I’ve long had the desire to continue the conversation Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory started in My Dinner With Andre. It’s an odd desire to continue a conversation with a man I never before met and who hitherto had never met me, but the grand illusions of cinema of produced stranger outcomes. It was with great fortune to have recently encountered Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner, a film directed by Cindy Kleine, wife to Andre and an intelligent and creative talent in her own right.
Kleine has developed a central body of documentary work which are family dramas: camera visits with her grandmother and her sister, and intense probes of her parents’ fifty-nine years of a dubious, fractured marriage. Additionally, Kleine has gone outside of family for films about odd artists and off-the-wall musicians; and she’s gone inside herself for some deeply personal, poetically framed psychodramas about love lost, the spirit gained.
It the spirit of wanting to jump into those intimate conversations, and with a little bit of arrogance on my part, I found both Cindy and Andre receptive to talking at length on matter of art, life, love, and so much in between.
Steven A. Michalkow: Nominally Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner might be thought of, rather simply, as a biopic documentary. And yet, both the experience of the film and the manner in which you speak about it suggests it is more of a collection of stories being told. Even the title reminds us of Andre the storyteller from My Dinner With Andre. What is the significance of that difference in emphasis and style?
Cindy Kleine: When I first conceived of the film I knew I wanted it to be a tapestry with many threads, and I knew I didn’t want it to be a biopic or television style historical “portrait of the great man.” Because I make very up close and personal films with an emphasis on narrative – in fact, my films are narrative films more than they are documentaries in the classic sense – and because I am married to Andre, the film had to be from my initiated point of view. The ideas I was interested in were:
1. The public and private persona of a “cult celebrity” like Andre – who he is to me, vs., who he appears to be to his fans and admirers who don’t know him
2. Andre’s remarkable work process with some background history
3. The “film noir” story of what his father may or may not have done, and the associated research
4. The story of a good marriage. (I have often noted that I have almost never seen films about GOOD marriages, while there are many about bad marriages, exceptions being Mrs. Miniver, made in 1941, and Mike Leigh’s Another Year – so you see, very few exceptions!)
5. Andre’s childhood and family background, which are quite remarkable, and
6. What a life lived as an artist can look like and be like, different from the life of say, a banker, or an accountant, or a pilot. How one can re-invent many lives in the course of one, through one’s work, and thereby stay eternally young, eternally curious, eternally awake.
I showed the first ten hours of material to Jonathan Oppenheim, who edited the film —we had worked together on Phyllis and Harold— so I brought him into the mix very early on, knowing the challenges of incorporating all these things into one film, and knowing only he would be able to structure such a ridiculously ambitious undertaking. He saw immediately that it was a film about the trajectory of an artist through life, and that it was composed of STORIES, Andre’s stories, which had to form the framework and set the tone and pace of the film. Everything else had to weave around them. The structure became the intricate weaving of all these different “colors,” to use a painting metaphor, shaped like a spiral, or a screw, where each story begins and spirals into another and then spirals back into itself and the other stories. That structure creates a film that unfolds piece by piece in a refreshingly unique and energizing way. What I love about it is that it is always surprising the viewer – never taking you somewhere expected. It still surprises even me!
S.: The idea of the film as a collection of multiple stories interweaving around a central character is particularly interesting – especially when that character is an actually existing human being. The idea of “stories” suggests a kind of fictitious dynamic, or even tall tales and yet we are concerned with the biography of a man. Can we only tell the “story” of an individual through a sequence of such interconnected “stories”? Is biography always already wrapped in performance?
C.: The decision to edit the film about Andre with this kind of structure was based on the fact that, as a storyteller, his stories would have to be central and uninterrupted, and on the fact that I wanted to tell several stories that together would create a more complex and well rounded tapestry of whom this person really is and what his life is made of.
Many filmmakers and editors choose to tell a linear story when making a biographical film, based on chronology and “facts.” This kind of filmic biography does not interest me, as I find it often to be superficial and one-sided, and leaves me with a no feeling of who the person really is.
