Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 41: My Dinner with Andre (1981)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where My Dinner with Andre (1981) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 159 of the first edition hardback, Ebert nostalgically discusses the value of well-written dialogue. He writes, “The big difference between today’s dialogue and the dialogue of years ago is that the characters have grown stupid. They say what is needed to advance the plot and get their laughs by their delivery of four-letter words. Hollywood dialogue was once witty, intelligent, ironic, poetic, musical. Today it is flat. So flat that when a movie allows its characters to think fast and talk the same way, the result is invigorating, as in My Dinner with Andre.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): “The idea is astonishing in its audacity: a film of two friends talking, just simply talking—but with passion, wit, scandal, whimsy, vision, hope, and despair—for 110 minutes. It sounds at first like one of those underground films of the 1960s, in which great length and minimal content somehow interacted in the dope-addled brains of the audience to provide the impression of deep if somehow elusive profundity. My Dinner with Andre is not like that. It doesn’t use all of those words as a stunt. They are alive on the screen, breathing, pulsing, reminding us of endless, impassioned conversations we’ve had with those few friends worth talking with for hours and hours. Underneath all the other fascinating things in this film beats the tide of friendship, of two people with a genuine interest in one another.” -from his 1989 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“What My Dinner With Andre exploits is the well-known ability of the mind to picture a story as it is being told. Both Shawn and Gregory are born storytellers, and as they talk we see their faces, but we picture much more: Andre being buried alive, and a monk lifting himself by his fingertips, and fauns cavorting in a forest. And Wally trudging around to agents with his plays, and happily having dinner with Debbie, and, yes, enjoying Heston’s autobiography. We see all of these things so vividly that My Dinner With Andre never, ever, becomes a static series of two shots and closeups, but seems only precariously anchored to that restaurant, and in imminent danger of hurtling itself to the top of Everest (where, Wally stubbornly argues, it is simply not necessary to go to find the truth).” -from his 1999 review for his Great Movies series

I didn’t have regular access to cable television as a kid, but whenever I did manage to find myself alone with a remote control and more than several broadcast-network channels to choose from, I’d often park the dial on IFC. The Independent Film Channel was never as satisfying as an afternoon spent emptily staring at MTV or Comedy Central reruns, but I did enjoy watching it anyway. It gave me the self-satisfaction of an intellectual. Half-watching entry-level indies like Living in Oblivion, Trees Lounge, Kicking & Screaming, and short film programs on IFC made me feel much smarter than the teenage idiot I so obviously was, even though I wasn’t engaging with their individual selections as vigorously as I should have been. My Dinner with Andre might be the quintessential IFC half-watch movie of those lazy juvenile self-indulgences. I remember seeing the movie on television so many times in my younger days, but I can’t recall every actively watching it, absorbing its nuances. A movie mostly consisting of a real-time conversation between NYC playwrights at a hoity toity restraint, My Dinner with Andre was perfect background fodder for pretending I was a budding intellectual, a lie I never came close to living up to.

Of course, I have much greater patience & attention span in my thirties than I did two decades ago, so I had a much easier time engaging with the dialogue-heavy explorations of philosophy & art that play out over this film’s titular meal in my recent revisit. NYC playwrights Wallace Shawn (who I would have known only as The Nice Man form Clueless the last time I saw this picture) & Andre Gregory (an avant-garde theatrical producer who staged Shawn’s first play) share a philosophical back & forth over their meal about Nature vs. Comfort in the modern world, jumping form topic to disparate topic as the natural rhythms of their conversation dictate. At first, Shawn allows Gregory to ramble on unimpeded about his spiritualist journeys beyond the facade of societal & artistic norms, only asking questions to deflect interest in & attention to his own views. As Gregory’s long, troubling answers are increasingly upsetting to his sensibilities, Shawn finally becomes incensed enough to speak up, challenging Gregory’s complaints about how modern society is living in a foggy, zombie-like trance by rightfully countering that Gregory’s spiritualist solutions to that false crisis are impractical to everyday people with normal means. Before that conversational shift, My Dinner with Andre feels exactly like the stuffy, intellectualist nonsense I had casually grouped it in with without giving it too much thought. Once Shawn starts speaking up, however, it becomes a much more vital, useful debate about life, art, and the merits of the modern world

