a dramatic trip?
11. Wally states near the end of the film that in the normal world of jobs, bills, and other responsibilities, there’s no need for the awareness-outposts that Andre describes. Happiness can be achieved within our routine. Is Wally correct, or is he just a content robot?
12. Wally attempts to debunk Andre’s various supernatural experiences in favor of scientific explanations. Andre asks what’s the difference if all facts are meaningless. Wally responds, “The meaningless fact of the fortune cookie or the turtles egg can’t possibly have any relevance to the subject you’re analyzing. Whereas a group of meaningless facts that are collected and interpreted in a scientific way might quite possibly be relevant, because the wonderful thing about scientific theories of things is that they are based on experiments that can be repeated.” Is Wally correct in his rejection of the supernatural?
13. Andre states that science has been held up as a magical force that will solve everything, when in fact it has destroyed everything, thus making it necessary to create awareness outposts. To what extent might science be responsible for the modern alienation that Andre describes?
14. Wally states his fundamental objection to Andre’s strange adventures: Andre and those he was with attempted to strip purpose away from all activity in an attempt to experience pure being. But, according to Wally, it is our nature to do things with purpose. Andre responds that we can do all sorts of things but still be completely dead inside. Can these two views be reconciled?