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Review: André Gregory: Before and After Dinner

By Henry Giardina on April 03, 2013

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My Dinner With Andre

My Dinner With André

For those of us who found My Dinner with André to be enough André Gregory for a lifetime, Cindy Kleine’s new documentary about her legendary husband may feel slightly unnecessary. But the director, actor, playwright, and self-styled shaman comes off as an even more inexhaustible subject for study in André Gregory: Before and After Dinner than in the seminal 1981 dialogue that first immortalized him. The film runs through a list of Gregory’s achievement, from his fabled 1968 production of Alice in Wonderland and his work as a character actor in Hollywood all the way up to Bone Songs (his 2007 play about his late, first wife) and his latest project, Ibsen’s The Master Builder, translated by Wallace Shawn and soon to be made into a film directed by Jonathan Demme. 

The prospect of spouses making documentaries about spouses is always a dicey one. But as overly fawning as André Gregory: Before and After Dinner can sometimes be, it is an emotionally thorough treatment that is intimate and, almost accidentally, moving. Frequent and unsparing close-ups, wide-ranging archival clips, and family-photo montages overlay Gregory’s tales of growing up amidst a conflicted cast of characters that include a coldhearted mother and a loving nanny. The story of the family’s narrow escape from Nazi-occupied Germany is complicated by the revelation that Gregory’s father might have been a spy for Hitler. The theme of storytelling is central to the film, and, fittingly, selective memory is reflected in the stories the filmmakers decide to tell. 

We sit in on rehearsals of The Master Builder, and are treated to “day in the life” scenes of Gregory at the convenience store, the hospital, and a graveyard. Scenes of Kleine filming her husband at the hospital hooked up to an IV after a near-fatal diagnosis of lymphoma, nude in a hot tub, or prostrate on a slab during an acupuncture session, feel both intrusive and candid. The camera’s gaze is in this way slightly obsessive, often uncomfortably close, but necessary to the film’s work of getting to the root of Gregory’s magnetism, that quality of openness and vulnerability in him that these scenes of physical surrender bring to light. They put one strangely in mind of the excerpts from Seventies talk shows that punctuate the film, in which a young Gregory—looking not unlike Ryan Gosling—talks very openly and earnestly about his process while unselfconsciously appearing faintly ridiculous. 

Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner

André Gregory: Before and After Dinner

This tendency, one senses, was the cornerstone of experimental theater in the decade or so during which American artistic innovation really seemed to hinge on not only the willingness to be faintly ridiculous before an audience of one or twelve or a hundred in the service of a truer expression, but the need to expose oneself in this way. It is in this context that Gregory’s artistry becomes clear, and that his accomplishment feels exciting.  

This kind of jubilant, body-centered work was at the center of Alice in Wonderland’s innovation: a multi-bodied, Shiva-esque interpretation of the caterpillar; a manic slapstick rendering of the Mad Hatter’s tea party. The surviving clips that are shown attest to its original power. Kleine’s subject is most movingly observed within this footage, in the context of the era when his most important stage work was being produced—a Gregory documentary in its purest form could be composed purely of these clips.

But since Before and After Dinner can’t (and doesn’t intend to) do that, it remains a portrait of the artist in the present day, with Kleine’s intimate emphasis on the body giving a better sense of what the archival footage of performances, seen from a great distance and shot at arm’s length, might have let us miss. The display of physical vulnerability, of the power of the body, allows his work to escape its datedness in a way that artists of his very specific tradition are not wont to do. His own understanding of this power anticipated an increasingly body-obsessed era of experimental theater and dance, and now Kleine’s own film is part of the tradition.

To work predominantly in the theater is to make work that is, in the most important sense, ephemeral.  Then again, as the film points out, so are stories themselves. And if the most important rule of storytelling is to print the legend, Kleine has certainly followed it. 

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