Friday, February 15, 2013

My Dinner with Andre

I just watched ‘My Dinner with Andre’. This is a film that is an experience. An hour and forty minutes almost entirely of two men, eating dinner, having a conversation: “A unique work in cinema history” doesn’t adequately convey the gravitas of experiencing these men’s conversation.

It feels as freeform as the real conversations I have. That alone is masterful.

Four months ago I cut and paste the words of “Bob Dylan’s Dream” into a writing I was working on:

“While riding on a train goin' west/ I fell asleep for to take my rest/ I dreamed a dream that made me sad/ Concerning myself and the first few friends I had
With half damp eyes I stared to the room/ Where my friends and I spent many an afternoon/ Where we together weathered many a storm/ Laughin' and singin' till the early hours of the morn
By the old wooden stove where our hats was hung/ Our words were told, our songs were sung/ Where we longed for nothin' and were satisfied/ Jokin' and talkin' about the world outside
With hungry hearts through the heat and cold/ We never much thought we could get very old/ We thought we could sit forever in fun/ And our chances really was a million to one
As easy it was to tell black from white/ It was all that easy to tell wrong from right/ And our choices there was few so the thought never hit/ At the one road we traveled, we ever shattered or split
How many a year has passed and gone/ Many a gamble has been lost and won/ And many a road taken by many a first friend/ And each one I've never seen again
I wish, I wish, I wish in vain/ That we could sit simply in that room again/ Ten thousand dollars at the drop of a hat/ I'd give it all gladly if our lives could be like that.”

Or take a different example, from Simon and Garfunkel, in their track “The Dangling Conversation”:

And we sit and drink our coffee/ Couched in our indifference,/ Like shells upon the shore/ You can hear the ocean roar 
In the dangling conversation/ And the superficial sighs,/ The borders of our lives. 

Yes, we speak of things that matter, / With words that must be said, / "Can analysis be worthwhile?"/ "Is the theater really dead?" 
And how the room is softly faded / And I only kiss your shadow, / I cannot feel your hand, / You're a stranger now unto me 
Lost in the dangling conversation. / And the superficial sighs, /In the borders of our lives.

Back in 2010 I recorded the following day in September:

“Mitchell and I met up Sunday night. Meeting at Civic Center we then moseyed up to Coit Tower, where Mitchell had never been. He wanted to go to the Stinking Rose, so we did. I was stiffed in terms of portions, and mine came out much later than his. Still it was good: gnocchetti in garlic gorgonzola fontina with asparagus. I suggested hitting up A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books, and so we went, but it was closed….

“We went back to Powell and hung out in the square, on a balmy night, shooting the breeze and shooing away the homeless. I spoke to him not about my romances, as we'd shared at dinner, but of my concern that that which was around us was destined to collapse, and our lifestyle irrevocably alter when we were older. The collapse of the cities will, in one sense, be magnificent. In another, from a survival point of view, it will be merely horrid.

“We parted around 11, nearly eight hours after we met.

These conversations are how I live my life. Just last night a group, eight of my peers, got together and discussed things over beer, wine and cheese. But this was shoptalk, commentary on the company, anecdotes of amusing things. It wasn’t conversation – it was talking. Pleasant talking, funny stories; but talking nonetheless. The moments (or should I borrow from Simon above and say ‘words’?) that matter are those that partake of some depth.

This time, roughly, last year I was labeled through no action on my own part, as a ‘traveler’. The implication is that I either distribute my wealth, my knowledge, wherever I go, or that I was seeking out such knowledge – on a quest of experience. Most probably a bit of both.

In the past I’ve ruminated on a particularly edifying conversation – that of the backpacker’s hostel. It captures precisely the traveler’s mix of search and sharing of wisdom and experience.

Yet, on the other side of the life spectrum, I lived for a period in a Zen monastery. This was the opposite, the insular confrontation of self that, in Buddhist fashion, is not a confrontation at all. So too, in my existentialist studies of Sartre, Camus, Nietzsche, and especially Heidegger, the moments of the self confronting self were examined.

So to encounter, to experience, ‘My Dinner with Andre’ was a revelation, from the nauseous feeling akin to Sartre’s regarding the modern world, which paralleled Mitchell’s and mine, to the direct referencing of Heidegger, to Andre’s search from Poland to Tibet, from spiritual experience to communal living – I thought, “My God – this isn’t just me.”

I’ve known for a very long time that people are looking for answers. Look at the right section of the bookstore. But I thought most everyone, most of the time, was talking shop. I thought my conversations were more special – for in these conversations I share my experience of life and reality, which, naturally, I thought was somehow unique.

Meanwhile Wallace Shawn felt the same thing 32 years ago. And it was insular Wallace, not travelling Andre, whom I connected with at the end, during his cab ride back to his girlfriend, mulling the differences between his and Andre’s worldview. In 2011 I recorded the following, forever etched into my mind:

“Raining heavily outside. Just put on Pet Sounds.

“Last night I read two emails from Jen. The first, in response to how things were going, said she was now dating John. The second, sent a few hours later, said her father was in a coma.

“I got them after a very tiring Thanksgiving celebration that seems very unimportant now. The cab ride back from Ella’s was very odd – totally Nausea by Sartre. I kept looking at my leg, illuminated by the stripes of the back window and street lamps and not feeling as though it was me. As I said this morning to Jack when chatting on Facebook, it was as though the world was different – sharper. Colder, a bit.”

Whether or not we’ve read Sartre, we’ve experienced the veneer of all of this peeled away. Some find it on Mt. Everest, others at the cigar store next door. It can be empty, like Simon and Garfunkel, or nostalgic, like Dylan, or just plain terrifying: Nietzsche’s abyss staring back into you.

Conversation – the way we see if others get what we’re saying. See the world through eyes like our own. Understand us. Fundamentally we want to understand the world, that’s true, but even more so we wish to be understood ourselves. Conversation affirms this, or denies it. That’s why Dylan felt nostalgic for the group of friends that understood him. That’s why Mitchell and I had such a powerful reflection in San Francisco on the fate of Western Civilization – we both got it. That’s why my girlfriend of four years leaving me left the world colder, and sharper: all that understanding lost. That’s why Wallace Shawn’s cab ride mirrors my own after his dinner with Andre. The connection is there, in glimpses of shared fervor, but they are talking in parallel conversations for the rest of the night. That disconnect is unnerving – to experience someone who almost gets it, but not quite. Who just, can’t quite see your point of view. It makes us pause and ask that most difficult question: Am I experiencing the world correctly? Do I see it the way it really is, or does this guy really get, and I’m missing something? To ask these questions is to directly confront us with ourselves. That is why a good conversation is so affirming and powerful, but why one such as ‘My Dinner with Andre’ is even more so. For, in that experience, we regard anew our foundations, and cannot but reflect on what we find.

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