an essay by andré gregory

ANDRE GREGORY: before and after dinner
If I told you that Before and After Dinner was my favorite movie of this past year you might easily think, well he likes it because its about him, because he gets to watch himself for 108 minutes, because he’s a narcissist who believes he is a wise man who likes nothing better than to listen to his own stories and relishes the chance to observe the brilliance of his own work in the appropriately hushed and reverential atmosphere of a movie theater. Yet, when I watch Before and After Dinner, I feel, as I did watching My Dinner With André that the André Gregory character is quite fascinating, but doesn't seem to really be me. I am interested in and concerned with this man not because his is the same face I see each day as I peer into the mirror to shave but because the trajectory of this man’s life seems to capture some meaning with respect to the particular, rather extraordinary era in which we all have been living together. And indeed, this film is not just about me. It is about many entities—people, ghosts, and abstract ideas such as are found in art. It’s also about Cindy, a brilliant and devious film maker, and about a marriage. It is about how Cindy, in the living out of daily life, like my Guru, who is not seen in the film but whose presence is palpably there, has taught me to be an Ecstatic, to see the beauty and the joy of living. Cindy the Trickster is a master of the McGuffin—Hitchcock invented the term—the trick of letting you think you are going in this direction when actually you are going in that direction. So Before and After Dinner, seemingly the chronicle of an artist’s life and work, is on one level a film about a happy marriage, perhaps the first such film since Mrs. Miniver. When couples tell me they have a pretty good marriage and they’re working on it I always think: what’s to work??? We get sick, we lose our jobs and that’s work. But marriage is great. The problem is the people in it. So the real work is on ourselves. We have been given this oh so precious gift of Life and the task of appreciation for this gift is to constantly be working to make this instrument we have been given, a thing of beauty, to make it more conscious, to make it more valuable to the world around it. So the extremely subversive Kleine uses this guy, this theatre director, André Gregory, to explore themes other than André Gregory. Kleine is a radical making films that cannot be defined. Before and After Dinner is radical because in these times in which we revere those who are financially successful—hedge fund barons, super stars, and personalities who are famous only for being famous—to consider individuals who have dedicated their lives to the creation of beauty, who ask questions rather than give answers, who are Artists, to consider them important, national treasures, is a radical act. Kleine shows this artist, who happens to be me, and can probably call himself an artist because he has been working on, and changing his craft with dedication and hard work for half of a century and is quite good at what he does. This artist who just happens to be me, is of some value because his work at times actually changes lives. When My Dinner with Andr$eacute; was released I received a letter of thanks from a man who gave up being a US Marine and took up the cello. After Vanya came out I received a letter of thanks from a woman who told me that she had seen the film many times and it was helping her to die. So Kleine is asking questions about the purpose of Art, the value of Art and the necessity for Art. She is also asking questions about the nature of the artist. I think that many artists are trying their whole lives, consciously or unconsciously to answer one central question and if they ever found an answer might feel no more need to be an artist. In my case the question, depicted by Kleine as a kind of cloak and dagger story, is the mystery of my father, the man who saved my life and scared the shit out of me. Why? Who was he? What did he really do? This issue of the central, unanswered question is of importance to all of us because each of us is an oyster and within the oyster is an annoying grain of sand which can be transformed into a lovely pearl. But we have to attempt to name the grain of sand. And even the attempt, the willingness to enter into the unknown, to ask the question can create a richer life, which is also a gem. Ruth Nelson, one of the great actresses of the Group Theatre, the theatre that gave birth to Clifford Odets, Lee Strasberg, Elia Kazan, Harold Clurman and through them, in the next generation Brando, Montgomery Clift, Paul Newman and many, many more; Ruth who was blacklisted by HUAC at the pinnacle of her career; Ruth who, during rehearsals of Vanya, would always call me "dear, dear André" because it was the first work she had deeply enjoyed since her work with The Group in the 1930s; Ruth who played our Vanya on the stage but died before we could do the film. The last thing she said was "Geronimo," her last word upon dying. Kleine makes the unknown central to the film. Because its a film about process and process is always a voyage into the unknown, even the process of dying which can be, if we can find the way, a final and even beautiful work of art.

Central to Kleine’s film is the making, the rehearsing of the staged version of The Master Builder. And even if I didn’t just happen to be the guy who directed the play I would love the film because at its center is one of my very favorite forms, going back to the great days of Hollywood; a movie about the making of a movie, a movie about the making of a play. You know, Singin’ In The Rain, Stage Door, Waiting For Guffman. Everyone, I think, and most especially me, loves a movie about putting on a show. Kleine also covers some of her favorite themes--be sure to watch her amazing film Phyllis and Harold, the scariest film about marriage since Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage. She is fascinated by hidden family secrets and the passing of Time. And there is a doozie of a family secret in Before and After Dinner.

And what about that passing of Time? How the hell did I get to be nearly 80? (By what miracle am I at the top of my game, rehearsing two plays at the same time and finishing another movie?) What effect does my age have on Cindy, much younger, married to a guy who is part Tarzan and part METHUSELAH? Aging and dying, in a materialist culture, are the ultimate failures. Before and After Dinner does away with this taboo of aging. In Kleine’s film there is more than hope, there is also joy, creativity and accomplishment, if you so wish it, right down to the finish line. So there in a word, or two or a thousand (who would expect less from that guy in the Dinner movie?) are my reasons for Before and After Dinner being one of my favorite movies of this last year. But it wasn’t made for me. It was made for YOU and I sincerely hope you enjoy it just as much as I have.