Balancing Ideologies with Identity & Embracing Change: a reflection on the film “My Dinner with Andre”

My Dinner with Andre is one of those rare films that overtly questions the ideologies we have accepted as the norm, the truth, and the system to live by. Though it is an older film (and focuses on the experiences of two middle class Americans who live in New York City and work in the theater), I think there are some timeless questions and ideas that apply to any individual struggling with identity or discontent in their lives.


Ideology — (n.) a system of ideas or ideals; the ideas and manner of thinking characteristic of a group, social class, or individual


Throughout the film, both Andre and Wallace express discontent with their current lifestyle, where every day is habitual, actions lack meaning, and interactions with others are superficial. Each has a different reaction to this discontent, however, and their conversation raises fundamental questions about reality, empathy, comfort. And through this conversation, the film ultimately asks, “Why are we so afraid of change?”

The film begins with Wallace walking through the city to meet Andre, talking about the difficulties of his life as a playwright and making ends meet. I think this sums up his musing nicely: “When I was 10 years old, I was rich, I was an aristocrat, riding around in taxis, surrounded by comfort. And all I thought about was art and music. Now, I’m 36 and all I think about is money.” To Wallace, this dinner with Andre is just an added stress, but he feels obliged to go because Andre was once a close colleague in the theater. Through Wallace, we learn that Andre was once a renowned theater director, but had, in recent years, “dropped out of the theater” and was rumored to disappear for months at a time, leaving his family. People who had heard from him would hear his stories of traveling in “some odd place, like Tibet” or how he had “talked with trees or something like that.” Wallace concludes that “obviously something terrible had happened to Andre.”

As the dinner begins, we learn that for the past few years, Andre had been participating in these highly experimental, freeform theater workshops. He had become disillusioned with the theater, had “lost the ability to feel, except in the most extreme situations,” and had begun participating in the experimental workshops as a way to “cut out the noise and just listen to what’s inside [him].” It is interesting that Wallace is discontent because he is struggling within ‘the system,’ while Andre is discontent even though he has achieved the highest ‘position’ the system has to offer. The setting of the film, a high-end restaurant, emphasizes these differences. Andre is sophisticated — he knows his way around the menu, he dresses well. Wallace is plebeian — he seems out of place in this environment, awkward in appearance and interactions. Andre is the frustrated virtuoso, the lost dreamer; Wallace is the struggling artist, the pragmatic skeptic.

These differences, in situation and personality, cause each Wallace and Andre to have a different reaction to the discontent. Wallace’s reaction is to deny it. He says to Andre, “I’m really quite satisfied [with my life],” yet his musing at the beginning of the film reveals that he is not. So why does Wallace delude himself? Why won’t he admit that he is unsatisfied and unfulfilled? Perhaps, he must convince himself that he is satisfied because otherwise he must confront the idea of change. Or maybe he has thought about change before, but believes that it is not in his power — he can’t change society because he’s just an individual, he can’t change his life because he doesn’t have enough money. He believes he’s already “doing his best” to improve his life. But, he is “doing his best” within the system; he’s playing by the system’s rules. Is it possible for him to break free of it? To live in a way where it doesn’t define his life, and consume his thoughts (“all I think about is money”)? Does he really lack the power to change his life or is it mostly a psychological barrier?

On the other hand, Andre’s reaction to his discontent is to escape his current life completely, and possibly to gain new perspectives on it through different experiences. He leaves his family to travel in foreign countries for months at a time. He abandons the theater and chooses to participate in the wildly experimental and improvisational workshops. Andre describes how:

In this type of improvisation […] the theme is oneself. So you follow the same law of [theater] improvisation, which is that you do whatever your impulse of the character tells you to do, but in this case, you are the character. So there is no imaginary situation to hide behind, and there’s no other person to hide behind. What you’re doing in fact is you’re asking those same questions that Stanislavski said the actor should constantly ask himself as a character: Who am I? Why am I here? Where do I come from? And where am I going? But instead of applying them to a role, you apply them to yourself.

After hearing about the workshops, Wallace offers his perspective on what the point of the work was:

To enable people in the workshop to somehow strip away every scrap of purposefulness from certain selected moments so you would then all be able to experience somehow just pure being. In other words, you were trying to discover what it would be like to live for certain moments without having any particular thing that you were supposed to be doing.

Andre is searching for identity through these workshops, by experiencing the rapture of being alive. Yet the process of self-discovery is still filled with confusion and often aimlessness. Andre experienced the height of this confusion when he was traveling with a Japanese monk in the Sahara desert, and reflects in hindsight: “We were searching for something. We didn’t know why we were there, what we were looking for.” Eventually, Andre returns home. He tries to bring the essence of all he had experienced back into his home by having the monk live with his family. But this doesn’t help Andre improve his state of mind, and only disrupts his family life even more. Instead of trying to change his lifestyle, he had tried to bring the escapism into it, and make his life take on that quality.

