My Dinner with Andre
The Art of Conversation
Can a conversation be a work of art? One asks not especially because Louis Malle's film, My Dinner with Andre, is simply about two people - Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory - who meet up and chat for an hour and a half, but to ask a more fundamental question about the 'art of conversation'. It seems undeniable that a lot of work went into creating this apparently spontaneous dialogue. Pauline Kael mentions in Taking it All In that, "actually they taped their conversations two or three times a week for three months, and then Shawn worked for a year shaping the material into a script". Malle, in Malle on Malle, insisted that it may seem "improvised, but it was written to the dot; even his [Gregory's] hesitations were written in the script." It was also shot not in the New York restaurant it is set in, but in a disused hotel in Virginia which they turned into a sound stage. Also "our very good designer, David Mitchell, came up with the idea of having mirrors" Malle says, "and, although I didn't do anything complicated, I had to change the position of the camera slightly for every take. And, of course, if you shoot in front of a mirror, and you move the camera six inches, you have to reset all the lamps. So the solution we came up with was not mirrors, but a series of little mirror squares that we could move slightly."
Obviously this was more than filming a conversation. But let us put aside the relative formal complexity of this apparently simple film, and concentrate instead on the formal nature of the conversation itself. When Malle says, "I suppose my contribution was to emphasize that it was not so much what they were saying, but the way they were saying it; to bring out that sometimes they were not quite sincere or they were not quite telling the truth, or they were reinventing their memories," he adds, "so the film was working on two levels: the discourses, the conversation, and getting to know those two characters extremely well."
What we want to explore here is the nature of conversation, taking into account several writers' comments on the subject, and also, as we will discover later, how the film arrives at the philosophical in the Spinoza-ist sense. One of the comments is Ernst Junger's belief in The Details of Time that even amongst friends "a dialogue cannot always ensue. These things are hard to explain; it's a question of music, of a certain harmony. Two intelligent people can meet, they can like each other; but nevertheless, a euphonious contact fails to emerge. The laws of a certain magnetism have to come into play." Another is a comment by Gabriel Garcia Marquez in The Fragrance of Guava, where he talks of knowing Graham Greene. "He's a man of very few words. He doesn't seem very interested in what you have to say, but after several hours together you feel you've sustained an uninterrupted conversation." The third comes from Gilles Deleuze in Negotiations: "...we're riddled with pointless talk, insane quantities of words and images. Stupidity's never blind or mute. So it's not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they may eventually find something to say."
In all three comments there is no sense of the inevitability of discussion, and indeed in My Dinner with Andre the opening few minutes predicate themselves on its probable absence. Wallace Shawn in voice-over says that through a set of circumstances he'd been trapped into agreeing to have dinner with a man he had been avoiding for years. The omens are not good, and they don't get much better for the first quarter of the film where Gregory talks almost non-stop, with the occasional reaction shot to, or the odd question from, Shawn. Even Malle admitted "I thought, if the audience doesn't leave the theatre in the first twenty five minutes I'm fine." It's not that what Gregory says isn't interesting, but it is a monologue, and the problem with a monologue is rarely that it is without interest; more that it is without the sense of a dialogue. When Shawn enters the restaurant earlier he says in a strained, slightly irritated voice-over that he has problems of his own, and believes he can't be of much help. He had heard from various friends that Gregory hadn't been doing well, and so assumes that he's going to be a shoulder to cry on, a sympathetic ear. How was he going to survive an evening with this man, especially when after greeting each other, with Shawn saying that Andre looks terrific, Gregory replies that he feels terrible?
