Tag Archives: Wallace Shawn

CAPSULE: MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981)

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DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Andre Gregory

PLOT: Struggling playwright Wallace Shawn has dinner with his old friend, theater director Andre Gregory, who describes the mystical experiences he’s had visiting experimental theater workshops and communes around the world.

Still from My Dinner with Andre (1981)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s not weird enough. The concept of a movie that is almost entirely a single dinner conversation is successfully experimental, and some of Gregory’s theories approach the bizarre, but Louis Malle has a couple of better candidates for the List of the weirdest movies of all time out there.

COMMENTS: Based on the description—there’s no plot per se, just two intellectuals sitting down for dinner at a swank restaurant having a conversation–you probably have no interest in seeing My Dinner with Andre, no matter how many times cinephiles tell you it’s a classic. I admit, the synopsis held no great attraction for me; I like Wallace Shawn and Louis Malle, but I never would have sought this movie out on my own, and I approached the prospect of viewing it more with trepidation than anticipation. Frankly, I was hoping it would not be as boring as it sounds—I mean, I like a good chat about life when I’m a participant, but I don’t see talking as a spectator sport. I needn’t have worried; although My Dinner with Andre assumes that you are reasonably intelligent and have a basic liberal education, it’s more accessible than it sounds. And, if you engage with it, it’s also more dramatic than it sounds.

The movie stars playwright/actor Wallace Shawn as a struggling playwright/actor, and avant-garde theater director Andre Gregory as an avant-garde theater director. The conversation is scripted, but it is based on actual discussions between the two men, who play exaggerated, fictionalized versions of themselves. The story begins with a dissatisfied Shawn complaining about his life: his career as a playwright isn’t putting food on the table and all he ever thinks about are his money problems. He is going to dinner with Andre, the theater director who produced his first play but who had recently dropped out of the New York theater scene to travel around the world, returning with strange tales of his adventures. Wally has heard Andre has been acting erratic and is nervous to meet him again. The first part of the dinner is almost a monologue by Gregory, who details his adventures in an experimental theater group in Poland where he directed a group of women who did not speak English; tells tales about his time in the Sahara with a Japanese monk who could balance on his fingertips; and relates a story about a ceremony where he was ritually killed and resurrected. Andre explains that he has been searching for experiences that allow him to be truly human, because he believes that modern man is fatally disconnected from reality. He also explains that, during this period in his life, he would spontaneously hallucinate, seeing birds flying out of his mouth when he looked in the rear-view mirror and a blue minotaur with flowers growing out of its body at midnight Mass. Although Andre is charasmatic, enthusiastic and lucid, these confessions cast him in a strange light. Is he really a mystic? Or does he have a touch of madness? Or is he just a man with an amazing imagination?

Wally listens with increasing interest as Andre relates his exploits, until, in the second half of the conversation, he starts to raise objections and fire back at Andre, whose vision of life he finds intoxicating but impractical. Wally says Andre’s lifestyle is too elitist: not everyone can have these experiences, and there is meaning to be found in reading good books and enjoying a cup of coffee. Neither Wally nor Andre gets the upper hand. Ultimately, Andre doesn’t convince Wally that it’s necessary to take extreme measures to find meaning in life. Yet, Wally still has a sense of epiphany. As he’s leaving dinner, he thinks with wonder of ordinary experiences he’s had: buying a suit, eating an ice cream… Wally comes away from dinner invigorated, not because Andre convinces him to change his life and start “really living,” but because he’s refreshed himself by an encounter with another mind, with another way of thinking about life. The reason My Dinner with Andre works is not because we take sides with either Wally or Andre, but because it reminds us of discussions we’ve had with our own dear friends, where we lose track of time and talk deep into the night. It recalls those treasured times we shared our deepest thoughts, and someone else thought enough of them to challenge us. It’s the conversation that matters, not the words spoken.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…one of the few entrancingly esoteric, radically raw dialectics ever filmed.”–Joseph Jon Lanthier, Slant (DVD)

