Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray editions: My Dinner with André d. Louis Malle (1981) Spine: #479 Blu-ray Release Date: June 16, 2015 Vanya on 42nd Street d. Louis Malle (1994) Spine: #599 Blu-ray Release Date: February 21, 2012 A Master Builder d. Jonathan Demme (2014) Spine: #762 Blu-ray Release Date: June 16, 2015 Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray discs, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.
In 1981, theater director André Gregory and actor and writer Wallace Shawn sat down for a meal, and, under the unobtrusive direction of Louis Malle, kept viewers spellbound over the course of their nearly two-hour dinner conversation about theater, life, money, death, etc. The script was based on their own real conversations but, at the same time, artful and elusive. Thirteen years later, Shawn and Gregory had teamed up again to perform Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya in a series of private performances in a run-down theater on 42nd Street, and Malle was there again, this time to capture a wonderfully successful theatrical experiment on film. Uncle Vanya on 42nd Street would be Malle’s final film. Then, just last year, Jonathan Demme stepped in to capture another exercise in theater and life in an adaptation of a Henrik Ibsen play that became the film A Master Builder.
Gregory and Shawn are intelligent and playful, willing to flaut the rules of theater, film, and life in order to explore the intricate and rich relationship among them. Each of the films are the result of years of collaboration and, in the case of the two stage play adaptations, of years of study and rehearsal, all focused on bringing the works to life.
This week the Criterion Collection is releasing a box set, with a fitting title, that collects three films.
Each film is also available to purchase separately, which may be nice for people who have already purchased the Criterion Blu-ray of Vanya on 42nd Street when it came out a few years ago. This is the first time Criterion has released either My Dinner with André or A Master Builder on Blu-ray.
My Dinner with André is a film that should be boring but isn’t. It really is a long dinner conversation, co-written by the two stars, who happen to play characters who have their same names and even similar life experiences. Gregory had quit the theater rather suddenly in 1975 and had gone on a kind of excursion to seek for some real purpose. When he returned, Shawn suggested they sit down and talk about Gregory’s experiences and then use them as a basis for a script. The film is a unique work that plays with the blurry borders of life and art while interrogating the very purpose of life and art. When he inducted the film into his Great Movies canon, Roger Ebert said:
Someone asked me the other day if I could name a movie that was entirely devoid of clichés. I thought for a moment, and then answered, My Dinner with André.
As the film begins, Wally is walking through some rundown streets of New York on his way to the restaurant. He does not want to go. Though he and André had been friends, he says that André’s behavior for the last few years had been strange and discomforting to his friends and, Shawn assumes, his family. After all, André had left everything behind and travelled to Poland. Since his return, friends had run into André crying in the street. For his part, Wally is a struggling playwright. He thinks only of money. Here are his first lines, told in voiceover while he walks:
The life of a playwright is tough. It’s not easy as some people seem to think. You work hard writing plays and nobody puts them on. You take up other lines of work to try to make a living. I became an actor and people don’t hire you. So, you just spend your days doing the errands of your trade.
When he finally arrives at the restaurant, he puts on a flimsy tie and enters, looking quite uncomfortable among the other diners. One diner, we should note as she’s a favorite on this site, is Wallace Shawn’s real-life partner, the writer Deborah Eisenberg:
It’s playful, especially as Wally talks about how much he’d like to go home and just enjoy the evening with Debbie. Sitting in a room with Wallace Shawn and Deborah Eisenberg sounds pretty wonderful to me, too, but believe me when I say that I’d like just as much to sit at a dinner table with Wally and André.
Almost the entire first hour of the film, after Wally and André sit down to order their food, is focused on André’s story. He tells Wally about his strange experiences of the last five years: his trip to Poland, to Scotland, to the Sahara, and finally to a grave in Long Island, in which he was buried alive.
Throughout André’s part of the conversation, Wally looks on with interest, but he can barely hide his bemusement.
Meanwhile, André proceeds to tell his tale, in the most affable manner possible. He’s back with a friend, after years, and he’s got experiences to share.
What André says is familiar, though fresh: he feels that modern life has killed us, though we go on living. He recites attractive platitudes, such as: “Do you know, in Sanskrit the root of the verb ‘to be’ is the same as ‘to grow’ or ‘to make grow.'”
The conversation takes a turn and becomes a fascinating dialogue when Wally, rather than simply receive André’s wisdom with a kind of smile, asks André if he’d like to know what Wally really thinks about all that André is saying.
This is a tremendous film that benefits from all who were involved. For me, it’s the jewel of this set, and it’s great to have it on Blu-ray finally.
In 1994, Gregory and Shawn again teamed with Louis Malle to capture a particular theatrical experiment on film. For some time, Gregory had been putting on private shows of Uncle Vanya. They were essentially rehearsals, attempts to dig into the play over time, and from what I can tell there was never any interest in making the show public. Malle came along and those of us unfortunate enough not to be close friends of Gregory or Shawn are still fortunate enough to see the fruits of their labors in Vanya on 42nd Street.
The movie begins, much like My Dinner with André did, out on the streets of New York. Here we watch the actors walking on their way to show. Fascinatingly, though they are in their street clothes (and this won’t change when the play begins) and are not visibly playing their roles yet, the reading material provided with the disc points out that these actors are already portraying the characters they play in Uncle Vanya, to an extent. Larry Pine, who plays the earthy Astrov, walks down and checks out the women around him. Julianne Moore and Brooke Smith, who play Yelena and Sonya respectively, show up together, playfully, foreshadowing the friendship that will grow between their characters. George Gaynes plays the aloof Serybryakov, comes on his own.
