Philosophy and Film - Return to Main Page
 


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.
The specific stories and issues discussed in the film are as follows: Polish theatre director Gratovsky who organizes 40 people in a forest retreat and 100 people in the “bee hive”; the Little Prince; Japanese Buddhist monk Kozan who goes with Andre to the Sahara desert and later lives with Andre and family; the flag; the Scottish agricultural community; Halloween on Long Island; awareness that he is an intellectual creep; people not saying what they’re really feeling but simply play roles; breaking life’s habits and experiencing each moment anew; needing extraordinary experiences to get in touch with reality; contemporary culture turning us into robots and the need to create new centers to preserve life; science vs. the supernatural; perceiving death.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

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?

REVIEWS

My Dinner with Andre strikes me as a film which many wish to have seen, but few wish to see. Though I understand full well that, like philosophy itself, the film is meant for "selective audiences," and though I love philosophy, I simply could not bring myself to become engaged in the film. It is, to be blunt, about 30 minutes of interesting dialogue packed into a 110-minute film. Most of the film consists of Andre's blabbering forth syrupy pop-spirituality, which is meant to be legitimized somehow by his connection to the theatre community. Though Andre occasionally makes a good point, he consistently does so in the same annoying, patronizing manner, in which he treats Wally – who for most of the film plays the part of the audience – as though he were some poor simpleton who has never had the privilege of Andre's hippie-dippy enlightenment camps. By the third act, Wally finally begins to speak up and offers some criticisms of Andre's views; though I understand the purpose of the mounting tension released at this point, Wally simply did not offer enough bite in his replies to be satisfactory. In particular, I was most bothered by Andre's repeated (usually implied) insistence that his whacky adventures are necessary to get in touch with reality. As the film uses Wally as the audience's on-screen counterpart, I was thoroughly disappointed when he did not slap Andre in the face and inform him that all he has accomplished is getting in touch with whacky adventures, and thus has set himself up for precisely the same sort of alienation which he so thoroughly laments. -- Frezno Smooth

I would not recommend this movie, unless the philosophical issues of finding a persons purpose in life was worth watching a hour and half two guy chatting. The movie made some nice and interesting points. However, the movie was too long, a little boring, and the meaning of the movie was hard to pinpoint. Watching one person chat for 45 minutes in a motion picture is not my impression of entertaining. The philosophical issues of knowing ones purpose in life was interesting; however, the movie could have been shortened to half an hour, no more. The meaning of life and the pursuit of what it means to you is a worthy philosophical issue for a movie, and the way that Andre wanted to find his true self in the world was a rightful challenge. However, Andre picked an expensive restaurant, and the way he acted towards the waiter shows the true nature of a rich person not an individual. -- Ubermensch

This went on a little long. A lot of interesting concepts were touched on, and largely the movie served as a comparison between two lifestyles. Andre is an eccentric and a traveler, and Wallace is more of a settled type. Andre believes and argues that life should be lived in a spontaneous fashion, and that comforts that make one too sedentary should be discarded. Wallace seems to mostly be a background character throughout the film, asking questions to prompt Andre, and responding to his largely rhetorical questions. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not going to say the dialogue was boring. It wasn’t. There were numerous wonderful little tidbits of thought and ideas ripe for exploration. Andre Gregory seems like a terribly interesting guy. The problem here is one of choosing an appropriate medium. Visual mediums like painting, theater, and cinema, are best used when something is worth looking at. This production could have benefited enormously if, before anyone started wasting film or location scouting budgets, Andre Gregory would have said to himself, “Ya know what? Screw a movie, I’m just gonna write this stuff down. Maybe an essay or a short story.” As a text, I wouldn’t have been able to put this down. As a film, I had to continuously rock myself back and fourth in the little booth in the media center to keep my attention on the screen. I do not have ADD, but this film made me feel like it. The fact that they even credited someone as directing it stuck me as pretty bizarre. -- Reviewer from Hell


 
Philosophy and Film - Return to Main Page