Director Louis Malle (who we’ve covered here before in discussions of Black Moon & Pretty Baby) does his best to make this stage play material feel cinematic, recalling similar Friedkin adaptations like The Birthday Party & The Boys in the Band. Although the conversation is staged in the public space of a restaurant, it’s constrained to the intimate setting of a corner booth. The audience feels like we’re listening in from a table over, invading the players’ privacy. Malle also clues the audience in on Shawn‘s more practical, populist mindset over this dining partner’s by paying attention to the physical language he shares with the waitstaff, whereas Gregory acts as if they’re the only two souls in the room. There’s only so much a director can do with the dialogue-focused material, however, so the most auteurial style Malle allows himself is in depictions of Shawn’s travel to & from the titular meal, riding the subway cars & taxi cabs of late-night NYC. In these moments you can really feel the film’s microbudget, experimental theater means, which only feel a step above its No Wave cinema contemporaries because of the academic nature of the dialogue. There’s even something oddly punk about watching Wallace Shawn travel by subway in cold weather, apparently fighting off a nasal drip & looking mildly displeased by life itself. That’s never something I expected to think about The Nice Man form Clueless.

I could claim that the dense philosophical discussion of art, Nature, and comfort is what endeared me to My Dinner with Andre, but even in this recent, adult rewatch that would be a self-serving lie. I mostly appreciated My Dinner with Andre for the opportunity to spend two hours looking at and listening to Wallace Shawn. In too many roles, Shawn appears only briefly as the bills-paying comic relief, so it was wonderful to hear him speak his own written dialogue for extensive stretches of time while gazing at his Muppetish visage. Before he even speaks up against Gregory’s noxious pontificating he’s already the clear hero to his dinner guest’s villain, making lovably incredulous faces at each absurd, prolonged statement about What’s Wrong with The Modern World. Maybe my fixation on Shawn’s facial expressions and my total opposition to Gregory’s POV are both directly tied to my unintellectual approach to cinema (and life at large). Two decades may have passed since the last time I watched this independent film standard, but affording it a matured, attentive viewing only made me feel like more of an intellectual imposter upon revisit. Thankfully Wallace Shawn was there for me this time to call bullshit on any & all potential pomposity. He really is the best

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating (4/5, 80%)

Next Lesson: White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

-Brandon Ledet

Maggie’s Plan (2016)

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fourstar

There’s an alternate universe where Noah Baumbach’s films, with their manicured Wes Anderson visual palette and ensemble casts of talented actors both early & late in their respective careers, are a populist hit. In the universe we do live in, however, Baumbach’s films are more consistent crowd-splitters. Titles like The Squid and the Whale, While We’re Young, and Mistress America look like cutesy indie dramas from the outside, but harbor a strong, corrosive hatred for their own characters, revealing Baumbach to be much more of a misanthrope than he appears to be. The recent comedy Maggie’s Plan is an interesting window into this alternate timeline where Noah Baumbach’s works are actually the smart, breezy farces they’re advertised to be instead of comedic exercises in pitch black misanthropy (which I also enjoy just fine). Starring & directed by Baumbach collaborators (Greta Gerwig & Rebecca Miller, daughter of famed playwright Arthur Miller), Maggie’s Plan is not at all a cutesy indie trifle. It still pokes fun at its characters and indulges in morally & emotionally uncomfortable romantic scenarios. It just does so without tail-spinning its audience into frustrated hatred of every personality presented onscreen. The film is much more interested in the complicated plots of Old Hollywood farces and the general quirks of human folly than tearing down the self-absorption & self-destructive ego of modern ennui. I can’t say it’s exactly a better film for it, but it’s certainly a kinder & more enjoyable one.

Greta Gerwig stars as a young East Coast Academic who wants to become a mother under her own terms, a plan that involves a sperm donation from a crazy-eyed hipster who’s made a career for himself as a “pickle entrepreneur” (just about the most Brooklyn thing I’ve ever heard of). The plot is disrupted when Gerwig’s protagonist falls passionately in love with another East Coast Academic™, played by Ethan Hawke, (whom I somehow confused for Kevin Bacon for the opening few scenes). The problem is that he happens to be a married man. The dangerous sensation of this blossoming affair combines with several possible love triangle plots to threaten an eyeroll-worthy romcom yarn, but Maggie’s Plan is much smarter than anything I feared it might become. Instead of the complications of single mother pregnancy and the moral dilemmas presented by romantic jealousy, the movie tackles the ways love & desire are messy, with outcomes that cannot be controlled and the way romantic partners, especially men, can take their significant others for granted, treating them almost like an employee without giving it any thought. There’s no will-they-won’t-they series of missed connections and tangled misunderstandings here. Miller’s farce is much more about the way characters uncomfortable with loosening control over their messy personal lives have to learn to let go and let life happen naturally than it is about who they’ll be sleeping with by the time the credits roll.

