Last night, I decided to watch a movie I’d heard about extensively and seen referenced several times in TV shows and movies, but that I had never actually seen. In My Dinner with Andre, actor/playwright Andre (played by Andre Gregory) invites actor/playwright Wally (played by Wallace Shawn) to dinner at an upscale restaurant. Wally is our narrator, and as the movie opens with him walking to the restaurant, we discover that, though they used to be close friends, he hasn’t actually seen Andre in years. All he knows about Andre is that he supposedly disappears for months at a time, to visit exotic locations. A mutual friend has told Wally that he ran into Andre alone and weeping against a building because of a line from an Ingmar Bergman movie: “I could always live in my art, but never in my life.” Wally shows up at the restaurant, greets Andre, they sit down, and they talk.
The most interesting and phenomenal thing about the way the movie is shot is that it is almost two hours of two men sitting at a table and talking. The opening scene has Wallace Shawn walking through the tumultuous world of New York; he walks past the perpetually honking cars, the heavy, spiked iron fences that enclose apartments and gardens, and he closes his eyes softly as the screaming subway car comes to a halt in front of him. In New York, there is constantly something happening, and it is inescapable. When he arrives at the restaurant, he orders a club soda (which they don’t have), and is then greeted by Andre. The rest of the movie, save the closing scene, consists of the two of them talking about Andre’s experiences, life both in and out of New York, the purpose and evolution of art, the sweeping expansion of technology into our every day lives. I won’t go into great detail about the specifics of each part of their discussion, but the two-hour long chat covers a broad range of topics concerning, mostly, what it means to be alive. If you haven’t watched the movie, you’ll probably get more out of this post if you take a break and watch it first. If you find radio panel discussions, prolonged lectures, or the theatre to be boring, you probably will not be able to be engaged in the movie, because it is just two men (mostly Andre) talking. There are no action sequences, no confrontations, no explosive arguments or tears; just two men talking about their experiences and what it is means to be alive. I won’t do any more plot summary, because I want to talk about something specific: How do the themes and topics of My Dinner with Andre, a movie from 1981, apply to today’s culture?
One of the main themes of My Dinner with Andre is existentialism. Andre’s experiences have led him to believe that to truly live, to be in contact with reality and to experience living, one must separate oneself entirely from the world they know and live without any pre-existing ties to that world. Wally’s belief is that if he is happy with his girlfriend, his job, and his Charlton Heston auto-biography, who’s right is it to tell him that he is not truly happy? This dilemma is not isolated to their generation, and questions like “Are we too interconnected?” are being asked more and more frequently as technology becomes involved in every aspect of our lives. Andre mentions that he believes that people are being brainwashed by TV, magazines, and newspapers that provide nothing but superficial content which has no bearing on life. In the contemporary world, more and more people are constantly connected to each other through Facebook, and are constantly bombarded with superficial content, such as viral marketing, vaguely inspirational quotes, and meaningless photo updates from friends showing what they’re eating. There are many notable differences between the digital media of today and the print & analog media of the 1970s and ’80s. I feel that the most important difference is the immediacy of digital media, which is both a blessing and a curse. Not only are we able to absorb and respond to new information as soon as it is presented, we often do so in short blurts before being drawn to the next piece of new information. I won’t lie, I have five different tabs open in my browser right now, and I’m sure many of you have more.
I won’t attempt to answer the question “Are we too interconnected?” because that’s a whole other bag of snakes, but I will try to apply both Andre and Wally’s reasoning and beliefs to contemporary media. Andre would most definitely believe that we are far too connected with each other. Facebook, twitter, Instagram, WordPress, and a slew of other social media websites are a constant presence in our lives. I’m on Facebook right now, and a good number of you (if not all) heard or read about this blog through Facebook. I know people who constantly have Facebook logged into their phones, or who feel the need to photograph whatever they are eating or drinking and post it online before they sit down to enjoy it. While Andre would argue that this need to constantly tell the world what you’re doing shows a detachment from reality, Wally would probably argue that it doesn’t matter what makes life pleasant, so long as life is made pleasant. When using the internet, though many of us are exposed to images we would rather not see, one can generally pick and choose what they want to read and view. If you are interested in World War II history, you can invest in that. If you just want to see pictures of kittens and nothing else, there are an obscene number of sites devoted to just that. So, does modern technology prevent us from living a fully realized life? No, I don’t think so, but I do believe that many people live their lives through their devices, in an odd way. Where a photographer would climb a hillside just to get the perfect shot from the perfect perspective, someone with Instagram makes it to the top and takes a quick picture as an afterthought, to show everybody that they were there. A writer might spend days writing, editing and proofreading a movie review, but someone with twitter on their phone might just write “My Dinner with Andre was 2 long 2 boring #badmovies #menolikey #notconcernedwithexistentialism” and be done with it. I’m not technophobic and I understand that these brief updates have their place in the world as a form of entertainment and communication. However, I think that for many people, the time and effort that goes into honing and refining a focused craft such as photography or writing is lost when there are hundreds of thousands of photographs, updates and blogs with similar content being created, updated and shared every second. I realize how hypocritical that is, considering this is a blog, but I’d like for the content of this blog to go beyond the standard and be interesting and thought-provoking enough to get people to take the time from their busy schedule and read it.
So, that’s one-thousand two-hundred and six words, five-thousand six-hundred and seventy-four characters, and one big ass blog post. I’m going to talk a little more about My Dinner with Andre tomorrow, but this is already a kind of long entry, and I want to get it posted before I go to bed. As of this posting, I haven’t actually told anybody about this blog. What I’m thinking is that every time I announce a new project, I always end up talking about it and what I want to do with it, but I almost never actually follow through with it. By keeping this blog secret for a little while longer, I’m hoping to get into a habit of posting stuff weekly or daily. It doesn’t really matter as long as I’m updating frequently, I guess. I’m also kind of shy with a lot of my writing. A lot of people who know me and have me on Facebook probably wouldn’t guess that, because I am prone to writing long, tangential rants, but a large amount of what I write never actually makes it to the page. Not telling people about this blog will let me be a little more honest in my writing until I decide whether or not to keep going or just scrap the whole thing. We’ll see if that’s a good idea when people start reading this. Which, I guess is right now for you!