James Kullander revisits My Dinner with André, and contemplates the film’s symbolic intertwining with his own life.
During one of the too many snowstorms that buried the Northeast last winter, I found myself trapped in my house for days, eating what little food I had, stoking my woodstove, reading, writing, thinking.
I did a lot of thinking, in fact. Just the week before, I’d left a job I’d held for 20 years to light out on my own, and I was feeling unexpectedly raw and anxious about my decision, and even more so now that I was stuck inside not just in my house, but also in my head. Suddenly cut off from my daily routines and contact with my colleagues and friends, I felt lost and adrift. And I didn’t like it.
One evening, when I was too spent to do anything else after a day of shoveling, I decided to watch a movie. The only DVD I had that night was My Dinner with André, which I had ordered from Netflix a few weeks before. I was looking forward to it but also, in a way, dreading it, which is why I’d not yet gotten around to watching it.
At 28 years old, I was already a bewildered witness of life in the fall of October 1981—30 years ago this month—when My Dinner with André was released. My 22 year-old girl friend and I were on vacation in Maine and, strolling the quaint streets of the harbor town of Camden, we stopped to look at the marquee of an old, small theater that was showing the movie. It was so long ago now I don’t remember how I’d first heard about it. But I do remember being curious. An entire movie with just two men—Wallace Shawn and André Gregory—at a restaurant table and talking over dinner? We were willing to give it a try, and in we went.
For the next hour and a half I sat in the dark with my eyes transfixed to the screen. The movie opens with Shawn speaking in voiceover as he is wending his way along some grimy New York City streets and subway stations toward the restaurant where he is going to have dinner with Gregory. Shawn says he was encouraged to meet with Gregory by another theater colleague who, while walking his dog, had stumbled upon “a solitary man leaning against a crumbling building, sobbing uncontrollably.” That man was Gregory and he’d been sobbing because he’d just seen Ingmar Bergen’s movie, Autumn Sonata, in which the character played by Bergman had said, “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.”
Then, during that now-famous dinner (filmed in an abandoned hotel in Richmond, Virginia.) Gregory tells Shawn about his soul-searching adventures to Tibet, to Poland, to Israel, to India, and to Scotland to visit Findhorn, where, he says, “they will talk to the insects, make an agreement, set aside one vegetable patch just for the insects.” Things then take a dark turn. One night in the Sahara Desert with a Japanese monk the two of them suddenly start to eat sand. “We weren’t trying to be funny,” Gregory says. “I started, and he started, and we just ate sand, and threw up. That was how desperate we were. In other words, we didn’t know why we were there.” His most harrowing encounter happens at a beach house on Long Island where, during Halloween, he becomes part of a ritual in which he is temporarily buried alive.
Even though I knew Shawn and Gregory were acting—they said later that they wanted to remake the movie and switch roles to prove that who they were in the movie were not who they are in real life—I hung on to their every word as if everything they said that had had happened to them really did happen. But if the events they talked about were not true in fact, then what I gleaned from the movie was a story of certain universal truths I hardly knew much about then: That to find out who we are really we need to face our fears; that life is fraught with uncertainty and confusion; and that the more we try to grasp onto anything or anyone we might think of as solid, the more they slip through our fingers.
I emerged from the theater moved in ways I did not yet understand and I pretended that nothing happened to me. But the memory of the movie was seared so deeply into my brain that for the past 30 years echoes of Shawn’s or Gregory’s voices discussing their existential dilemmas have sometimes come out of nowhere from my depths. Slipping the DVD into my player that wintry night I wondered: Was I ready to plunge back into this heady world? Would I find it less heady and less profound than I did when I first saw it 30 years ago? Worse, would I not even like the movie now?
Then it began and, as if in a dream, I was suddenly transported back to that tiny theater in Maine 30 years ago. Now, as then, I was transfixed. And I still liked the movie. I remembered how it struck me back then; as I watched it now it seemed like the future calling back to me with its lessons about life I was going to discover for myself years later.
“I don’t know about you, Wally,” Gregory says near the end of the film, “but I just had to put myself into a kind of training program to learn how to be a human being. I mean, what did I feel about anything? I didn’t know. What kind of things did I like? What kind of people did I really want to be with? You know? And the only way I could think of to find out was to just cut out all the noise around me and stop performing for a few moments and just listen to what was inside me. I think there comes a time when you need to do that. Now maybe in order to do it, you have to go to the Sahara, and maybe you can do it at home. But you need to cut out the noise.”
I might not have liked feeling lost and adrift that wintry night, but being isolated those days and nights during the storm, and watching My Dinner with André again, was a kind of portal through time, and into myself. I was revisiting what I had barely understood then and have come to learn for myself 30 years later. Now, I was beginning Gregory’s training program to learn how to be a human being, a time in which I do not have any routines or constant contact with my colleagues at the office, where I have cut out a lot of the noise around me to just listen to what’s inside me, and willing to risk just about everything I believed and believe myself to be in the process. The image of Gregory sobbing against a crumbling building may have been lost on me 30 years ago but not now, at least the way I see it; the crumbling building is symbolic of the man’s crumbling ego, and his revelation there and then, although painful, is what he learned about himself, like it or not. Let go of who you think you are and of what you think other people are, the more unknowable we all become.
“Then,” Gregory says in his final lines, “you’ve cut off all your ties to the land, and you’re sailing into the unknown, into unchartered seas. And I mean, people hang onto these images of father, mother, husband, wife, again, for the same reason, because they seem to provide some firm ground. But there’s no wife there. What does that mean? A wife. A husband. A son. A baby holds your hands, and then suddenly there’s this huge man lifting you off the ground, and then he’s gone. Where’s that son? You know?”