Movies with this intimate of a narrative & limited visual scope obviously rely heavily on the strength of their cast to sell their charms and Maggie’s Plan is overloaded with talent. Gerwig does her usual thing, but with a much more endearing spin on her characters’ total lack of self-awareness. Hawke is perfectly cast as the smartest idiot in the room. They’re backed up by a long list of excellent bit players & single scene cameos: Bill Harder, Maya Rudolph, Wallace Shawn, Kathleen Hanna. And that’s not even mentioning Julianne Moore, who very nearly steals the show in an absurd caricature of European academic coldness. Of course, none of this talent would mean a thing without Miller’s superbly constructed script, which manages to feel intelligently assembled & well-considered in every moment while still working in punchlines as inane as “I don’t want you to have a baby with the pickle man.” There are a couple stray choices that make Maggie’s Plan feel distinct even as a small budget indie, including a time jump that completely upends its initial plot trajectory & a surprise over-abundance of 60s dancehall reggae on its soundtrack. It’s the cast Miller assembles and the ways her script arranges those chess pieces to craft a newfangled version of an Old Hollywood farce that makes the film worth a recommendation, though. It’s all intricately plotted stuff made to somehow feel like effortless charm.

It’s probably not at all fair of me to conjure Noah Baumbach’s name in this review, as Rebecca Miller has had a long, self-driven career long before recently joining forces with that divisive filmmaker. It’s likely that Gerwig’s presence is a lot of what recalls his work here. I really do think that anyone on the verge of liking Baumbach who finds his general misanthropy difficult to stomach would likely enjoy Maggie’s Plan, though. It’s just reminiscent enough of his storytelling style to draw the comparison, but so distinctly on its own wavelength that it won’t feel like an empty exercise for those who devotedly follow his career. I’m now curious myself to double back and watch some of Miller’s previous works to see if this is a vibe she’s always worked within. Maggie’s Plan at the very least proves her capable of turning small, familiar parts into memorably distinct, endearing pictures. It’s a lot rarer than it sounds.

-Brandon Ledet

An Evening with Richard Kelly: A Southland Tales (2007) Q&A

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“No film is every really finished, just abandoned by the filmmaker.”

This is the philosophy, or rather one of the facets of the real-life and filmmaking philosophies, of Richard Kelly. In something of a MotM miracle, I received an email last week advising that Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse would be hosting a screening of Kelly’s 2007 opus Southland Tales, with an introduction by the director and a Q&A following the film. As discussed in our email roundtable, I was a fan of Donnie Darko when it was first brought to my attention in 2003, when a DVD of the film was passed around like wildfire at the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts. Although time and distance (and a strong wave of hype backlash as the film caught on outside of the cult scene) have dulled my teenage enthusiasm for the film, my interest in Kelly’s work was piqued again by our viewing of The Box, a film I didn’t love but haven’t been able to stop thinking about. I never got the chance to see Southland Tales before this past Sunday, but I’m glad that my first viewing experience was on the big screen and not limited to the comparatively tiny television in my living room.

What’s the film about? I’ll try to be as succinct as I can: Southland Tales takes place in an alternate 2008, where post-9/11 paranoia and the overreach of infringement upon civil liberties that followed that incident has been further exacerbated by a nuclear attack on American soil (Texas, to be precise). The draft has been reinstated, interstate travel is extremely restricted, and citizens are heavily monitored via the use of information network USIdent and the deployment of heavily militarized Urban Pacification Units, which seem to have taken the place of standard police forces. The Republican Party, most notably represented by Texas Senator and potential VP Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne) and his wife, NSA Deputy Director cum USIdent overlord Nana Mae (Miranda Richardson), is seeking to swing California to the red in order to ensure the continued power of USIdent and the party. Popular action star Boxer Santaros (Dwayne Johnson), the husband of the Frosts’ daughter Madeleine (Mandy Moore), has recently awoken in the desert with amnesia; he makes his way into the arms of Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar), a psychic porn star seeking to expand her media and merchandise empires through diversification. Krysta has recently completed a screenplay entitled The Power, which foretells the end of the world.

