This little reflection won’t make much sense if you haven’t watched My Dinner with Andre. You should. It’s fascinating and weird.
Back at the beginning of the Current Situation, I posted a book report on An Acrobat of the Heart in which I mentioned that I fell asleep during a theater department watch party of My Dinner with Andre as a young college student. Kirsten responded to that post with the comment that she’d be interested in a virtual watch party if I wanted to give it another try. So we picked a time and set up an event, inviting a range of people. The one person who showed up: Rick, the professor who tried to introduce me to Andre, not once, but twice, in my college years.
Returning to Andre with my mentor was such a joyful and special experience. Rick was one of those professors who challenged me constantly, but also always said, “Yes, and,” to my ideas. I left his office hours with reading lists, encouragement, and new questions to explore, every single time. He treated me more as a colleague than as a kid, he took me seriously even though I was so young (young for my age, even). I discovered Hiram College because of its inclusion in 40 Colleges That Change Lives (a book I still recommend to high school juniors), and Rick is one major way that Hiram lived up to that life-changing promise for me. I consider myself extremely lucky to still, all these years later, be friends with him.
When we treat our students like our colleagues, though, sometimes we’re giving them material they aren’t ready for. This was definitely the case with Andre. I simply didn’t have the experience of the world to get it as anything other than a weird, long conversation about naked drum circles in the woods. I said this to Rick, and he said, “Yes, but this is why we give students things that are a bit beyond them. So they think about them and wonder about them and grow into them.” I remembered his comment in our debriefing session after my overly ambitious capstone project (which went well, but didn’t quite match my vision for it): “A man’s—or girl’s—reach should exceed her grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” Good teachers show us what to reach for.
Rick stopped trying to watch this with students after I graduated. He, Kirsten, and I had all watched it about twenty years ago, but not since.
So this was the context as we gathered around the Zoom to watch My Dinner with Andre together.
We watched the film together, and although we had given each other permission to talk during it, we hardly did. We didn’t want to miss anything!
Rick has been teaching film studies in recent years, and one of his discoveries (which now makes me want to go back and watch it again to see) was how the camera’s framing made use of the mirror behind Andre and Wally. Sometimes the only way to really see their faces was in the mirror; at other times, a subtle shift of the camera angle made it so that all of their reflection that we could see was the top of their heads.
Kirsten, a writer, observed that the script did a brilliant job of sounding like a real conversation, with myriad digressions, but still moving forward. It was based on recordings of real conversations between Wally and Andre, but finding the way to weave hours of real talk into something that seems realistic and can be played as a structured experience is an achievement.
The film had many surprises for me. Some of my discoveries showed me why I didn’t get it as a teenager. I’m sure I had no idea that it was supposed to be at least partly satire. They are being pompous and making fun of their own pomp. It’s a slippery satire; that satirical distance gets set up and then knocked down by Andre’s earnestness, over and over. There’s something about Wally Shawn’s presence as a foil, his perpetual, “No shit?” expression, that gives the audience an in, an opportunity to live with the skepticism that Andre Gregory’s story provokes. The film would be insufferable if Andre’s conversation partner were, say, Bill Moyers, nodding sagely and saying, “Tell me more about that,” to statements like, “I gave the teddy bear suck at my breast.”
Another surprise was that I’ve become more open to wonder since I first saw this. When I watched it 20 years ago, I was more in the camp of Wally’s character (fun fact: Andre Gregory has said they were just being themselves; Wallace Shawn insists that they were playing characters called Andre and Wally, having a conversation that was based largely on real conversations they had had). The parts about strange, paratheatrical happenings were completely lost on me. I agreed with Wally that many of the alignments of the universe that Andre reports were simply coincidences. But now, I’m more in Andre’s magical reality. I don’t believe in coincidence anymore.
I do wonder about some of the extreme experiments—they still feel indulgent or unnecessary or upsetting. The All Soul’s Eve thing with being buried alive. Eating sand in the Sahara. Andre says:
What I think I experienced was, for the first time in my life, to know what it means to be truly alive. Now, that’s frightening, because with that comes an immediate awareness of death, because they go hand in hand.
I wonder if people who haven’t experienced the loss of someone very close to them, or who haven’t nearly died themselves, need these kinds of wild experiences to jolt them into an awareness of their own mortality. I have, if anything, too much awareness of death, particularly in this current moment. At one point in our discussion after the film, I said, “I wonder what new things I will see in this if I watch it again in twenty years.” Rick said, “Well, I won’t be joining you, since I’ll be dead, but I hope you do.” Even though I can do the math, the reminder that there will come a point when someone I love isn’t part of this breathing world anymore knocked the wind out of me. I don’t need to be buried alive to know that that day will come.
One of my big take-aways was a fascinating bit about Brecht and audience, particularly in this audienceless time. Andre says:
I mean, then when you think about Bertold Brecht, he somehow created a theater in which people could observe, that were vastly entertaining and exciting, but in which the excitement didn’t overwhelm you. He somehow allowed you the distance between the play and yourself that, in fact, two human beings need to live together.
I always think of Brecht as having understood something Shakespeare knew, but which got lost in the shift toward a theater of illusion: we have to give people space to feel and imagine. When we demand that they believe our fictions, instead of inviting them to join in the act of creation—to whatever extent they desire, and with the full ability to move in and out of participation as they please—we rob them of consent, pushing them away as we draw them near.
One last line that I will be thinking about for some time yet, although I don’t know what I think of it, exactly, is this:
If you really reach out and you’re in touch with the other person…well, that really is something to strive for…Of course, there’s a problem, because the closer you become, I think, to another person, the more completely mysterious and unreachable that person becomes. You have to reach out, you have to go back and forth with them, and you have to relate, and yet your relating to a ghost or something.
It reminds me of something Paul Menzer said in a playwriting class: “The unknowability of other people is dramatically interesting.” I’m still turning that over in my mind. Will report back in twenty years.
I’m happy to report that I did not fall asleep this time.