Yet central to the conversation will be the notion of the gap between social expectation and personal expression, the nature of performance and the truth of self- exploration. If the conversation can go beyond the limitations of the monologue, however honestly expressed, and the performance of two people expressing a persona, it needs to find a revelatory space that comes from a mutual sense of need. Now that doesn't mean the need is the same, and finally what the film explores are different modes towards the problem of living that isn't to be solved, but certainly requires negotiation. If Gregory merely recounted his own problems with modern life and his escape into radical theatre, New Age activities and subsequent depression in New York, this would be fascinating, perhaps, but not quite engaging. Kael says that early on "Wally the imp gets a glazed expression and has a rough time keeping his eyes open. When he's more alert, his face registers total incomprehension and disbelief". However, this says more about Kael's take on what Andre is saying than Shawn's. He seems interested, curious and intrigued to know more, but what he happens not to be is at this stage energised. Where Andre is clearly not just talking but reliving the energy of the moments that he is describing, as if he has left behind completely whatever problems he may be having back in his New York apartment, and his day to day life, Wallace seems not yet to have shaken off the exhaustion of his daily existence. Gregory remains for Shawn an entertainment, a diversion. One senses that though Shawn is clearly listening, he is doing so with the possibility that he hasn't quite eradicated pressing concerns from his own mind. Jalal Toufic in Over-Sensitivity mentions "that very rare phenomenon: talk that is not chatter because for once it is not floating on an interior monologue". Wallace may not be bored, as Kael supposes, but he might still be having thoughts that have little to do with the conversation. As Wallace and Andre sit down for dinner Wally decides, in voice over, that the best way to make the evening bearable will be to ask a few questions, which would always relax him. But relaxation is not quite the same as engagement, and can much energy be generated out of it?
Central to the art of conversation, we may propose, is that both parties become energized in the process of the discussion and that each person will explore sides of themselves that are unique to the encounter. Though Kael invokes in her review the idea of the dialogue in ancient Greece, this would have little to do with the Greek dialogue as Deleuze and Felix Guattari define the Socratic by saying, in What is Philosophy?, "Socrates made all discussion impossible, both in the short form of the contest of questions and answers and in the long form of a rivalry between discourses. He turned the friend into the friend of the single concept, and the concept into the pitiless monologue that eliminates the rivals one by one." In other words space in the argument wasn't created for the perspective of the individual and the manifold reasons for thinking the way one does, but more for philosophy and the way it thinks beyond the limitations of the body. As Socrates says in The Last Days of Socrates,"every seeker after wisdom knows that up to the time when philosophy takes it over his soul is a helpless prisoner, chained hand and foot in the body compelled to view reality not directly but only through its prison bars, and wallowing in utter ignorance."
Malle is interested in the body socially chained hand and foot, and looks for release not in abstract philosophy, but in concrete conversation that comes from the body. Though Wally might not expect much from the conversation when Gregory says before they eat that he may, after Wally' compliment, look terrific, but he feels terrible, it is when Gregory returns to the subject later in the conversation that Wally becomes especially animated and starts to contribute. Andre is basically saying that we're all walking around like zombies, seeing a few details but not any broader reality, and all this polite social conditioning leads to a build up of aggression in our lives that finds curious outlets. Here Shawn takes over and gives as an example a production of Bulgakov's The Master and the Margherita where he was playing the cat. The costume wasn't ready until the night of the performance. Several of the actors come up to him and, commenting on the costume, wondered whether wearing the head would affect his performance. One actor says that once when they wore ear-muffs they couldn't hear what the other actors were saying; another actor talks of fainting when they wore even a hat on stage. Shawn insists that such remarks were full of hostility, and we may wonder whether this is the first time that a conversation has allowed him the space to offer such thoughts, thoughts that could be perceived as paranoiac if expressed to a friend and whinging if offered to a lover. By comparison we can recall the scene early on in Woody Allen's Annie Hall where Alvy and his pal are walking along the street and Alvy insists there is all this anti-Jewish hostility around. As he mentions how people pronounce did you as Jew, he insists that there is a problem here. Of course his pal dismisses him as being paranoid, and the scene is played for laughs, but in some ways Shawn's comments to Gregory aren't too far removed from Allen's to his pal. We might still find Shawn's observations paranoid, but this is an embodied, dialogical paranoia, as opposed to the monologic ramblings of Alvy as he wants his friend to buy into the anti-Jewish conspiracy.
Now going back to our comments on the Socratic approach, in both instances Alvy and Wally's perspectives may seem absurd, exaggerated and too subjective to have much 'objective' validity, but within the context of the force-field of self-exploration that Wally and Andre have set up, Wally's is a valid observation, if not quite an especially coherent argument. What Gregory and Wally have created is a space for exemplary conversation. As Gregory talks about how blind to many things people happen to be, so Wally offers his thoughts on the sub-conscious hostility of his fellow actors. Then Gregory talks of a woman his mother knew who died of starvation because all she would eat was chicken. She believed she was getting all the nutrition she needed, but was actually starving herself, and Andre wonders whether many people today are living exactly like that: that they seem to be living contentedly, but are lacking something fundamental. Whether the examples come from their own lives or through anecdotes about others, what counts isn't the move towards a coherent argument, in the Socratic tradition, but an exploratory argument full of intimate examples. Here argument doesn't take place on the immediate plane of dialectical disagreement, but on the sub-conscious plane of emotional coincidence.