S.: Andre’s family and ethnic background plays an interesting role in the film, and I must admit to a certain selfish desire to explore that a little more. This magazine’s title is a reference to the “Former People” of the Soviet Union – those remaining family members of the Imperial Russian aristocracy who effectively became lost souls in the aftermath of the revolution. This has a particular resonance for us at Former People for several reasons, but not the least of which relates to our own background. I come from Russian and Polish families, some of which were very much “Former People.” Above and beyond the particulars of your immediate family interaction Andre, do you find your Russian background filtering into how you go about your art or even your day-to-day life?
Andre Gregory: I would say that because of studying in depth both the history of the Soviet Union and Poland, and naturally as a Jew knowing the history of Germany, I have been for quite a few years nervous about a new form of totalitarianism coming into existence in the United States, what Mussolini called a corporate totalitarianism.
S.: Yes, I think that comes out in both your familiarity with the history of the East and through the anxiety expressed in your work as early as My Dinner with Andre. Beyond that familiarity with the history of Eastern Europe and the anxiety over this possible totalitarianism, on the positive side, does this influence manifest itself?
A.: I would say a dark humor that I bring to my directing. Since I’ve been specializing for quite a few years in Wally Shawn’s plays, which are very dark and very funny, I have brought out and emphasized a lot of the humor so there is a balance between the light and the dark.
S.: Judging from my own family’s experience this is almost inescapable for those from an Eastern European background. It’s a weird way of admitting that we cannot take certain forms of idealism seriously because if we do, they will fall back and implode upon themselves and take us with it.
S.: It’s also interesting to me that on a core level Before and After Dinner is a domestic drama. It was a thought provoking experience to see the creative inner workings of the theater buttress alongside not just the familiar story of family and marriage, but a happy marriage at that. How does working and living in that juxtaposition affect both your art and your day-to-day life? Does the experimental theater become familial or the family experimental?
C.: That is a vey interesting question. Living our lives together has deeply enriched my work, and I know Andre would say the same. He inspires me, and he supports and energizes my creative life. As a younger artist I always thought misery and tumult and wildness was a necessary part of my life, and I lived accordingly. Now that I am happy and secure in my love life and home life, I can actually put much more into my work, rather than dispersing the creative energy elsewhere. I am much clearer. Some of that comes with getting older. For example, I don’t go out dancing until all hours of the morning anymore – I take much better care of myself and guard my energy much more, and keep it in reserve for my work. But some of that is Andre’s influence, as he is not only older, but more disciplined than I am.
Our family of two is traditional in some ways (heterosexual marriage) but I suppose carries an experimental sprit, in the sense that, because we are both artists, and did not have children together, and we are not tied to regular jobs or hours, we have much more freedom to dream, to change, to move around, to dive into new ideas and pathways than most people do. I guess that means less stress in certain ways, and a lot of time for “play” and humor, which is our lifeblood. Einstein said his best ideas came to him with the 3 B’s: Bed Bath and Beach. I’d say we live by that!
S.: There are some well-known thoughts on this question of happiness and/or the peaceful life as it relates to literature/art. In addition to your reference to Einstein, Flaubert famously lived his life like a good bourgeois Frenchmen so that his creativity would flow exclusively to his writing. However, there are also the notable adages that “happiness writes white,” or “all happy families are all alike.” In a way, Before and After Dinner is trying to pop those adages on some level. Do you see yourself as picking a fight with Tolstoy? Why does Andre’s and your story not write white?
C.: Well, I am certainly not picking a fight with Tolstoy – that would be futile! But this is a very good question. In the film, Andre and my relationship is expressed as a foil to the less than happy relationships and families we came out of – and expresses my amazement that this can happen, given our pasts. But what is not in the film is the wider context of our “immediate family,” which I see as just us. We certainly have our share of difficulties and complications beyond our limited everyday sphere, and within it too, but none of that belongs in the context of this film, as it is, first and foremost, about Andre.
S.: Building off my last question, both your films and Andre’s theater express a particular interest in the idea of intimacy. Andre famously is fond of performing theater with the most intimate of audiences and your documentaries explore the most intimate details of marriage, memory and the like. What is the appeal of this intimacy? What does it allow you to explore on the artistic or emotional level?