Elsewhere, the underground liberal forces of the Neo-Marxists oppose the Republican Party (this entire group is composed almost entirely of former SNL cast members, including but not limited to Nora Dunn, Amy Poehler, and Cheri Oteri). Their current plan involves staging a racially-motivated police shooting committed by haunted veteran Roland Taverner posing as his twin brother Ronald (Seann William Scott), an UPU officer; the intention is to have this captured on film by Boxer during a ride-along for research purposes, then use the footage to discredit Bush’s apparent successors. Their machinations are held in check by a series of double-crosses that undermine their ability to take any real political action. Elsewhere elsewhere, the wizard Baron von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn) has invented both a device that uses the power of the ocean to generate wireless electricity as well as several injectable liquids of various colors that are used as drugs for both recreational and psychic purposes. He and his band of assorted cronies (Bai Ling, Curtis Armstrong, Zelda Rubinsten, and Beth Grant) move throughout the various factions at play, gaining political power and prestige while well aware that the alternative energy source that they have created could bring about the end of humanity. And all of this is narrated by Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake), a former movie star whose face was disfigured by friendly fire in Iraq after he was drafted. And, hey, if you were starting to think any of this was too straightforward, don’t worry; there are also stable time loops, predestination paradoxes, mistaken identities, and all the other Kelly elements you’ve come to know and, perhaps, love. Plus a lip-synch music video.

Part multimedia experiment, part time travel film, part jeremiad prophecy of the dangers of unchecked rightwing expansion into surveillance and homeland policing, part philosophy lecture, but mostly a political satire, Southland Tales has been called many things: unwatchable, convoluted, pretentious, and incomprehensible. For my money, however, the film (and its expanded materials, which I hesitate to call “supplementary” given that they were always intended to be part of the experience) is simply too ambitious to ever have any kind of mainstream penetration, even on the level that Darko did. There’s also been a lot of name-calling and assumptions with regards to Kelly’s ego and affectations of intellectualism, even from those of us here at Swampflix; in person, however, Kelly comes across as approachable, well-spoken, thoughtful, and shy (and he’s a total babe as well– look up a picture or two if you haven’t already done yourself this great service; those triceps are poppin’). Kelly directed this film when he was twenty-nine; that’s my age, and all I have to show for a life is a stack of unopened mail and a heap of student loan debt that I’ll finish paying off seven years after I’m dead– if I’m lucky.

In case you weren’t aware, Southland was originally envisioned as the final three chapters in a six-chapter arc, with the first three components released as graphic novels (Kelly said that when these materials, which were not quite complete at the time of the Cannes premiere, were given to the press, they sneered). There is a certain feeling of incompleteness that can be felt in the film as a result, but this is not the same thing as saying that the film is, as Kelly said in his introduction, “unfinished.” There’s certainly an element of that in play in the theatrical version that was screened, but I didn’t find it as distracting as others have. He discussed the nature of the release of the film, the way that certain visual effects were never quite completed due to the fact that the money for said polishing was to have come from one studio that held the international distribution rights, but there were issues with the domestic distributor. It’s all information that you can find elsewhere, I’m sure, so I won’t get into it here. There were some new tidbits that were shared in the Q&A that I’ll share here, though.

Why is Janeane Garofalo in the final scene? In the earlier, longer version of the film that was screened at Cannes, there is an additional subplot in which Garofalo plays a general who is engaged in a Dungeons & Dragons game with veteran Simon Theory (Kevin Smith) and a couple of other characters, with that game serving as an additional metaphorical layer to the events of the film, just line the screenplay for The Power. (I did see a credit for a D&D consultant in the final credits, which confused me until this was explained.)

Was this movie inspired by Brazil? Yes, Kelly loves Brazil.

Where did the character names come from? Kelly discussed that there’s a music to character names, and described how some come from more obvious sources (like the Robert Frost-quoting Senator Bobby Frost), and some a bit more obscure from sources both historical (like the von Westphalen family, whose true allegiances are obvious from the outset for those who know Jenny von Westphalen was the wife of Karl Marx), and literary (the Taverners share their surname with Jason Taverner, protagonist of Philip K. Dick’s Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, which shares a rightwing autocratic dictatorship with Southland). So, like many of the references to extratextual real-world works that we mentioned in The Box discussion, they’re present less because Kelly wants to prove how smart he is and more because he thinks we’re all on his level, which is a compliment more than anything else.

Why so many Saturday Night Live actors? Besides the aforementioned Poehler, Oteri, Dunn, and Garofalo, other SNL alums include Jon Lovitz and John Larroquette. I really liked Kelly’s answer to this question; when we talk about political satire, at least in America, SNL is the troupe that is on the cutting edge of that discussion.

Is the recurring theme of free will versus predestination representative of a personal philosophy or just something that Kelly finds intriguing to play with on film? This was my question, and was admittedly a little longer in the actual asking (which involved referencing the Job-like structure of The Box and eschatological nature of Southland, leading Richard Kelly to compliment me personally, so take that, world!), but Kelly stated that this was something that he thinks about a lot, that humans beings are often bandied about by forces outside of their control, and how much agency any of us have at all (one audience member asked about Krysta Now’s agency in regards to the film, but I missed the answer to that one trying to calm myself enough to ask my question). Kelly had previously mentioned that Southland was intended to be a cathartic film experience; given that the themes of the film boil down to the idea that salvation comes from forgiving the self, which is an entirely internal emotional journey, I think that this could be reflective of that idea. Forgiving one’s self, like Taverner does in the film’s final moments, removes the external elements of predestination and is purely an act of personal decision, and through that comes real existential relief.

