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André Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films

(2015) *** 1/2 Pg
359 min. Criterion Collection. Director: Louis Malle. Cast: Jean Lenauer, Wallace Shawn, Andre Gregory.

/content/films/4808/1.jpgWhen My Dinner with André hit arthouse screens in 1981, it quickly became notorious—even or perhaps most especially to those who hadn't seen it—as the ultimate in arthouse fare, the American independent film ne plus ultra. It was the little film that launched a thousand parodies, from Andy Kaufman's My Breakfast with Blassie all the way to a pair of new-millennial parodies called "My Dinner with André the Giant" (one on Family Guy, the other in the film Me and Earl and the Dying Girl). But if this scripted literal "conversation piece" by and between Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory made for a convenient punchline, a shorthand for artistic snobbery, it was also acutely self-aware and just as much thought-provoking, offering a progressive cinematic paradigm that would later sustain pictures like Richard Linklater's Before series (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight). Now, in Criterion's Blu-ray and DVD boxsets titled André Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films, we can ponder the full cinematic depth (and much of the theatrical depth) of the collaboration between two complementary creative souls.

Of course, the set kicks off with My Dinner with André (***1/2), which cheekily casts Shawn and Gregory as versions of themselves. Created from transcribed and heavily pared-down conversational improvisations between the two friends, the film also benefits from an important third voice, that of cinematic auteur Louis Malle. Malle's own searching, eclectic interests and preternatural sensitivities to thought, feeling, and personality enrich a simple and surprisingly engaging conceit: two men sitting down in a restaurant for a feature-length chat over dinner (including some fussy ordering but with much of the eating magically removed). A light touch with the camera helps as we share in the friendly intimacy between theater director "André" and playwright-actor "Wally," the film taking the latter's P.O.V. (established by a voice-over-narration framing device).

Though Wally natters about his concern over meeting André, who is rumored in theatrical circles to have been overwhelmed by his neuroses, it's one of the film's many dry jokes that it is Wally who seems more in need of therapy. André fervently describes his hippie-ish explorations, be-ins and "beehives" (improvisational theatrical experiments), but he sounds entirely reasonable decrying the bourgeois conventional (including the folly of an electric blanket and the notion of modern humanity becoming "zombies" "lobotomized by TV") while in search of truth and pure artistic expressions of it. As prefigured by his early comment about curdling into a capitalist drone as he approaches middle age ("All I thought about was art and music. Now I'm 36, and all I think about is money"), Wally is entirely prone to falling under André's thrall. So follows André's consideration of his existence and Wally's reconsideration of his own, the result being inconclusive save for the renewed bond and appreciation of friendship.

/content/films/4808/2.jpgThirteen years later, Gregory, Shawn, and Malle would reunite for another meeting of hearts and minds that came as close as it's possible to get to capturing a real-life theatrical happening: Vanya on 42nd Street (****). Like its predecessor, this film begins with a glimpse of a dingier-than-now old New York before moving inside, this time into a crumbling husk of a theater where Gregory has assembled a well-rehearsed company—Phoebe Brand, Lynn Cohen, George Gaynes, Jerry Mayer, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Brooke Smith, and Shawn—for special, spontaneous invite-only performances of Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya (in a script adaptation by David Mamet). Anyone who truly, madly, deeply loves the theater, from the stage or the house, cannot help but find Vanya on 42nd Street a deeply moving, inspirational secular-sacred experience both for its beautiful embodiment of Chekhov's story of unmoored souls and for the beauty of the greatest collaborative art form, practiced with pure joy and for love.

Chekhov's greatest adapter, and his contemporary, was Constantin Stanislavsky, the father of modern acting who once admonished his rehearsing actors for allowing a clear dividing line between reality and acting—proven by a dog who knew to move to the exit whenever the actors reverted to talking as themselves. It seems apparent that Gregory and Malle know this story and pay tribute to it with a marvelous "gotcha" transition from actors' pre-run-through small talk to Chekhovian dialogue. Naturally (and naturalistically), the play's the thing, and the brilliant ensemble does full justice to the country-estate chamber drama of crossed wires—between an indentured married couple, an unrequited lover and the object of her affection, one disappointed family member to another. In the juiciest roles, Smith, Pine, and Moore stand out, but perhaps most especially Shawn, who surprises with a performance of astonishing feeling, muscularity, and nuance that's a far cry from his Hollywood typecasting as a clownish stuffed shirt (in films like The Princess Bride and Clueless).