However, we aren't saying that Wally and Andre always agree with each other, and there are a few moments where Wally insists that he likes the sort of pleasures in life that Gregory insists are insulating us from reality. The disagreements though don't take place in the area of categoricals, but instead in, if you like, dispositionals. When Deleuze and Guattari talk of the problem with Socrates, they are saying there isn't a dialogue, but a sort of monologue masquerading as a false dialogue. Socrates suggests to his interlocutor in the Last Days of Socrates that the person who approaches "each object, as far as possible with the unaided intellect, without taking into account of any sense of sight in his thinking...is not this the person, Simmias, who will reach the goal of reality, if anybody can?" Malle may say in interviews that Gregory can come across as pompous, but at no stage does he offer the pomposity that Socrates delivers here as he takes apart other people's arguments. Socrates engages in a dialogue not for the purposes of examining different perspectives from our bodily reality, but from abstract ideas that our body intrudes upon. Socrates is famous for insisting that the unexamined life is not worth living, but are there ways to examine it far beyond the Socratic?
Hence when Malle says that his contribution was to observe the way they were saying things, this is consistent with the dispositional and thus the cinematic not in form - form in the sense of the relative complexity of the shooting of so apparently simple a film - but of the bodily form that is too often ignored in film criticism for the form of the film. Malle relies chiefly on close-ups here, saying "you never have a chance in a normal film to get so much time with close-ups of two characters," yet this still gives us a very strong sense of the opposing dispositions. Wally has a soft, cosseted face, cherubic and mildly quizzical; while Andre's is firm, forceful and vital. His hair is straight and well-tamed; Wally's reduced to squiggly tufts on either side of his bald pate. Central to Wally's arguments in the film is the dispositional aspect, and Malle doesn't set Wally's up as erroneous, but instead as dispositionally true. He will agree with Gregory when he mentions the underlying violence in society, but won't agree when Gregory reckons his electric blanket is a needless luxury that happens to be separating Wally from real life. While Gregory insists that modern living gives us no sense of the seasons in relation to our body - that surely when it is winter we should feel the cold - Wally disagrees. He says New York is a cold city, people are cold, everything is cold and that he wants his electric blanket, and we can think back to the beginning of the film where we see him huddled up in his coat obviously trying to stay warm as he walks through the city. Certainly Gregory could claim that Shawn is cold because he doesn't eat well enough, or that he has become used to well-heated spaces (though Wally insists his apartment is freezing), and that by spending so much of his own recent years tackling the elements Gregory has a more 'real' relationship with nature, but what is interesting is the dispositional angle taken in the argument in relation to one's own bodily reality.
Thus when Gregory argues with such conviction against much of modern life, he does so not categorically but, as we've suggested, dispositionally, and what he needs to do is find examples that convey this disposition. When he says that he believes it absurd that the doorman at his hotel speaks to him as if Gregory is superior though they are of a similar age, or when he talks admiringly of a famous physicist he knows who refuses to watch TV or read newspapers, what he needs to do is find evidence for the dispositional angle offered. Wally's purpose isn't to agree or disagree, per se, but to find in turn his own dispositional argumentation.
A couple of passages from Spinoza can usefully help us here, and show us how Spinoza's position can be quite different from the Socratic dialogue without negating the requirements of reason so central to the great Greek philosopher's thought. When Spinoza says in The Ethics "we have shown that human nature is so disposed that each one desires that others should live according to his idea of life...", and says a page earlier, "...the more an emotion becomes known to us, the more it is within our power and the less the mind is passive to it", we can see that whereas the former, as Spinoza notes, can lead to ambition, at the same time it can also lead, through the latter, to an adequately expressed dispositional difference. When Spinoza describes passions as basically inadequate ideas, it is partly because they are circumstantial rather than dispositional. The idea does not stem from our nature, but from our circumstances. One of the things that we can do when we disagree with someone is not try and persuade them of the universality of our idea, but understand something of the circumstances and dispositions that may explain the difference of opinion. What is important to grasp in relation to My Dinner with Andre is that it has no interest in the universal arguments of a Socratic dialogue where circumstances and dispositions are irrelevant (evident when Socrates indicates that thinking involving the body leads to erroneousness), but the relativistic arguments of the nature of the two characters and the circumstances in which they live.
