Revisiting "My Dinner with Andre" (1981)
My initial reaction, about an hour into my first viewing of the film since its release in 1981, was that it has aged very badly. Yes, it garners praise even now for its audacious premise -- that people will be engrossed in a two-hour movie in which nothing happens but a couple of friends talking about high-sounding things in a fancy New York restaurant. But the two gentlemen in question, who have sworn on a stack of Bibles that they were not really playing themselves back then, were playing themselves, or aspects of themselves, and both come across now, at least at first, as insufferably self-absorbed and worse, apparently blind to the sufferings of others on this earth who do not enjoy the privileges of a Harvard education and a life in the theatre.
Wallace Shawn, the "homunculus" of Woody Allen's "Annie Hall," laments early in the film that people at parties lose interest in him when he reveals that he teaches Latin for a living. Andre Gregory examines his relationship with the doorman who guards his building. Gregory greets him by his first name, whereas the doorman is compelled by cultural convention to call him "Mr. Gregory." This, opines Andre, manifests a form of "slavery" and represents one more sign of our descent, in 1981, into fascism. Wally, it's true, professes contentment with the modest life he leads with his girlfriend Debbie, counting the twin blessings of an electric blanket in winter and morning coffee that on most days does not have a roach swimming in it. But he also says that he is "just trying to survive from one day to the next."
Of the two, Gregory does by far most of the talking. As in real life, he has recently resurfaced after a long disappearance that was forced on him by a deep personal crisis, an inability to see any value in anything that he was doing, including his work as a director. He recounts all of his New Age adventures, while Wally alternates between two expressions -- a bemused smile and a look of grave concern. In the adventures, which include a mock burial alive, Andre almost always ends up crying uncontrollably. So when he also recounts that after his mother died he found himself in a paroxysm of grief, it seems that everything in his life has been "flattened," the death of his mother no more important than the flowers he encountered in a Scottish forest that may have set him off on a crying jag.
Further, one wants to ask Andre to paint for us a picture of the new and untainted world to which he aspires. We doubt that it exists beyond a few hippie experiments; we doubt that we can all bring the Spirit of Woodstock home to our moms in suburbia.
A curious shift in my perspective on the film came over me however around the time when the elderly waiter (played by a European actor who died in 1983) clears the table for espresso. Shawn, having grown increasingly upset with his friend, engages more aggressively on some of his views, and the conversation turns into a coherent contest between a scientific/materialist view of the world, held by Shawn, and a spiritual/transcendental view held by Gregory. By the end of the film it seems that Gregory has shaken his friend out of his complacency, that Shawn can see that he is compelled to busy himself with quotidian tasks because, if he quiets his mind, he will be filled with existential dread. Andre, whose highest goal is authenticity, has succeeded in having an authentic conversation in a most unlikely venue, and Shawn will not soon forget the experience.
Shawn and Gregory are both still alive. (Gregory is 88.) It would be a nice experiment to do a sequel to the film. Inevitably, I think, it would do two things. First, and notwithstanding what I said about the film redeeming itself, it would point us back towards the characters' blindness to their relative privilege and comfort. By now, having experienced 9/11, Covid, a Trump presidency and a world-historical war in Europe, our friends would have to approach the world in which we live with more humility and gravitas. Like the rest of us, they would be beaten down by events; their perspective might be more like that of the European civilians of a certain age who managed to survive World War II than that of elite American theatre artists in 1981.
More importantly, a sequel would have to underscore the extent to which our politics and our culture have crumbled in the two generations that have intervened. It is clear from their real-life biographies that Wally and Andre will have migrated not to a position flying high above our travails, from which vantage point they can comment wisely and with empathy upon them. Rather, they will be walled off in the progressive tribe. In 1981, the "flyover" Americans with rare exceptions did not watch "My Dinner with Andre," but in principle most of them would have seen the two protagonists as amusing eccentrics in the mold of the same Woody Allen. Now, half of the country would actively despise them for their views, and they would, of course, actively despise the despisers in return.
And what of those views? How can it be that two such proudly liberal, hyper-educated, sensitive and humane gentlemen in 1981 could have had no space in their capacious minds for the reality of voter suppression, for the coming climate catastrophe, for the necessity of having a black woman at the center of every television commercial, for the sports and bathroom rights of transsexuals? Shall we indict them retroactively for this profound failure to see? And now that they do see, has this evolution really moved our country forward on the path to that most important of values -- authenticity?
No, the sequel would be unwatchable.