“My Dinner with Andre” Part I: Wally in New York

In Communication, Life as Lived, My Dinner With Andre on April 24, 2009 at 8:47 pm

my_dinner_with_andre_xl_01-film-aMatthew Thomas, Kyoto

Am not sure if this belongs in the series on classicism or not, so I will jump in and make a determination later. “My Dinner with Andre” is the famous, or infamous, 1981 film of a dinner conversation between Wallace Shawn, the actor and playwright, and Andre Gregory, the theater director. If I were to make a twofold claim for the film: i) that it is one of the most action packed films ever made, and ii) that it effectively encapsulates the thematics of the entire 20th century, I do not think this would be overstatement. My intent here, however, is not to establish either of these postulates, but rather to simply “blog” the script in the hopes that what needs to be said works its way to the surface. Fair warning: the undertaking will require several posts.

A note on my surroundings, which may prove relevant: I am sitting in the lounge of the Stamford Plaza Hotel in Auckland, New Zealand and plying myself with an expensive, but not unappetizing, bottle of New Zealand Merlot. I am, in short, spending money that I need not spend, and spending it merely for the pleasure of doing so. I will charge the bottle to my room, and attempt to do so unaffectedly. Why does this bear mentioning? For one, because money crops up on two of the first three pages of the script, and because money, and the lack of it, is a theme that runs beneath the entire script: Andre has money, has the freedom to travel and to spend several years trying to “find himself”; Wally does not. Still, “having money” is, as ever, a relative concept.

At the opening of the film, Wally is seen walking through the streets of New York, heading for the restaurant where he is to meet Andre. It appears to be winter, maybe February. In the opening voice-over, Wally ruminates on the life of the artist:

The life of a playwright is tough. It’s not easy, as some people seem to think. You work hard writing plays, and nobody puts them on. You take up other lines of work to try to make a living–acting, in my case–and people don’t hire you. So you spend your days crossing the city back and forth doing the errands of your trade. Today wasn’t any easier than any other day. I’d had to be up by ten to make some important phone calls, then I’d gone to the stationary store to buy envelopes, and then to the xerox shop. There were dozens of things to do. By five o’clock I’d finally made it to the post office and mailed off several copies of my plays, meanwhile checking constantly with my answering service to see if my agent had called with any acting work. In the morning, the mailbox had been stuffed with bills. What was I supposed to do? How was I supposed to pay them? After all, I was doing my best (17).

One of the marvelous things about the film is the tongue-in-cheek humor that is rarely, if ever, directly alluded to. A deeply serious film, Andre is also a comedy, a fact which we can recognize because we see that the writers are having fun with the characters who are in turn themselves. That is, Wally and Andre are playing versions of themselves–we assume that most of the experiences that Andre recounts in the film are based on real experiences, and that Wally’s account of his home life is more or less true to life–but exaggerated versions. As Shawn says in the preface to the script, “I knew immediately that {…} I’d have to distort us both slightly–our conflicts would have to become sharpened–we’d have to become–well–characters {…} It would be an enormously elaborate piece of construction” (14). In this initial passage, the humor lies in Wally’s conception of a difficult life: “I’d had to be up by ten to make some important phone calls.” Shawn, of course, is the son of famed literary editor William Shawn, and born into privilege and wealth. He admits as much in the next lines:

“I’ve lived in this city all my life. I grew up on the Upper East Side, and when I was ten years old I was rich, I was an aristocrat, riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort, and all I though about was art and music. Now I’m thirty-six, and all I think about is money” (17).

These lines never fail to raise a chill in me, and even as I type them now, though I have seen the film at least a dozen times and read the script another ten, my body is engulfed in goose-bumps. I am moved despite the irony, the absurdity, of Wally’s conception of material want, want which drives him out of bed at the grotesque hour of ten in the morning to make telephone calls. Still, this line, “Now I’m thirty-six, and all I think about is money,” sticks with me wherever I go; I carry it as a sort of talisman, a reminder that nothing is guaranteed, that no matter where one begins in life one may be forced to beg, scrape, and compromise for a living, that, despite the massive injustice that exists between the rich and poor, there is an element of meritocracy running through modern society and socio-economics.  Leonard Cohen sings, “the poor stay poor and the rich get rich/ that’s how it goes/ and everybody knows.” Robyn Hitchcock (an Englishman), sings “the ruling class ain’t got no money.” Oddly enough, these statements may not be mutually exclusive. In any case, Wally, the former aristocrat, reluctantly accepts a dinner invitation from Andre. Andre and Wally had once upon a time been great friends, but, according to Wally, recently:

“something had happened to Andre. For months at a time his family seemed only to know that he was traveling by himself in odd parts of the world {…} You would occasionally hear that he’d been seen following around at the heels of some Buddhist monk or else that someone had seen him at a party, and he’d been talking with trees or something like that. It was obvious that something terrible had happened to Andre, and the whole idea of meeting him made me very nervous” (18).

Andre may have been living a life on the road, but when Wally meets him it is at a fancy restaurant, a fact which surprises Wally:

“When I’d called Andre, and he’d suggested that we meet at this expensive restaurant, I’d been rather surprised, because Andre’s tastes used to be very ascetic, even though everybody knows that he’s got some money hidden away somewhere–I mean, how the hell else could he have been flying off to Asia or wherever he went and still have been supporting his family?” (19)

A couple things of note here: i) Although Andre’s stories are indeed of asceticism and renunciation, a purely ascetic cast of mind appears to be a thing of the past. Andre is familiar with the menu, orders and drinks wine and an aperitif, pays the bill at the end of the evening. He acts, in other words, like a patron, and Wally’s superior; ii) While Wally is dressed in a camel-colored suit coat and tie, Andre is wearing a warm-looking and elegant greenish-grey sweater sans necktie. Oddly, the combination makes Andre look like the sophisticate, and Wally the striver, the wannabe, even the poseur. In short, Wally is on Andre’s turf (the waiter, for example, defers to Andre and sneers (almost) at Wally), and Wally’s discomfort is apparent throughout the first three-quarters of the film.

Several things occur to me at once here, and rather than taking the time to sort them out (this is a blog, after all), I will list them:

i) When, years ago, I was considering becoming a Zen Buddhist (pace Andre, and wait for future installments of this series if you haven’t seen the film) my father advised me against a life of asceticism. Specifically, and rather embarrassingly, he advised against my becoming a self-enforced vegetarian, teetotaler and celibate. In my time, I flirted with all three, and am still drawn to each, at least in the abstract. I also enjoy the idea, however, of the proverbial wine, women and song–though as a married man I am happy to settle for two out of three. In fact, I think I can safely say the the push and pull of asceticism and gluttony have defined my appetites for years, and continue to do so. Through the film Andre is in much the same position: he recounts to Wally his years of asceticism but indulges in the finer things in life in a plush Manhattan restaurant. Of course, we realize that in order to live such a dichotomous existence one needs to have “some money hidden away somewhere,” and this leads me into point

ii) A question I have struggled with for years (while being fully aware that even being able to conceptualize this question in the first place locates me high on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs): “Is wealth, in point of fact, an absolute or relative concept?” The answer to this depends on so many factors, and is further complicated by the fact that, for the first time in my life, I feel fairly well-off; I am traveling on “business;” I use my credit card somewhat liberally to charge bottles of wine, seafood buffets, new shoes, gifts, taxis. And yet, I am far from comfortable “having money.” I scrutinize the expressions and body language of the barmen and cleaning ladies at my luxury hotels, looking for clues. I scold myself over each credit card charge, even if I can afford it. I am, generally, hyper aware of my own affectations to wealth and can’t get over the fact that I have, undeniably, more money than many other people. It is in this vein that Andre’s unaffected manifestations of wealth are attractive. He spends the film questioning what we are living for and his rhetoric calls into question everything that a well-off person might be expected to hold dear–and yet he spends, he drinks, he pays the tab. Brilliant and articulate as he is, Andre is presented in the film as something of a dilettante; and this is both part of the humor and part of the pathos of “My Dinner with Andre.”

The film is about many subjects other than money, and this post is only an introduction to one of the richest and most rewarding artistic experiences available to humankind. As we are reaching our word limit for this post, we will postpone further discussion of the film until tomorrow.

* This post deals with pages 9-19 of the screenplay.

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