Thursday, January 7, 2010

Dinner at Eight

There is a certain type of litigiousness that takes the form of parsimony. Who would have believed that the arc of Louis Malle’s My Dinner with André would result in Wally Shawn, with his sparing, deer-in-headlights interlocutions, eliciting a searing indictment of his witness?

The initial argument of the now-classic film, recently revived at Lincoln Center’s Walter Reade Theater, is this: to feel alive is to be acutely aware of the imminence of death. The eponymous protagonist, André Gregory, will go to any length to avoid the routine and mechanical behavior that renders life devoid of its exultant uniqueness. There are no roles left in the theater, Gregory insists, no Gordon Craigs, no Eleanor Duses, since people in modern life are so busy acting out their own roles. Only in extreme experiences that strip away costume, only through climbing Mt Everest or journeying to the Polish wilderness to study with the legendary director Jerzy Grotowski, can one approach an authentic experience of reality.

I don’t buy any of this Shawn chimes in mischievously. I like my coffee in the morning. I like my little plays. I like to go to the occasional party. I like to see my wife. I don’t need Everest. I don’t believe in omens. I look at fortune cookies, but I don’t believe that someone in a fortune cookie factory actually knows anything about me.

What Louis Malle created in My Dinner with André is an old fashioned Socratic dialogue, in which the central issues of life and death, transcendence and acceptance, are dealt out like a hand of cards. The film, made in l981, is as immortal as any of the great Greek dramas. Louis Malle’s transparent style of direction makes a great work of fiction look like a documentary.

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