My Dinner With Andre is one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen. This post is going to be a little different from anything I’ve done in the past though, as I’d like to discuss two related pieces of media at the same time. The reason for this is because they’re both so intertwined in my head at this point that I can never see one without thinking of the other.
The Importance of “Real” Conversations
First of all, I only discovered it because of the Community episode “Critical Film Studies,” where they parody the setup. That episode is a masterpiece in its own right, mostly because of the way it subtly develops Jeff’s character while also calling the audience to a higher standard. It’s strangely comforting to think that a guy as handsome and confident as Jeff Winger is just as insecure as any of us. Not only that, he was so eager to get these buried memories off his chest and be vulnerable with someone that he broke down and confided in Abed at the first opportunity, with little provocation. Jeff needed to have a “real” conversation just as much as Abed was pretending to, he just didn’t know it until one presented itself to him. I’d postulate that this is the case for most people walking around today, bottling their feelings for fear of being judged or alienated.
And while Abed admits he was spoofing another movie with this reenactment, that story he gave about creating a fictional character who “had lived more than Abed” isn’t based on anything in Andre. Therefore, the anecdote about Chad had to come from some repressed feelings of living an unsatisfied life, whether Abed could admit it in the end or not. I think on some level Abed wanted a real conversation too, he just couldn’t think of any other way to set one up. (Abed is openly described as having Asperger’s syndrome and being unable to socialize without using the conventions of TV and movies as a crutch.) Whether this particular reenactment was an intentional cry for help or not, Abed clearly didn’t expect Jeff to have so much complex baggage of his own. This is where a lot of the humor comes from in the episode, Abed staring wide-eyed in shock as Jeff bares his soul, completely unprepared for the tsunami of feels he’s unleashed. It’s also a biting satire of our modern lives, where popular media is so pervasive that a person has to imitate a movie in order to signal to their guest that they don’t actually want to talk about pop culture.
“Critical Film Studies” speaks to how all of us are carrying a secret burden, that everyone has some trauma in their past and therefore we should all be mindful of each others’ feelings. It’s a TV show that acknowledges how toxic it is that most of us talk about nothing except TV–either parroting scenes from the latest episode of so-and-so, the news, or sports. We don’t have real conversations about our emotions or personal experiences anymore. Our closest friends don’t know our most important passions or fears half the time. If you try to purposefully begin a discussion about such things (as Abed does in the episode, and I’ve attempted to do in real life, albeit in a more straightforward way) you’re either ignored, patronized for a moment at best, or you get blank stares and confused laughs. For tackling this unspoken cultural problem, “Critical Film Studies” is the best episode of a sitcom ever made, at least as far as I’m concerned.
Anyway, with that extended introduction, I tracked down the movie itself hoping it lived up to the Community parody. I’ll be honest in that I thought it was pretty ‘meh’ at first. This was back when I was still in my senior year of high school–I was center-right socially and economically at the time, which if you know me now is hard to believe. I had yet to expand my mind, yet to encounter new people, art and ideas that challenged me. Within that context, I thought Andre was a basket-case and everything he was saying was ridiculous. Calling New York a self-made concentration camp, saying the ‘60s were the last time men were free and asserted that freedom, that people would want to be castrated just so they could feel something anymore…
And now, 7 years later, I get it. This movie didn’t change me, I changed independently, but I can see the point now in any case. I won’t say that I’ve become Andre, because I’m not. I still fall into a lot of the traps and shortcomings of man he lays out here. I fall into routines, I don’t try new things as often as I want to, I’m not as social as I wish I was etc. I’m trying, but through obligations, depression or inertia I usually take one step forward and then stop or even take another step back a lot of the time. Nonetheless, I understand and agree with a lot of the points he makes in the film. I’ve often said that nowadays in our confined, controlled, digitally programmed society, we’re leading a lifestyle that humans were not meant to live, and it’s hurting us. That’s a big reason why anxiety, depression and (I’d even wager on some level) these mass shootings are so common nowadays. We are not living in tune with our surroundings or our own emotions anymore. On this core theme, the movie is very similar to the TV episode it influenced.
A lot of the time, even when I’m hanging out with people I really care about, the only way we can relate to each other is through what media we’ve seen lately, or (especially since 2016) by the current events more often than not shaped by horrible people who don’t give a shit about us. Sometimes I try to break this particular cycle by saying something really unexpected about my feelings or inner thoughts, and usually the other person doesn’t know how to respond, or takes it as me just trying to be wacky, so they give me a pity laugh. It’s a shame it has to be that way. I once tried to seriously discuss important current events and societal issues like climate change with my uncle at a family gathering. My younger cousin then put on a Pewdiepie video which grabbed everyone’s attention away, and I was gently chided for bringing down everyone else’s good time. I understand why sometimes people just want to relax and have a good laugh, but it seems like there’s never any good time to talk about things that are really important. To try to call attention about large-scale problems is to be seen as a Debbie-Downer, and to try to talk about personal struggles more often than not scares other people away.
If it’s not media then it’s “what do you do?” and if you don’t have a job, or don’t have some really impressive one, you’re immediately made to feel worthless or pitied. It can be kinda upsetting sometimes. Especially so because we often don’t get to spend time with the people we want to, due to work or other obligations taking up our time. (Or even forcing us to move away from old support groups.) All through life, you form connections in one environment or another and then as you graduate or transfer schools, move for a new job, or whatever it is those connections get ripped away. I can’t imagine how defeating it must be to see someone from a previous chapter in your life and try to hang out, only for them to look down on you for not having a good enough job. (Or coming into bad times and wanting to confide in someone you once held dear.) I hate to think of new people I’ve never met deeming me unworthy of their presence, despite not knowing anything about me but my job. Similarly, I find it sad so many people get into the kinds of jobs which separate them from their families or friendly neighbors for vast amounts of time a week (gotta love expected overtime and/or always on-call employment) just so they can impress people and have more money to buy things they don’t need.
I think calling it the last gasp of human individuality may be a bit over the top, but I’ve since read a lot about the ’60s counterculture and its various actors on their own terms–Ken Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, Brian Wilson, Syd Barrett, Brian Jones, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Grace Slick, Jim Morrison and the list goes on. They embody the idea of rebelling against authority when it’s in the wrong, and asserting your own individuality in the meantime. There’s more to it all than the “dirty hippies, should get a job huh huh” I had been led to believe. I’m not saying everyone involved was some deep philosophical guru or that they should be a person’s (only) heroes. But I do think it’s important to think critically, buck tradition when it’s wrong and be yourself.
I’ll just finish up by saying that I like how Wally (Andre’s conversational counterpart) makes some good rebuttals to Andre’s musings as well. While agreeing with the idea we live in a “dream world” without really acknowledging those around us, Wally somewhat disagrees with the solution. This is important because at the end of the day, not everyone can just hop on a plane and go to Tibet or India and get “enlightened” as Andre does. And I don’t think that’s a prerequisite for being “woke” anyway. You’re not a bad person for enjoying the simple things, like a nice cup of coffee in the morning, reading a good book, or expressing yourself in personal creations. The point is we need to be mindful of our own emotions, and those of the people around us. We need to break off from digital/electronic distractions once in awhile to really connect with another person, or enjoy nature. We need lives and interests that don’t revolve around the media. We should be mindful of the fact that our media today is consolidated and biased towards the status quo by virtue of that fact. Be spontaneous. Andre specifically mentions Marlon Brando sending Sacheen Littlefeather to accept his Oscar as an example of this. I would counter with Matt Stone and Trey Parker showing up at the Oscars tripping on acid wearing dresses.