A couple of days ago, as I was laying on the couch recovering from the worst stomach flu in the history of humanity, I had the distinct pleasure of re-watching one of my favorite films, My Dinner with Andre, written by and starring Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, and directed by Louis Malle. The film, described as “an extended conversation between two old friends over dinner,” is exactly that, a conversation over dinner between two old friends… no action sequences, no special effects, no climax, no resolution. The movie is simply an unpretentious yet intelligent and fascinating conversation about the nature of life and living. The conversation, covering a wide range of topics from the New York theatre scene to the nature of reality, serves to contrast Andre’s more adventurous life filled with world travels and life-changing experiences (reminiscent of what one would find in a Kerouac novel or in Leary’s Millbrook), with Wallace’s more down-to-earth, pragmatic but not cynical, perspective.
In one of my favorite scenes, the two are discussing electric blankets. Here’s a bit of the exchange, which, if you haven’t seen the film, is typical of the conversation between Wallace and Andre.
Andre: What does it do to us, Wally, living in an environment where something as massive as the seasons or winter or cold, don’t in any way affect us? I mean, were animals after all. I mean… what does that mean? I think that means that instead of living under the sun and the moon and the sky and the stars, we’re living in a fantasy world of our own making.
Wally: Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. I mean, because New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment is cold! It’s a difficult environment. I mean, our life is tough enough as it is. I’m not looking for ways to get rid of a few things that provide relief and comfort. I mean, on the contrary, I’m looking for more comfort because the world is very abrasive. I mean, I’m trying to protect myself because, really, there’s these abrasive beatings to be avoided everywhere you look!
Andre: But, Wally, don’t you see that comfort can be dangerous? I mean, you like to be comfortable and I like to be comfortable too, but comfort can lull you into a dangerous tranquility.
I first watched this film in my early college years, when I was in the midst of self-discovery. It was a time when I was actively seeking out experiences analogous to Andre’s Findhorn, when I was actively living with my eyes as open as possible. Back then, the film seemed like a roadmap to me, or at the very least, as motivation to continue to live a life fully awake and alive. It seemed an easy thing to do in my late teens.
I haven’t watched it since then, and I must admit that this film resonated on an even deeper level with me now, twenty years later. Having lived a pretty full life thus far (and I’m still young), I feel that I can better understand and better identify with both Andre and Wallace, with both their viewpoints, as divergent as they can sometimes be. The only difference is that back then I used to want to be the Andre Gregory character more than anything in the world, living a life full of adventure and introspection. Now I find myself ever so slightly more on the side of Wallace Shawn. Yes, we must be ever vigilant to not live our lives on auto-pilot, but a little comfort, a little security surely can’t be a bad thing.
Here’s an excerpt from the film, in which the pair discuss the nature of reality.