Whatever happened to the Norma Lewis prosthetic foot prop? This one I had to ask for Britnee, per her final thoughts on The Box. As it turns out, Kelly’s father, who really did work on the Mars Viking Lander project, did something similar for Kelly’s mother, whose own foot was disfigured, not unlike Norma’s. As for the prop, Kelly said he would have to make some calls to be absolutely certain, but he’s pretty sure it’s in a props warehouse in Boston.

For more on September’s Movie of the Month, Richard Kelly’s sci-fi mystery thriller The Box, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film and last week’s look at how the film works as a literary adaptation.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Vamps (2012)

fourhalfstar

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Amy Heckerling directed two of the most iconic teen comedies of all time, Clueless & Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and yet she hasn’t been afforded much leeway as a filmmaker. Outside her work on television there’s a dispiritingly low number of titles to her name and while I’m not willing to fully go to bat for either Look Who’s Talking or Johnny Dangerously, I will say Heckerling does have at least one credit to her name that’s criminally overlooked: Vamps. A madcap romcom about two party girl vampires trying to survive the afterlife in the big scity, Vamps is wildly fun & immediately endearing, recalling Herckerling’s best work to date in the high school satire Clueless. The two films’ connection runs much deeper than the directer reuniting with actors Alicia Silverstone & Wallace Shawn, however. They both have a genuine empathy for all of their characters, even the high school mean girls & bloodsucking undead (as well as their respective “enemies”), and they both find plenty of room for personality & biting wit within the rigid romcom formula. Vamps is Heckerling at the top of her endearing-but-satirical game and every time I revisit it I become more  baffled that it has yet to cultivate a solid cult audience.

An ultra-feminine precursor to What We Do in the Shadows, Vamps follows two NYC roommates as they navigate big city nightlife & supplant their thirst for blood (held at bay by feeding on rats) with an endless eternity of clubbing & casual sex. Silverstone more or less reprises her role as an all-growed-up Cher “Clueless” Horowitz & her bestie is played by Krysten Ritter, who’s essentially a much-less vicious version of her Don’t Trust the B character Tall Slut No Panties, uhh, I mean Chloe. Except, you know, they’re vampires. Injecting a little horror movie fantasy into this Sex and the City worldscape of trying to find the right guy by sleeping with all the wrong ones livens up the format a great deal. It’s amusing to watch these women lie about their age by hundreds of years, attend Sanguines Anonymous meetings, find work modeling clothes for other vampires who can’t use a mirror, and check out hot guys’ jugulars as they, in turn, check out their cleavage. That’s not where Vamps gets the most mileage out of its vampire genre gimmick, though. Its combination of sisterly camaraderie with old world nostalgia is its true undead heart. Silverstone’s character in particular struggles with memory of a world before cellphone addiction & cancer-causing sugar substitutes and it’s her combination of Luddite philosophy & aggressive femininity that affords this film it’s own unique voice.

Vamps feels a little like an entire sitcom’s run conveniently contained at a romcom’s length. It’s by no means breaking any molds in terms of genre or humor, especially recalling other feminine horror comedy genre mashups like Hocus Pocus, Death Becomes Her, and Sabrina The Teenage Witch. Its playful mix of bloodlust, fashion, cute guys, and immortality might not feel entirely fresh in the 2010s, but Heckerling keeps the mood consistently light, endearing, and bizarre. Besides, the movie delights in feeling outdated in a modern world it has little reverence for. Big time supporting players like Sigourney Weaver, Maclolm McDowell, and Dan Stevens are all just as charming & effective as the main cast and a few inspired gags like a rat blood spit take & a vampire’s hideous spray-on tan find some unexpected, as-yet unexplored territory in a genre that’s been mined beyond death. It’s Heckerling’s specific, unmistakable comedic voice that makes Vamps feel remarkable despite what you’d expect from it’s genre trappings & modern age griping. Unfortunately, because that voice is so rarely heard these days it’s a sound for sore ears.If Herckerling has any other projects cooking that are half as charming as Vamps we’d be lucky to have them in our grotesque modern world. I’m afraid they’d also go noticed & unappreciated, though. There’s little evidence in the last twenty years of her work’s public reception that would make me think otherwise.

-Brandon Ledet