(This movie was nominated for review by nicolas, who simply called it “an amazing film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

180. THE DOUBLE (2013)

“Often, an actor comes with his own strange ideas, and the director takes them and shapes them into a normal movie scene. Richard takes actors’ strange inclinations… and pushes them farther.”–Jesse Eisenberg on Richard Ayoade

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DIRECTED BY: Richard Ayoade

FEATURING: Jesse Eisenberg, , , Noah Taylor, Yasmin Paige

PLOT: Simon James is a competent but meek bureaucrat, nearly invisible to his co-workers and to Hannah, the copy room worker he loves from afar. One day, a man named James Simon comes to work at his place of employment—a man who looks exactly like him but has an opposite personality of confidence that verges on arrogance. At first Simon and James hit it off, but eventually James begins seizing Simon’s work and romantic opportunities, and Simon realizes that he must confront his double or lose everything he owns and disappear completely.

Still from The Double (2013)
BACKGROUND:

  • The Double is loosely based on the 1846 short novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoevsky. Only the writer’s second novel, the work was poorly received, and even the author himself admitted “I failed utterly.”
  • intended to film an adaptation of “The Double” in 1996, but plans fell through when star John Travolta backed out.
  • Director Richard Ayoade is better known in Britain as a comic actor (he played Maurice Moss in “The I.T. Crowd”). The Double is his second feature film as a director.
  • The script was co-written by Avi (brother of Harmony) Korine.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Double is a movie that builds by ideas, not images. This is not to diminish the hard work of the art department in constructing the claustrophobic cubicles, suicide-leap ledges and greasy lunch counters that make up Simon James’ drab world; it’s just that the visuals, like the industrial office audio soundscapes, are used as background rather than points of emphasis. This being a doppelganger movie, the most memorable imagery, naturally, involves Jesse Eisenberg interacting with Jesse Eisenberg. We selected the moment that Jesse Eisenberg 1, having just punched Jesse Eisenberg 2, stands over his fallen victim, realizing with surprise that he has spouted a spontaneous nosebleed just as he drew blood from his double.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Set in a timeless industrial dystopia, The Double takes the alienation of Dostoevsky’s psychological novel and filters it through the social paranoia of Franz Kafka; all this Eastern European anomie is then sprinkled with the dry, absurd wit for which the British are justifiably famous. Naturally, this comic existential nightmare of a stolen life is scored to peppy Japanese versions of early Sixties pop songs. The Double is the most fun you’ll have laughing into the void since Brazil.


Original trailer for The Double

COMMENTS: 2014 will go down as the Year of the Doppelganger, with the release of The Double together with Enemy (alongside which it would make Continue reading 180. THE DOUBLE (2013)

THE WALLACE SHAWN INTERVIEW

You might know from 1981’s My Dinner with Andre, which he wrote and starred in, from his small but memorable role in The Princess Bride, or as the voice of Rex the Dinosaur in the Toy Story series. I spoke to the actor and playwright by phone on the morning of May 16th; mustering all the restraint I could manage, I decided not to title the resulting discussion some variation of “My ___ with Wally.” After a bit of edited-out introductory fumbling around on my part, we got down to conversational business.

366 Weird Movies: You’re here today primarily to talk about Don Peyote. There are a lot of interesting cameos in Don Peyote: Anne Hathaway, most notably, but also cult figures like , the director Abel Ferrara, and yourself. How did you come to be involved in this project?

Wallace Shawn: I don’t know. Somebody called me, and I… you’ve read about Pavlov’s experiments? When certain bells are rung, the dog begins to salivate. In my case, I ran out the door and joined this rather eccentric collection of people for a day.

Wallace Shawn in Don Peyote
Wallace Shawn as Dr. Fieldman in the psychedelic comedy “DON PEYOTE” an XLrator Media release. Photography credit: Isak Tiner.