/content/films/4808/3.jpgMalle died a year after the release of Vanya on 42nd Street, but another formal-informal theatrical collaboration of Gregory and Shawn (one never produced on a stage) would provide an opportunity for Shawn to stretch farther than ever. Under the cinematic guidance of Jonathan Demme, a friend who had attended Gregory's Vanya, Shawn plays the leading role of Henrik Ibsen's The Master Builder—a.k.a. Master Builder Solness—in the 2014 film A Master Builder (***). Gregory (credited as having "created for the stage" this version), Shawn (the translator/adaptor), and Demme (the director) nobly pursue their solid, usually convincing, but rarely exceptional concept for a manifestly challenging symbolist play. Traditionally, the play is thought to call for an actor of imposing and somewhat sexual lion-in-winter presence (such as Patrick Stewart in a 2003 West End production or John Turturro in 2013 at BAM) for the role of architect Halvard Solness, and—though not for lack of trying—Shawn never settles into the role as convincingly as he did with Vanya.

The play nakedly, so to speak, deals with potency teasing, teased, and threatened: the ever-present imagery of towers (including a scale model fondled provocatively by Lisa Joyce's effectively mercurial Hilde) proves unmistakeably phallic as well as a commanding signature of style and overshadowing influence in the architectural profession and as a function of delusional white male privilege. Any version of the play must deal with Solness' fears of displacement, replacement, and creeping mortality, but this version's dramatization of the discomfiting storm churned up by seductive Hilde steers into the skid of male fantasy by making her Solness' deathbed fever-dream projection of fear and desire. This concept stutters whenever Solness leaves the room, and drains some of the urgency from the play, but it's a viable, valid approach all the same, and Julie Hagerty (yes, that Julie Hagerty, of Airplane! and Lost in America) positively runs away with the film with her devastating work as Solness' suffering wife Aline.

There, too, in the poignant role of a loving father on his last legs, is Gregory, sharing the screen for a third time with Shawn. If this is the end of the road for this dynamic duo, Criterion's set proves it was a great run, indeed. But there's life in these old boys yet...might I suggest the Gregory-Shawn King Lear?

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Aspect ratios: 1.66:1, 2.39:1, 1.78:1

Number of discs: 3

Audio: LPCM 1.0, LPCM 2.0, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 6/16/2015

Distributor: Criterion Collection

Criterion's Blu-ray set of André Gregory & Wallace Shawn: 3 Films puts on a fine show (or three) for the hi-def debuts of My Dinner with André, Vanya on 42nd Street, and A Master Builder. Each film gets a beautiful transfer, with textured but never overwhelming grain (the first film's 16mm) evolving into to the last film's fully digital form. In all cases, clear, detailed, expertly calibrated images yield depth and natively muted tones. Likewise, the soundtracks range in fidelity, but the presentations prove uniformly effective at maximizing the source material. Since these are defiantly talky films, clarity and prioritization of front-and-center dialogue is the order of the day, and these tracks never leave the listener wanting.

Kicking off the fascinating bonus features: "André Gregory and Wallace Shawn" (1:00:36, HD) interviews, conducted separately by filmmaker and friend Noah Baumbach in 2009. “My Dinner with Louis” (52:08, HD), a 1982 episode of the BBC program Arena, finds Shawn interviewing director Louis Malle. The disc also offers the customary booklet with credits, tech specs, and an essay (in this case by critic Amy Taubin). Also included are Gregory and Shawn's prefaces for the published screenplay, circa 1981.

The second disc's extras include the extraordinary 2011 documentary "Like Life: The Making of Vanya on 42nd Street" (35:42, HD), which includes interviews with Gregory; actors Lynn Cohen, George Gaynes, Julianne Moore, Larry Pine, Wallace Shawn, and Brooke Smith; and producer Fred Berner. Also present is the film's "Trailer" (2:14, HD) and a booklet of credits, tech specs, an essay by critic Steven Vineberg, and a 1994 on-set report by film critic Amy Taubin.

Disc three features "The Ibsen Project" (33:41, HD), film critic David Edelstein's sit-down with interview with director Jonathan Demme, creator/actor Gregory, and screenwriter/actor Shawn; "Hilde and Aline" (33:09, HD), a conversation between actors Julie Hagerty and Lisa Joyce; "Over Time" (52:52, HD), with Gregory and Shawn in conversation with their friend Fran Lebowitz in conversation (52:52); the film's "Trailer" (2:14, HD), and a pamphlet with credits, tech specs, and an essay by film critic Michael Sragow.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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