C.: All the films and photographs that inspired me to make pictures and movies were expressions of intimacy. They were all deeply personal, and did not make divisions between the maker and the viewer, but in fact, let me in to something interior and special. Tarkovsky’s The Mirror, Robert Frank’s films, Jean Pierre Gorin’s Poto and Cabengo, Ed Pincus’s Diaries – these were all deeply inspiring to me. They are works that take as their subject the inner world as we as humans experience it. The invention and imagination in them grows from that place, and feels, to me, authentic. In my own life, it has always been the people and experiences closest to me that have propelled me to make work. It springs from intimacy, and remains intimate, because that’s the way I communicate, and communication is key. I believe that if I can speak with my authentic voice, I will be universally understood. Not by everyone, but by everyone who speaks my “language” or lives on my “planet.” Everyone who is interested in, and not afraid of, naked, truthful forms of expression.
S.: This is something that has been on my mind for a while as well. To emphasis intimacy seems almost by definition to demand a limited audience. Indeed, it’s completely possible that those who speak your/my “language” or live on your/my “planet” are quite few and far between. Are you comfortable with such a potentially slender audience? The popularity contest of much of the artistic realms is quite laughable, never the less if we have the desire to move the tastes of the general public on some level, the ability of the audience speak your language becomes a greater concern. Is a small audience simply the price of intimate narrative, drama, and art? If so, should we just accept that or “fight” that?
C.: I am not entirely comfortable with it but I don’t seem to be able to do it any other way. I make what I love in my most authentic voice, and would like to think mass audiences would love and appreciate it, but mass audiences never see it! Is that the nature of the work, or the vehicle of bringing the work to the public? No distributor, for example is going to spend money doing that unless they think they can make even more money back. And no one ever sees what I make as a money making proposition. I can’t imagine making a work with the intention of making money, so that’s out for me. So I have no choice but to be happy with my slender but enthusiastic audience, and I do truly appreciate them. I wouldn’t know how to begin to “fight” the system, and wouldn’t have the energy or desire to even if I did! So I just keep churning out my little films and hoping they find their rivulets out into the world, which they seem to be doing.
A.: Well, the only way I think you can counter it is keep doing what you are doing, with passion, and not worry in a sense about whom you are reaching. Just hope who you are reaching will respond in a deep and productive level.
S.: That is certainly the hope, but I guess what I fear is that the universe of people who can even encounter that art, on that level, is going away or muting.
A.: It’s the same issue that you encounter with the small bookshops going out of business. That doesn’t mean that they are not fighting hard to stay in business. I think that despondency and pessimism and fear never really get you anywhere. Bruno Bettelheim, who was in a concentration camp, pointed out that it was the inmates who talked too much and worried too much about what dangers might lie down the road, generally were the ones whose immune systems were harmed and they tended to be the ones who died. That wasn’t in the death camps, that was in the concentration camps before there were death camps. I think that energy expended (and we all do it to some degree) upon what is wrong and how the world is changing for the worse is going to deplete your ability and your energy to create something that might make some small difference. As people in Eastern Europe knew during the communist era, you didn’t have to reach a large group; you only needed to reach a small group.
S.: Andre has long been considered an exemplar of American experimental theater. From my experience, the world’s impression of the artists tends to be quite different from the artist’s expression of herself or himself. Do you feel yourselves to be experimental artists? Is this something that even enters your mind at the level of creation?
C.: That never enters my mind when I am at work. When the work is finished, whether it seems experimental depends what you compare it to. If you compare it to a political documentary, or a “biopic,” yes, it is experimental. But if you compare it to Dog Star Man by Stan Brackhage or Meshes of the Afternoon by Maya Deren, my work is not experimental, because it’s narrative. I was influenced by experimental filmmakers, but my work wasn’t considered part of that genre because of its narrative accessibility. So I’ve always fallen between the cracks of genre. Not “documentary,” not “narrative” as strictly defined, and not “experimental.” Every time I have to check one of those boxes for a grant or film festival application, I have to stop and think about it, and I’m always slightly irked by the fact that none of them alone express what my films are. My films are, in a way, all three.