If Malle had filmed a dialogue with no place for the body, we would be justified in questioning whether the film was cinema, but Malle's fascination with the categories of the circumstantial and the dispositional are decidedly cinematic. Now critic David Shipman in The Good Film and Video Guide may say "Gregory is a fantasist and Shawn, initially the listener, is given to words like 'philosophizing' [as] Malle follows them through one meal, perhaps fascinated with their ideas and fond of the foolishness, which predominates," and concludes: "minimal cinema with a vengeance." But has Shipman failed to give the film its due on two counts? In the first place he seems to view it as about a dialogue that is inadequately expressed, and hence sees more foolishness than intelligence; and in the second instance thinks it is barely cinema at all as it focuses on two guys talking. However we're proposing that it is cinema partly because of the inadequacy of the ideas (in the Socratic sense), and this is of course consistent with Malle's comment that "I could identify with both of them." (Malle on Malle) Malle goes on to say that he had his own crisis after visiting India and dropped out for a while, thus easily understanding Andre's quest. Malle also adds it was important that by the end no matter how ridiculous, how exaggerated the stories were, there was truth in Andre's perspective on the world. "In a way, what is great about the evolution of his character is that at the end he becomes extraordinarily moving."
It is this idea of being moved that is so important to the film, and though we may readily trace this emotional release through the use of Erik Satie's so easily moving Gymnopedies, what makes it so appropriate a piece of music in this instance is that its performative minimalism so well captures a sense of loneliness matched by Malle's own investigation into the problem of isolation. Obviously one could argue that the characters aren't that lonely - Wally has a partner; Gregory a wife and offspring - and both of them talk of their partners with love, while also indicating their partner's capacity for communication. Wally talks of Debbie saying she felt after a party that she had travelled farther from the suburbs of Chicago to New York than her grandmother had from Russia to Chicago. Andre mentions that he and his wife were talking about the importance of getting out of New York. In casual asides we sense loving, meaningful and communicative partners. But we may recall at the beginning of the film that Wally offers in voice-over that a mutual friend bumped into Gregory on the street and Gregory was found crying after watching Ingmar Bergman's Autumn Sonata, and was so moved by Ingrid Bergman's comment about being able to live in her art but not in her life. We may also note how Wally gets so animated when he has the opportunity to talk about the aggression he feels when performing in the play, that it appears he is unlikely to be given such opportunities very often. It's as though the film proposes there is a loneliness, a certain species of dissatisfaction, in all of us that can be alleviated only by the appropriate encounter: a circumstance that can reveal one's disposition, the sort of encounter Shawn and Gregory share. If we are moved it is surely by the singularity of it. Some could insist we are moved chiefly because for the first time Satie's music is used at the end of their conversation, and the music cues a certain feeling, but obviously this is a cue that needs an underpinning. Even the most base romantic comedy will assume there has been emotional accumulation allowing the music to work its magic on us. This would usually be quite consistent, though, with what the writer Claudia Gorbman has called 'hyperexplication', where the music tells us nothing especially new and functions almost like an underscore as readily as a score: a piece of music that works pleonastically and leaves us in no doubt as to the emotional reaction the film demands.
In Malle's film however there has been no music up until this point except some diegetic playing in the restaurant, and no action to cue us into its use. If we take a typical romantic comedy like Notting Hill, when the music strikes up as Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant get together in the key scene near the film's conclusion as Grant wonders at a press conference whether she will accept him, the song echoes one that opened the film. The use of a song at the beginning of the movie, and the numerous cuts from friends looking on as Roberts makes her decision almost goading the film towards a music track, means that it would be much more likely than unlikely that the moment is going to be accompanied by a music score that leaves the emotions unequivocal. Yet My Dinner with Andre uses music for equivocal emotion, as if we may find ourselves musing over exactly why we have been so touched by a film where nobody falls in love, no one dies, and no one even acts. Such an emotion can come out of a particular type of dialogue that has revealed ourselves to ourselves. Here we have two men who know each other reasonably well, who haven't seen each other for a long time, and who come together to have dinner, and by the end of it would seem to be as curiously moved by the conversation as we have been in the viewing experience.