Shawn plays Vanya himself, waiting, perhaps impatiently, with his dinner, while Gregory shows up, more or less, as himself, the director.
When they meet outside the derelict theater they’ve been utilizing (in part — the stage is unsafe so they just use the orchestra), some of their friends arrive to watch the production.
Then, in we go, and we see the beauty of the past, even if the past has been partially destroyed by time.
It’s a remarkable film, for many reasons. The Chekhov play itself is one of my favorites because it is rich and filled with mystery. The numerous rehearsals and studies have proven beneficial as well, because these actors do a wonderful job inhabiting their characters (as we saw when the actors approached the theater). Indeed, one of the best aspects of this particular production is the way it moves between the play and real life seamlessly. We see the actors exchanging pleasantries, and Shawn says he’s going to rest for a minute. Meanwhile, Pine and Phoebe Brand (who plays Marina) sit down and start to chat. Pine talks about how tired he is and they remark on how long they’ve known each other.
If we are not familiar with the play, we won’t even know that this is the opening scene to the play.
To me, it’s important to recognize the budding talent of Julianne Moore, who plays the unfortunate, unhappy wife of the wealthy landowner. Again, I think all of the actors do great work in Vanya on 42nd Street, but Moore shows that she got where she is today through hard work and genuine talent that showed itself even in her early days. Here, she plays so many facets of emotion.
Not long after Vanya on 42nd Street, Gregory and Shawn started working on Henrik Ibsen’s play The Master Builder. Shawn himself did the translation, and Gregory adapted it for the stage, though, again, it was never meant to be a full-on Broadway production. Rather they invited special guests again. One of the guests happened to be the director Jonatahn Demme, who last year would help the team perform for the cameras again and create the film A Master Builder.
While for me, A Master Builder is the weakest of the set by quite a ways, it still has a great deal going for it. In particular, it features Gregory and Shawn:
Oh, how they’ve aged, and A Master Builder does feel like a nice play to represent this particular stage of their collaborative relationship.
I myself was not familiar with Ibsen’s play, so I don’t know all the ways the film differs from the play. I did read up on it, though, and understand that the great master builder Solness, played by Shawn, was not originally an old man on a hospital bed. Rather, Solness is a rather aggressive middle-aged man who had essentially quashed all of his competition. It isn’t too far off, then, to imagine this as an older man, maybe on his death bed, still holding whatever power he can over those around him, like Gregory’s Knut Brovik, a man who was once Solness’s competitor until he was forced to be employed by Solness.
Shawn does a great job, naturally, playing the older Solness, bitter but still proud, still unwilling to show weakness. But into Solness’s life comes the mysterious, young Hilda, played here by Lisa Joyce.
Hilda shows up from Solness’s past, though he cannot remember meeting her ten years earlier when she was only twelve. Still, at that time, Solness promised to build her a kingdom, and she’s come to make good on that promise.
The ensemble is complemented by Larry Pine’s Dr. Herdal and Julie Hagerty as Aline Solness, the person who sticks with Solness, though their past together contains tragic secrets:
As I said earlier, this is not my favorite film in the set, and part of that might be due to my lack of familiarity with the original play. This troop has been working on the play for over a decade, admitting that for the first year at least they didn’t learn anything about it. Perhaps it will grow with time. I also didn’t like Demme’s direction as much as Malle’s less pervasive approach. That said, I do like Demme generally, and I think he is an intelligent director. An aspect of his direction that I liked here was his attention to close ups, something we don’t get if we go to the play in the theater:
I’m still grappling with the film, which is a good thing because it means it worked its way under my skin, even if I wasn’t initially as taken by it as I was when I first saw My Dinner with André and Vanya on 42nd Street.
My Dinner with André
- The disc comes with an hour-long 2009 conversation, directed by filmmaker Noah Baumbach, with Gregory and Shawn (though not together). This supplement was delightful as the back story for My Dinner with André is not only delightful but also part of the film itself.
- The only other supplement is “My Dinner with Louis,” a 1982 episode of the BBC program Arena, in which Shawn interviews Louis Malle about Malle’s career. For those who know Malle’s filmography, there might not be much of value here. I personally like Malle quite a bit, so even if this was mostly familiar it was still nice to visit.
Vanya on 42nd Street
- This film comes with only one supplement (though a good one), a 36-minute documentary about the making of Vanya on 42nd Street, featuring interviews with Gregory and Shawn, as well as the actors Lynn Cohen, George Gaynes, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, and Brooke Smith, and producer Fred Berner. Again, since the film is kind of like an ice berg’s tip, this look beneath the surface is very revealing and enhances your appreciation of the film itself.
A Master Builder
- First, we get “The Ibsen Project,” a 33-minute conversation with Gregory, Shawn, and Jonathan Demme led by critic David Edelstein. It begins by talking about the working relationship between Gregory and Shawn and goes into this particular project. Apparently they started it 17 years ago! They were learning the play, little by little, and this is where Demme talks about being privileged to go see one of the performances that they were performing for a private audience.
- Next is “Hilda and Aline,” a 33-minute conversation with Julie Hagerty and Lisa Joyce. Obviously, given her age, Joyce was not part of the project the entire time, coming in only toward the end to now be the Hilda captured on film. The two talk about making the film and about working with each other and the two stars of the set.
- Last is “Over Time,” a valuable 52 minute conversation between Gregory and Shawn, this one led by their friend Fran Lebowitz. It’s a great retrospective and a fitting supplement to sample once you’re through with this set.