366: I imagine you didn’t get to interact with a lot of the cast; your scene was just with Dan Fogler, I believe.

WS: This was a very improvisational movie, and there were all sorts of other things that went on.

366: Were there scenes that didn’t make it in that you shot?

WS: Sadly, there were even scenes that didn’t make it in. Because the whole movie was made in a rather improvisational way, and different things were probably… I don’t think it was just me… they probably had five hours, if they put everything in. It would be a five hour movie—I don’t know, I’m speculating. But they obviously had to make some tough decisions in there. Each of the little interviews with the people that are in the documentary, they’re fragments, obviously, from longer conversations.

366: I’m guessing from the title alone that you realized this was going to be a drug movie, which doesn’t seem like the sort of movie you’ve done before. What’s your view on drugs, or the movie’s take on the psychedelic experience?

WS: The movie’s take, if I were to decipher it: I would say on the one hand the whole style of the film is, let’s say, a very “druggy” style. So, someone who had never taken any drugs might never have been able to make such a film, and might not have been interested in making such a film. There’s an implied criticism of excessive drug taking in it, because they’re not really up to the task of making the documentary that they dream of, and certainly Dan’s character is unable to enjoy his relationship with the very nice fiancee. So, in a sense the movie shows some of the negative sides of taking too many drugs.

My own view, obviously coming as I do out of the 1960s, I know that a lot of people have learned a lot from taking drugs, and expanded their consciousness. On the other hand many people have been destroyed by taking drugs, particularly in excess.

366: I don’t want you to incriminate yourself about any of your own drug use in the past, potentially, but were you involved in the counterculture movement in the Sixties, or did you consider yourself to be part of that movement?

WS: I tragically missed all of it, because I was too fearful. And I regret that, tremendously. I was afraid of everything at that time. I’ve become slightly more youthful in my older years, but it’s too late. Those decades are over and that counterculture period is over.

366: I saw you do another interview where you talked about being fearful in your youth, and it seems strange that you would then get into a vocation like acting, where you have to be very outgoing. So how did that come about?

WS: Well, I started as a writer, and I got into acting almost completely by accident. And I was changing by that time. I was about 35 years old when I had my first acting job. And by then, I was already becoming less fearful.

366: You are in another movie right now, The Double, with Jesse Eisenberg. I haven’t seen it yet, but based on the trailer you seem to have a very prominent part in that one. What’s your role in that?

WS: In that one I play the boss of the office where the “first” Jesse Eisenberg works as a miserable underling, and I barely can recognize him. And then the “second” Jesse Eisenberg comes along and he’s very smooth and suave and I absolutely am crazy about him and promote him and have the deepest respect for him. It’s a very, very fascinating film, based on Dostoevsky.

366: Do you have any other projects coming out soon that we might look out for?

WS: Yes, I am going to be in a movie called A Master Builder that Jonathan Demme has directed. It’s based on a play of Ibsen that Andre Gregory has been working on as the director since 1997. I have an incredible part in it, I translated and adapted the Ibsen play and I play the main part, I have to say. It’s a very remarkable film.

366: Is that coming out in 2014?

WS: It’s opening in July in New York.

366: I want to thank you very much for talking with us, and good luck with all your endeavors.

WS: Okay, it’s great to talk to you.

 

CAPSULE: DON PEYOTE (2014)

DIRECTED BY: Dan Fogler, Michael Canzoniero

FEATURING: Dan Fogler, Kelly Hutchinson, Yang Miller

PLOT: An unemployed pot-smoking graphic novelist takes psychedelic drugs, becomes involved with conspiracy theorists, has a psychotic breakdown, ends up in a mental hospital, and eventually becomes a homeless prophet.

Still from Don Peyote (2014)
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST
: Don Peyote is an unapologetic, full-out drug trip movie—and while it’s hard to make a drug trip movie that’s totally boring, it’s even harder to make one that can sustain interest for a full 90 minutes. Psychonauts may be pleased that someone’s finally telling a story from their perspective, but Don Peyote is too chaotic and not entertaining enough to crossover from that demographic.