S.: Ahhh…here you touch on a favorite subject for Former People – the difficult to place work of art. This has come up many, many times in our interviews, articles, and podcasts. On a personal level, my co-editors and I have long been admirers and supporters of askew writers and works – J. G. Ballard, Margaret Atwood, and Ambrose Bierce being just a few recurring exemplars of this. Somewhat like a broken record, I have regularly made the point that even a great deal of “literary” fiction is becoming a sort of tired genre – where most works are simply fetishizing certain tropes which we associate with literary fiction rather than offing a true expression of the author’s art (or lack there of). In some respects, the more honest the artist is, the more difficult it becomes to actually fulfill any category or genre. Would you say that was true of your work…that the more personal or unfettered your work becomes, the more difficult it is to find yourself at home in any genre?
C.: Yes, I would say that. My work has always been personal, and there has always been only a tiny place it felt at home – early on, in the eighties, that niche was in “video art,” but even then it differed because of it’s intense personal nature. Thinking about this I realize that for the most part, the films and books and art I love most stand outside of their genre in some way, and are marvelous in their uniqueness of vision and imagination. The books of Sebald, for example, the book Cloud Atlas, Andre’s theatre works, Tarkovsky’s films – is The Mirror narrative or poetry? Autobiography or fiction?
S.: I think my answer to those questions would be…yes. If I may pivot the conversation ever so slightly, I’d be interested to hear your take on avant-garde art. The avant-garde was a concept particularly associated with Modernism. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring or the films of Eisenstein seem very much a manifestation of that particular artistic era or moment. If you think of yourselves as artists of the avant-garde, do you find yourselves influenced by the works of the past more so than contemporary work today? If so, what do we make of the irony of that development?
C.: I don’t think of myself as avant-garde. I just think of myself as me, making my stuff. But yes, I am influenced much more by works of the past. Most of my favorite filmmakers are now dead, and that feels like a great loss. Occasionally I am deeply inspired by contemporary work: Tree of Life, by Terrence Malick, for example, and the films of Arnaud Desplechin, Olivier Assayas, Leos Carax, Jane Campion, and of course Wally Shawn’s plays, and Andre’s productions of them.
S.: Yes I respect so many of those you mentioned as contemporary artists who inspire you. Though we are fortunate to still see them all working, I’m not surprised that they are all veteran craftsmen and craftswomen. All of them have at least 20 years of working experience under their belts (many with much more than that). I have a similar disposition to appreciating the works of older artists more so than younger ones. The contemporary works of art and literature that influence me the most are written/directed/painted/etc. by those who started at it well before 1980 for the most part. This may be the result of my own particular tastes or even just the degree to which I haven’t been on the lookout for talented artists closer to my own generation. However, it might also be the case that less and less of the easily found contemporary art today is of any substance or interest as it was 30 years ago. Where do you think the truth lies?
C.: I don’t know. Let me know when you figure it out! I’m always searching, but for the most part, I find that there is time and wisdom and maturity behind almost all GREAT work. It takes a lifetime, or a good part of one, to get to that point. Not that there aren’t wonderful works done by younger artists – there are, certainly.
S.: What does it mean to be avant-garde today?
C.: Heck if I know. Is there an avant-garde today?
S.: I honestly have no clear idea myself. In thinking about the avant-garde as I have typically understood it, the general raison-d’être of anyone claiming to be avant-garde is to push forward our understanding of a particular subject or type of art beyond the status quo. The goal is almost always something new and shocking. There is something inherently dramatic about it on a grand scale. This is why my mind goes back to modernism, where responding to the new was pretty much de rigueur. Now, I don’t know if such artistic goals and desires have such cache anymore. I don’t know many people who even hope change the way we view art…or if they do, I don’t know of a significant audience even capable of appreciating a seismic shift (can you even imagine the dramatic response to the first performance of The Right of Spring happening today?) Turning the question back around to you again, do you think it is even possible to be avant-garde today?
C.: This one’s like a Ping pong match! I would say Wallace Shawn’s play Grasses of a Thousand Colors is avant-garde.
A.: I think the avant-garde means to speak from the heart with excellence.