Despite their differences, both Andre and Wallace agree that our culture and society lulls us into a habitual lifestyle, “a trance, dream world” where we are just “performing roles.” Wallace points out:

We put no value at all on perceiving reality. This incredible emphasis that we place now on our so-called “careers” automatically makes perceiving reality a very low priority, because if your life is organized around trying to be successful in a career, it just doesn’t matter what you perceive or what you experience. You can really sort of shut your mind off for years ahead, in a way. You can sort of turn on the automatic pilot.
[…]
Our minds are just focused on the goals and plans, which in themselves are not reality. Goals and plans, they’re fantasy. They’re a part of a dream life. It seems so ridiculous that everybody has to have his little goal in life. It’s so absurd, in a way, when you consider that it doesn’t matter which one it is. And because people’s concentration is on their goals, in their life they live each moment by habit. Life becomes habitual. If you’re just operating by habit, then you’re not really living.

It’s strange that for them “dream world” has a negative connotation, when their profession involves making imaginary worlds come to life. It could be just the idiom of that time. It seems that today, media is filled with ‘how to bring more creativity to your work/business,’ ‘the value of play, curiosity, and what we can learn from children,’ as if saying, ‘Don’t be stuck in the limits and confines of reality. Dream a little.’ But then again, what is reality actually? It’s subjective, one person’s ‘reality’ could be different from another person’s. What is true for one person might not be true for another person.

This might be why sometimes it is difficult for people to empathize with others. Or, Wallace and Andre might say that we just “put no value at all on perceiving” other people. Later in the dinner, Andre tells a story about when he walked into a theater he hadn’t been to for a while, and several people all said, “You look great!” But then he met a woman whose aunt was in the hospital who said to him, “You look terrible! What’s wrong?” She could tell how he was feeling because she was also going through something difficult. This made me wonder, what in the other person do we recognize and identify with, if we are experiencing or have experienced something similar? And why can’t we see it if we haven’t experienced it before? Why is empathy and understanding so reliant on experience? Wallace thinks another part of this lack of empathy is that, “we can’t be direct. Suppose you’re going through some kind of hell in your own life. Well you would love to know if your friends have experienced similar things, but we just don’t ask each other.”

Ironically, even though Andre criticizes others for interacting superficially or without empathy, he does not change his own actions when he believes they are wrong. The doorman to his apartment always calls him “Mr. Gregory,” while he calls the doorman “Jimmy.” It bothers Andre that society deems it okay for him to call the doorman “Jimmy” when both are grown men (interesting that today, everyone just uses first names…). Andre could just decide to change his actions, but he doesn’t. He just blames society instead. He also blames science for the state of society and these meaningless lifestyles, claiming that “science has been held up as this magical force that would somehow solve everything. It’s destroyed everything.”This film was released in 1981, but today’s equivalent would be technology — people are constantly saying how our current technology makes interactions more superficial. It’s interesting how this happens with every generation — people believe society is falling apart and try to identify a scapegoat while longing for a past lifestyle. Maybe it’s just an apprehension of the new because the new could change your way of life.

The film uses a background character to further comment on the fear of change. The waiter is an elderly man with stiff movements, and throughout the dinner, he gives disapproving looks at Andre and Wallace. Because the audience knows the contents of their conversation — deep questioning of life and society — the waiter is seen as a close-minded individual. His character is almost a warning: if you don’t question ideologies and if you don’t embrace change, you will end up like him — old, intolerant, and subservient. You will miss out on the ideas, stories and potential shared understanding that others have to offer.

It could be that both Wallace and Andre find it difficult to change their lifestyles not only because of fear, but mostly because they just don’t know how. They don’t know what other options are available — as with empathy, you don’t understand it until you have experienced it. Andre’s explorations, then, are an attempt to find what these options are. They are an attempt to answer these questions: Society says I should be happy, so why am I not? And what will make me happy? These are questions that Wallace suppresses (consciously or subconsciously). It’s interesting that many people just accept the ideologies that society says we should have, instead of taking in these meanings, contextualizing them, and understanding them in relation to personal identity. It’s interesting that society (from education to the workforce) focuses on figuring out where to fit individuals within its system, rather than providing a structure for individuals to find their own place and grow. My Dinner with Andre ends without any definite conclusions or answers about how to balance society’s ideologies with personal identity. But the film’s seems to say: if individuals at least begin to question the ideologies, they have already taken the first step towards that balance. They have taken the first step towards change in their own lives and for the society in which they live.

Further Reading and Materials

Slavoj Zizek often uses cinema “to explain where we are ideologically” (video)

Modern Man in Search of Soul by Carl Jung (Book)

On Anarchism — Noam Chomsky (video) — he believes in “the absolute importance of human development in its richest diversity” and that “institutions that constrain such human development are illegitimate unless they can somehow justify themselves.”


Originally published at liliankong.wordpress.com on September 11, 2014.