COMMENTS: A comedy solidly aimed at those who know their ayahuasca from a hole in the ground, Don Peyote is the rare film (nowadays, at least) that’s unabashedly psychedelic; a movie full of characters for whom chugging down a few buttons of hallucinogenic cactus and touring the universe from the comfort of their own skull constitutes a typical boring Friday night at home. If it’s sheer trippiness you’re after, Peyote delivers, with visions of aquatic goddesses, spontaneous folk-rock dance numbers, and guys in demonic bunny suits waiting around every bend. If it’s structured trippiness and insight into life’s great questions you seek, however, go somewhere else, because the all-over-the-cosmos plot has the attention span of an adult-onset ADD patient who has noshed on too many shrooms. If you don’t like what’s happening in Don Peyote, just wait five minutes and soon it will be doing something completely unrelated: hero Warren goes from planning a wedding to conspiracy theorizing to embarking on a vision quest, all while tripping on various esoteric drugs and suffering from spontaneous hallucinations that just might result from underlying schizophrenia. Although almost a decade has supposedly passed by the end of the story, I think the theory that the whole movie is just Warren’s hallucination from smoking a joint laced with wolfsbane he’s handed in the film’s first ten minutes is still in play when the closing credits roll.

Lack of focus is one of the film’s main issues; the other its wishy-washy infatuation with its unappealing central character. Warren is, frankly, what most people would consider a loser, a burnout, but the script doesn’t see him as an object of ridicule. A satire about an aging druggie struggling with the demands of adulthood could have supplied some great laughs, but we are asked to look at this character instead as an everyman (his last name is even “Allman”) in a world gone mad. But how are we supposed to buy, for example, that this perpetually-high career loafer has an attractive, financially-secure fiancée who’s anxious to start a family with him? I mean, I understand that there are some desperate women in Manhattan, but this is a chubby, unemployed grungoid in his 30s who sponges off her, constantly smokes pot out of an apple, and breaks into a rant about the shadow government during pre-marital counseling. Yet we are encouraged to root for Warren, not laugh at him. In the original “Don Quixote,” Cervantes made merciless cruel fun of his deluded title character, but this story treats its main character too gently, more like the Man of la Munchies.

The running subplot about Warren making a documentary about the Mayan 2012 apocalypse draws a link between psychedelic drugs and conspiracy theorism as alternate (if complementary) methods of avoiding reality. The connection between drug-taking and far-out mind-control weirdness also featured in the recent indie thriller The Banshee Chapter, so the conspiracy/psychedelic alliance may be something that’s brewing in the fringe zeitgeist at the moment.

In a nod to the great psychedelic ensemble movies of the late 1960s, like Casino Royale or The Magic Christian (where a Christopher Lee or a Raquel Welch might pop up in a tiny cameo), Don Peyote features a modest parade of hip bit-players: Jay Baruchel as a pot dealer, Topher Grace in an amusing meta-movie role as headliner Fogler’s two-faced agent, Wallace “My Dinner with Andre” Shawn as a cookie-eating psychiatrist, Bad Lieutenant director Abel Ferrara driving a cab, cult philosopher delivering a gonzo monologue, and, in the biggest coup, Oscar-winner Anne Hathaway as an I.R.S. agent with full Illuminati intelligence clearance.

Stoners who are already salivating over the trippy trailer will likely find Don Peyote hits the psychedelic sweet spot, especially when employing their favorite substance as a booster. The sober-minded are not as likely to be amused by the light-on-laughs, high-on-goofiness script, but may find some curiosity value in the casting and general rambunctiousness.

Don Peyote debuts May 9 on video-on-demand and starts a limited theatrical run the following week.

 WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…feels like a scholarly acid trip mixed with every paranoid druggie’s worst nightmare, but plays like a story your local weed dealer stumbles through helplessly while you try and force him out of your house.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (contemporaneous)