S.: Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
A.: I don’t know that I believe in categories like “avant-garde” or “impressionism” or “abstract expressionism.” I believe in voices speaking out from their most sincere place, and in preparation for that, and while doing that, to be very severe with themselves on one’s own work and its ability to communicate. I was included in the avant-garde in the late 60’s. My group the Manhattan Project was lumped in with the Open Theater, the Living Theater, the Theater of the Ridiculous, but basically we were all separate individuals responding to the time in which we were living, the very radical 60s, and we were each doing it in our own way. So to try to say the avant-garde should be such and such is going dangerously close to falling into the trap of saying what art should be or how to do it. Nobody has ever, to my knowledge, written in a coherent way about what the artistic process is. There are waves of art. In the 50s there was the great wave of De Kooning and Pollock etc. In the 60s there was the great wave of Antonioni, Bergman, Tarkovsky and so on. So there are periods in which great art appears and other periods which are barren, but to me the term avant-garde doesn’t mean much unless you want to say there is a prophetic element in one’s work. In the sense that if we work on ourselves in certain ways so that we have the clarity of seeing what is really happening today, then we will probably be able to see what is coming around the corner. So art can in a way be a beacon to understand where we are going. But the phrase “avant-garde” doesn’t mean much to me.
S.: No, that is the difficulty and the concern which prompts why we are asking the question in a particular way. I agree with you in that if you apply a strict category to define the avant-garde you’ll find it annoyingly difficult to describe anything as avant-garde. The best I can do is echo a bit of the prophetic quality you’ve referenced. It is an attempt to do something new, somewhat conscientiously, but even that feels difficult.
A.: Well…I’m not sure about that. I’m not sure why something has to be new. Peter Brook does work that is “new” but he is also a great classicist. So there is also the interesting challenge of reminding people of the beauties and the high levels of excellence of the past. I consider myself more of a classicist than an experimentalist.
S.: You’re speaking even closer and closer to my heart as we go through this! When I speak of the new I mean it in a sort of relative sense. New can also be an echoing of a forgotten past. My coeditors have poked fun at me for stating that the artists that have most influenced me where mostly already working before 1980. Again, the notion of this magazine involves in part looking back to the old modernist works that we love while still looking forward. That to me still feels like it can be radically new relative to the moment of time we are in. So I totally agree with the notion that one can be a classicist and nonetheless still be very radical.
A.: Yeah that’s true.
S.: Looking back on My Dinner with Andre, one of the themes in the film that most resonated with me was the anxiety that both the arts and the culture were becoming intellectually and emotionally numb. Wallace Shawn notes how the tastes of theatergoers with formerly discerning tastes are now tepidly approving of banal theater work, and Andre famously paints the picture of New York as the model of the new prison where the inmates are both their own captors and blind to the prison they have made for themselves. Reflecting on this today, as we head into 2014, how far has the world trotted along this path in the arts, the culture, the society? If the world is in dire straits, what can still be done to carry the light of the human past? Is there even a light that can still be carried?
C.: I will let Andre address this, as I know he has a lot to say on this topic. I’ll just say we’re trying to carry our tiny lights. Trying like hell. Howard Zinn, who we had the honor of knowing, once said to us, when I asked him what to do about sliding into despair, “keep making your work. It is artists who keep the flame alive.”
A.: I think we’ve gone quite far down the path. For example, there has been an implicit or tacit approval on Obama’s part to maintain what was already put in place by Bush (or perhaps he hasn’t fought it as I feel he should have fought it). This sets the stage for worse further down the line.
S.: What even worries me about that above and beyond Obama’s lack of resolve to not continue with Bush policy, is the unpleasant level of tacit approval of that attitude by people who would have been critical of George Bush in prior years. They convince themselves that Obama is still somewhat different than Bush, that there are other more important things to consider, that he is smarter than Bush, etc. etc. Almost an active kind of forgetfulness. I fear that tacit approval reflects back on Wallace Shawn’s concerns in My Dinner with Andre in that the standards of judgment, which were higher earlier, become lower and lower.
A.: Yeah, and that’s also connected to the GROSS materialism which judges everything in relation to the bottom line and to what degree it succeeds financially. I’ve just been reading Patti Smith’s book Just Kids, and it’s amazing to see what a basically short time, and it hasn’t been that short a time, it was 30 or more years ago, there was a real bohemia, and there was a large community of artists who were working for the love of their art, and often kind of starving. I mean Patti Smith could hardly get up 45 cents to go to the automat and get a lettuce sandwich with chocolate milk, but didn’t question that because her art was so important to her. Now, because the discrepancy between the haves and have-nots have become so great, I think art is being mostly judged by how successful it is economically, although I do have to say that both of Wally’s plays that I just directed at the Public were received with great critical acclaim, so there are exceptions to that.
