Saturday, March 27, 2010

Try to Make It Real Compared to What?

I watched Louis Malle's My Dinner With Andre this evening and it of course sent my mind running around its hamster cage at full tilt, leaving me unfit for slumber despite a tiresome day.

And so here I am.

For those of you who have not seen it, the movie is little more than a (monumental) dinner conversation between a struggling playwright (Wallace Shaun) and a wealthy theater director / mystical wanderer (Andre).

If you have seen Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters, then just imagine Alan Alda's character as a parody of Andre, although I use that word loosely, since they are both pretty hysterical. I laughed out loud tonight louder than I have at any comedy I can remember, although it was not a comedy. [Note: Bob Odenkirk's interesting Melvin Goes to Dinner also owes a great debt to Andre -Ed.]

Andre is one of those fascinating, might-be-on-to-something, faux-humble, name-dropping emotional yo-yos who seem always to be weeping or getting naked in the woods with strangers, who inevitably mentions how he recently had a total breakdown and realized he was little more than a mindless one-dimensional robot when he was wandering around a desert in Africa for months with four toothless gypsies who subsisted on nothing but sand--because they wished it to be so--and then, in the next breath, tells a long-winded, riveting, story about how everything you are doing is wrong because when he rolled around in the grass in Tibet, imaginary monkeys kissed his nose and whispered a nonsense word and then 6 months later that word showed up as a drawing in a book he was reading to his child in Japanese--since he and his wife are trying to teach their kids Japanese, since a renowned physicist who gave up everything to become a brain-dead psychic once told him they are the future--and the funny thing is, the Tibetan language and Japanese couldn't be farther apart, so the character was probably just a meaningless squiggle to the author, but don't you see how it's all connected?

Wallace Shaun is, appropriately, very much the opposite, in term of temperament and opportunity. He is a struggling artist from working-class NY stock, a short, balding, unattractive man who takes pride in crossing meaningless errands off a list, believes there is still a chance for art to be profound, and who only asks that he not find a roach in his coffee mug when he gets up in the morning.

On the intellectual level, Wallace understands all of Andre's soul-searching, emotional journeys, even agrees with him on most of his criticisms of day-to-day life in the Western world, yet he cannot picture his world any other way, has no regard for the vague primal emotions that seem to occasionally rule Andre's tenuous existence, and actually takes pleasure in many of the things Andre despises.

I won't give too much away, yeah right, but one of the most interesting theories mentioned in the movie is that New York City (or any city, really) is actually some sort of 'perfect' prison, built by its inmates--who are schizophrenically also their own guards--who are too proud of their construction to ever leave it. Instead, they mill around giving themselves pointless-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things tasks, meaningless concerns to occupy their minds, trivial reasons for continuing to live there.

Yet, if they escaped, where would they go? To the woods? Would they dance around a fire all night and sleep during the day, making love atop wildflowers? Would they hold a flute in the wind and listen to the beautiful song forever? How long would that peace last until a new prison was built? Is it our nature to build prisons?

Who knows.

But I do know this--the first record I put on after watching the movie was Les McCann and Eddie Harris' Swiss Movement (recorded live at the Montreaux Jazz Fest in 1969; a gem).

Wouldn't you know it, the main refrain on the very first track--my all-time favorite jazz song, if you're keeping track--is "Try to make it real compared to what?"

The song was somehow intended as a critique of the Vietnam War, although I don't fully understand how and I wonder if that was just a cover story for the reality that it was, in actuality, a secret message sent to me from the future, since people/beings in the future would of course know I was watching My Dinner With Andre tonight (today being "Charlie Watched My Dinner With Andre Tonight" Day in the years 2041 and beyond).
If this is the case, I think the future is pretty cool for three reasons:

1. They can send messages through time

2. They have the patience to wait for those messages to be delivered 41 years after they were sent

3. They've not only got it all figured out, but can boil it down to an efficient eight-word sentence.
While we're making lists, I think the future is totally uncool for one reason:
1. The futuristic beings can do all those amazing things and, yet, they haven't found a way to make everything perfect for me. there a lesson here?

Reality is what stares back at you in the mirror, what you see out your window, that mysterious smell in your closet. It is the only plane of existence of any importance and you can't hide from it in the woods, in a narcotic haze, by running away, by reinventing yourself. The human brain is too powerful, perhaps too powerful, imagination its Achilles heel.

People are the way they are. Twenty people running off into the woods with grandiose dreams will always wind up with a microcosm of New York, a governing body as petty as Congress, the same personal problems catching up with them.

There are too many variables at play in the world, too many ingrained biological/social/cultural traits to think you can escape from them by disengaging your brain. Reality must be dealt with at face value--get your kicks when you can, sure, but don't be so arrogant as to think that your lingering discomfort and fear won't follow you everywhere.

Death always finds a way.

Or something like that. Hey--thanks for picking up the check, by the way.


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