For those of us in the impressionable throes of youth when we fell in love with the 1981 cult classic, “My Dinner With AndrAc,” Wallace Shawn's opening voice-over as he walks to meet his old friend and theater colleague, AndrAc Gregory, cuts even closer to the bone these days. I was once obsessed with art and music, said Shawn, a playwright struggling with the grit of daily life. “Now I'm 36 and all I think about is money.”
Such untidy dichotomies fill the movie, rereleased by Criterion this summer. They fuel Wally's conversations with AndrAc and remain unsettling and relevant today.
Gregory's tales of his recent international indulgences — riding camels across the Sahara, being buried alive on Halloween — create a palpable friction between the two men that manages to compensate for a lack of actual action, beyond ordering the next course. Must one travel to the top of Everest to achieve transcendence or can it be found in a shop up the street? Are we in danger of anesthetizing ourselves to the sufferings of the world by indulging in the comfort of an electric blanket? “I just don't know how anyone could enjoy anything more than I enjoy reading Charlton Heston's autobiography,” Shawn sputtered, spit flying.
“[People think] it's this weird movie about two guys talking, but really it's as big as ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’” Gregory says in sock feet, with new age spots and runaway eyebrows, in Criterion's supplemental bonus DVD. “It activates the imagination of the audience. … If you like the movie, it's waking you up.” All without leaving the confines of an upper-crust restaurant purportedly in Soho, but actually in the Jefferson Hotel in Richmond, crafted and shot by acclaimed French director Louis Malle.
Just as “Hearts of Darkness,” about the making of “Apocalypse Now,” was as dramatic as the film it sought to capture, “My Dinner With AndrAc”'s revelations around the table with filmmaker Noah Baumbach, 28 years later, create a thought-provoking mirror of the original. But not to worry, they're still talking heads — and none of them is decapitated.
It's behind the scenes in these extras that we discover how, in the late '70s, Shawn and Gregory rented a room at New York University, recorded their conversations for six months and ended up with 1,500 pages of transcript that Shawn painstakingly whittled down into an hour and 45 minute screenplay. The third and only other character, Jean Lenauer, we learn, was an international film distributor in Vienna, plucked from the Museum of Modern Art film archive to play the part of the waiter, and cast largely because of his enigmatic face and bearing. Nearly fired the first day on the set for knowing nothing about dinner service, Lenauer's film debut was saved by Shawn and Gregory who stayed up with him the entire night, teaching him how to handle cutlery.
Shawn, still goofy, but more distinguished now that his frizzy hair is gray, says he actually identified more with AndrAc's character, and that he shaped his own as a way of exorcising his demons. “I wanted to kill that side of myself by making the film, really,” he says, “because that guy was totally motivated by fear.” Gregory confesses that he felt in part like a spiritual used-car salesman and that his idea for a sequel included him and Shawn, quite old, sitting in Adirondack chairs, talking about sex. S
The Criterion DVD ($39.95) also includes “My Dinner With Louis,” a BBC interview with Louis Malle, essays by Shawn and Gregory that were included in the published screenplay and notes by Amy Taubin, editor of the Lincoln Center's film journal.