S.: It’s an interesting phenomenon that even I have experienced through this magazine. Our ability to talk to the people we want to talk to, publish the people we want to publish has gone up, and yet we do not do this for money. All of the editors have primary jobs outside of the magazine. Relatively recently, several people whom I work with in my primary job, upon encountering the magazine and the mission statement, reacted quite startlingly by saying we don’t understand what you are doing. We don’t even understand the words you are using. Then obviously the questions turn to “are you making money off this?” In a funny way even the ability to comprehend an exercise of this sort is somewhat gone. Again, you bringing up Patti Smith is interesting on a number of fronts, not the least of which is thinking about the community of people she was with (William Burroughs coming quickly to mind) and how that was made possible by the economic situation of New York in the 70s and 80s. Trying to improve New York economically sadly also made the economics of that artistic community more difficult. Now you have to spend all of your hours working any number of jobs just to pay the rent for example.
A.: It means, partly, that most artists have had to leave New York (at least Manhattan), unless they become very successful economically, and now there are no more communities of artists. There used to be communities of painters, theater people, restaurants and bars where people used to discuss art…we’re much more isolated now than we used to be.
S.: It’s quite true here in Chicago as well, and was something I was forced to admit to myself when I was asked by a friend to help participate in a panel and cultivate a salon for writers in the city. Frankly I had to confess I really didn’t know too many. In a way the internet provides a workaround to this, where we can now encounter fellow artists from all around the world without the need to live within the same few blocks, but I can feel there is something to be said for being in that café and having those conversations about art while in the same physical space.
A.: Yeah right.
S.: It feels almost like the act of carrying our tiny lights, and the manner in which we do so, is something like a religious ritual. I don’t mean religion in an organized or dogmatic sense, but more in the ritualistic sense of the term. We have to maintain a kind of faith in the value of art against the world’s indifference towards it (again, we are echoing the conversations from My Dinner with Andre). Are we left hoping against hope that the art we want to preserve will one day flourish again? As creatures of reason, do we believe this is possible?
C.: Yes, I do believe that, and have to, I suppose. And even if it does not one day flourish again, and who knows how long the planet will even be here, I believe the act of making the work and carrying the tiny lights does change the world and feed the soul.
A.: Absolutely. It’s a spiritual endeavor to somehow bring more light and more love into a dark world.
S.: Right, so then the act of art seems to now take on the role of arguing for a return of the religious or spiritual into an increasingly materialistic world. What’s interesting to me about this notion is that it cuts against the historic trend birthed out of the Enlightenment to introduce more light and reason into a dark and superstitious world. Now we are choosing to move away from rational reasoning.
A.: Rational reasoning has led to Monsanto. Rational reasoning created nuclear weapons. I think the direction now is the direction of the heart.
S.: There is a great line in an Arena documentary on Kurt Vonnegut. Vonnegut said that when he was young he wanted to seek truth, and then he saw truth dropped on Hiroshima. Going off of that, and again reflecting back on My Dinner with Andre, is the hope then, that as we move forward, holding beacons of light, must we also act as repositories of the past in order to do that.
A.: You know when I work, I don’t really hope for anything. There is nothing that I am trying to do. There is no goal that I have. I am just trying to go as deep as I can, as truthfully as I can, with whatever it is which is going on with me in the moment. That was one of the things I loved about Louis Malle: you never knew what the hell he was going to do next. And one film never seemed to relate to the last film or the next film. He just did THIS film as well as he could.
S.: There has to be a moment of isolation, or a point at which there is no “why?” if I am reading your point.
A.: Yeah, you know it’s like, I don’t know if it was either Leonardo or Michelangelo (I think it was Michelangelo) who said I take a vary large slab of granite or marble or stone, and I hack away at it for a long time, and whatever is left over is the sculpture.
S.: It’s an exercise in reduction rather than building up from everything that is possible.
A.: Yeah, it’s taking away.
S.: Cindy and Andre, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us here. I’d like to leave the final words to you. Have you any final thoughts to leave with our readers?
C.: You’ve exhausted me! No one has ever asked me questions that required so much thought and introspection. I hope someone out there besides me and you find the conversation inspiring and interesting.