There are collaborations and there are collaborations. In the movies, as in the theatre, collaboration is usually something that occurs over a handful of hectic weeks, often between artists who just met. The result can be brilliant or banal, but it must be arrived at under duress. Time is money, and those who can’t become galvanized by pressure enter into a life in the movies or the theatre at their peril. That stage director André Gregory and playwright-actor Wallace Shawn have been able to collaborate on projects over much longer periods—most recently a period of 15 years!—is evidence of an uncommon devotion to the vagaries of long-term creative exchange. Okay, that and, most likely, some degree of privilege. But this privilege has not been squandered. On the contrary, their collaborations have resulted in some legendary theatrical experiences and three singular, spellbinding, rule-breaking works of cinema, all of which have been collected in André Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films, Criterion’s inspired new multi-disc collection. Taken as a whole, these films not only chronicle the cinematic manifestations of Gregory and Shawn’s more than 40-year relationship; they also function as a testament to the still-untapped potential for the movies and the theatre to inform each other in aesthetic, formal and thematic terms and, perhaps most importantly, in their processes.
My Dinner With André (1981) has been around and been beloved for an awful long time now—can we all finally agree that a talky movie is not an inherently inferior thing? That listening can also provide cinematic rapture? I can’t think of a better rainy afternoon movie. Nor can I imagine many of Richard Linklater’s finest and most innovative films (Slacker, Waking Life, the Before… series) being made without this precedent. Directed by Louis Malle and written by Gregory and Shawn, who play “André Gregory” and “Wallace Shawn” respectively, Dinner unfolds almost entirely around a single table, occupied by two men and occasionally loomed over by a blinking waiter with an amusing resemblance to Samuel Beckett. Dinner is about dialogue, and thus a study in contrasts: between the opening shot of an oil barrel on an abandoned, dingy street and the refined restaurant where our characters meet, eat and converse; between the easy elegance of Gregory, speaking in mellifluous tones of strange experiences in exotic locales in search of transcendence, and the squat, chinless Shawn, dressed all in beige, mostly listening and posing questions as a way of managing his unease—until he finally reveals his mixture of fascination and contempt for what could be deemed as Gregory’s misguided mysticism, spurred by an apparent nervous breakdown.
Gregory tells of going to the Sahara with a Japanese monk; undertaking deeply ambiguous theatrical exercises with Jerzy Grotowski; tracking uncanny coincidences in old copies of Minotaur; the ostensibly fascist overtones of The Little Prince. Gregory compares a few too many things to Nazis and the Holocaust and over the course of this often very funny but also very serious film. He comes off as both a fool and a wise man. He seems above all to want to be present in the world, and the feeling of being present, of heightened senses, is exactly what Dinner offers. Every time I watch it at home I think I’m going to hit pause at some point, to watch it in parts—and every time I lose track of time and take it all in in a single uninterrupted viewing.
Where the source material for Dinner was its creators’ relationship and personal experiences, the next two films look to works from two of the 19th century’s most canonical playwrights. Vanya on 42nd Street (1994), also directed by Malle, transplants Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya to a crumbling Manhattan theatre long out of use, where Gregory and a group of actors—Shawn, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, and others—invite us to a sort of open rehearsal for a project that they have been exploring, with no particular plan for production, for the preceding five years. The actors use only a handful of props and dress in their own clothes. Their transition from talking about their lives to performing the text—in an adaptation credited to David Mamet—is so seamless you might not notice they’ve started until they begin to call each other by names different from their own. These roles have been lived in. We are transported. “A hundred years from now, will they remember us with a kind word?” one characters asks. This film was made almost exactly 100 years after Chekhov wrote Uncle Vanya, and his characters, all of them stuck in the countryside, in marriages or longings or business agreements they find deeply dissatisfying, are simultaneously so specific and so universal. The camerawork is subtle, beautiful and fluid, a marriage of theatrical intimacy with cinematic intimacy, documentary immediacy with exquisite artifice.
A Master Builder (2014) is Shawn’s adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s strange, difficult, alluring Master Builder Solness, devleoped by Gregory and the cast over a decade and a half and finally translated to the screen by Jonathan Demme. (Malle died in 1995.) Shawn plays Solness, an aging, ferocious architect who, in Gregory and Shawn’s interpretation, is on his deathbed, visited by what we suppose is an apparition of a young woman (Lisa Joyce) who by turns seems worshipful and oddly threatening, a mischievous angel. She recounts for him an occasion ten years previous on which he erected a church in her town, climbed its spire, kissed her 12-year-old lips, and promised her that one day he would build castles in the sky for them to inhabit. Whether out of guilt, self-disgust, dementia or the story’s falseness, Solness has forgotten all of this, but then remembers it, or participates in the fantasy, as she tells it back to him. Meanwhile Solness denies a talented young assistant the praise he so deserves and requires so as to forward his own career. Solness placates his unhappy wife (Julie Haggarty), who seems to both resent his neglect and dread his demise. Employing tight close-ups, ostentatious zooms and sudden impressionistic cutaways to views from a moving car, Demme’s approach, though working with Vanya’s ace cinematographer Declan Quinn, is entirely different from those taken by Malle in the preceding films, yet it is extremely effective for this project, taut and tense, riveting even, despite the play’s endless ambiguities and lengthy conversations. Demme has described A Master Builder as a haunted house story, and this is ultimately how it feels, a medley of phantoms, palpable objects and places, and carnal experience.
Criterion’s supplements are especially superlative—and too numerous to list here. Most are interviews outlining the extremely interesting development processes that I’ve only mentioned here. But I think my favourite is a conversation between Gregory, Shawn and Fran Lebowitz, touching on topics such as the truth and myth of “playing yourself,” the importance of small theatre, how the past is never really past, and working on something long enough to explore every cliché and then throw it away.