Can a conversation be an art work we initially wondered? If we answer in the affirmative, vital to this affirmation lies not in the logical reasoning of a Socrates who believes the body has no place in an exchange as the truth is sought, but in the encounter between two bodies and minds that is closer to Spinoza's take on existence. Initially two men arrive who would seem circumstantially to be a little lost. Wally worries about money, while Gregory (who seems to have a private income) frets over the chaos of New York and the purposelessness of the theatre. By the end of the film this will not have changed, for there has been no action that would allow for this shift. Wally will be as poor as when he arrived (though no poorer since Gregory pays for dinner), while Gregory will still no doubt rail against the problems he sees in New York, for there is nothing Wally has said or done that would propose anything different. This has not only 'failed' to be a Socratic dialogue moving towards an abstract truth, it has also 'failed' to be the sort of problem solving situation where a person looks to another to find a way of changing their circumstances. Yet has the exchange not been decidedly meaningful; have both Wally and Gregory understood themselves a little more and arrived at a certain low-key dispositional clarity?
At the beginning of the film, as we've noted, Wally is not looking forward to meeting Gregory. Perhaps he assumes such a dispositional difference that no conversation can come out of the encounter. It is why he decides initially to ask Gregory questions instead of engaging in discussion. Yet by the end of the film they've explored in some detail the nature of their circumstances and at the same time their 'nature': their disposition. In a passage on the psychology of the emotions, Spinoza says "hatred which is altogether overcome by love passes into love, and the love is therefore greater than if hatred had not preceded it. For", as he says, "if we begin to love a thing which we hated, or upon which we were in the habit of looking with sorrow, we shall rejoice for the very reason that we love, and to this joy which love involves a new joy is added..." My Dinner with Andre would seem to be a film of joy in the Spinoza sense, as two un-like minds come together and nevertheless have a meaningful encounter. There is obviously no hatred involved before they meet, but clearly a strong sense of antipathy. By the end of the film though this generalised antipathy on Wally's party (for we are never privy to Gregory's thought processes) becomes dispositional sympathy. It is the sort of feeling that is not only of course very different from the Socratic idea of the purity of thought that has little to do with the body, but also Kant's dictum of universal applicability: "can you also will that your maxim should become a universal law" Here, in Groundwork of the Metaphysic of Morals, Kant is talking about lying, as he says "but I can by no means will a universal law of lying." and we may wonder how many lies and tall tales Gregory has spun during the conversation: a Time Out review talks of fantasies, Shipman believes Andre to be a fantasist. Just as there are areas where we need the rigour of logic, la Socrates, and in other areas the rigour of law, as in Kant, so there may be no less importantly a fluidity of exchange that has its own philosophical purposefulness. Bertrand Russell, in a History of Western Philosophy, casually opens his essay on Spinoza saying "he is the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers. Intellectually, some others have surpassed him, but ethically he is supreme." It is a general observation - as much about Spinoza's life as his work - but can illustrate the sort of truth we've been examining. Now this isn't to doubt that Spinoza's system is extremely demanding, complex and intricate, with its own intense reasoning; merely to say that central to it is the sort of dispositional pragmatism that seems more capable than most philosophical systems of incorporating the complexity of living over the rigour of abstract procedures. In the introduction to The Philosophy of Spinoza, Joseph Ratner says "no man ever treasured the joys of spirit more than did Spinoza; but he did not because of that nourish a savage antagonism against the body. It is because Spinoza knew so thoroughly and remembered it so well that he devoted so much of attention to the nature of the human mind and the human emotions in a treatise on ethics."
Kael proposed that the film was a Platonic dialogue; if we've argued instead for a loosely Spinoza-ist take on the film it is because someone looking for the elegant abstractions of Socrates might well be disappointed. Yet others looking for a film attentive to the characters' emotions during the exchange will note a subtle series of shifts that makes sense of the curious feeling of emotional release come the film's conclusion. It is almost as if the classic Greek dialogue conjoins here with Greek theatre and manages to evoke catharsis without mimesis, a deep feeling without the recreation of actions that would usually release it, nor 'clear' thought expecting the victory of reason. Can such a conversation that achieves catharsis, even if it ostensibly foregoes mimesis, and that can allow both the characters and the viewer to feel they know themselves and others a little better, not be defined as a work of art?
© Tony McKibbin