Sunday, May 5, 2013

Andre Gregory

Even if you're uninterested in the movie review, you might want to at least scroll eight paragraphs down to read the incredible tale of Tarik.

Per the review I wrote at the time, I was a big fan of a film called "Phyllis and Harold". Its director, Cindy Kleine, the wife of director/actor Andre Gregory (of "My Dinner With Andre" fame), recently released her second film, a portrait of her husband called, somewhat opportunistically, "Before and After Dinner".

I suppose it was irresistible to reference Gregory's biggest claim to mainstream fame, but the film has little to do with the 1981 Louis Malle classic, aside from the familiar Gregory zeal and charm (and penchant for self-aggrandizement). It's a duly contradictory look at the contradiction that's fascinated Gregory all his life: honesty in art. Gregory rehearses his plays for decades, trying to cut away all artifice and reveal the living, breathing atman of truth. If he has one thing to tell the dramatic world, it's "Stop 'acting'", and just be!"

The problem is that acting isn't being. Theater's a highly artificial and intrinsically inauthentic proposition. It can be edifying, entertaining, moving, and illuminating, but the thing it can never be is honest. It can only act honest. But the pose is not the thing.

But Gregory's lost in the posing, flatly confessing that he can no longer distinguish his storytelling from objective reality. Kleine catches him fabricating the tale of an audition for Martin Scorcese, who'd asked him whether he could play a shaman. With smug glee, he recounts replying "I am a shaman!", stripping off his clothes, and writhing in an ecstatic trance before Scorcese's astonished eyes. Scorcese was so impressed, Gregory recalls, that he ran to grab a camera to record the moment. Kleine found the videotape, and a fully clothed Gregory was neither chanting nor writhing. Nothing but a slightly hammy and perfectly ordinary line-reading.

Like I said, the guy's self-aggrandizing.

So here's the focus of the film: Andre had problems with his parents, who were removed and aloof. For the rest of us, such history might linger as a small point of private bitterness. For Andre, it must be much, much more grandiose. So he claims to have discovered that his (Jewish) father collaborated with none other than Adolf Hitler. Dad was, it seems, the mastermind behind the economic sabotage which wrecked the French economy, softening them up for invasion.

When you or I suffer unpleasant relationships, we might make ironic, maudlin references to titanic evil. In Andre Gregory's case, it has to be really be titanic evil, and there's no irony at all; just dramatic awe. And though the film takes this ridiculous bit of family history quite seriously, there's clearly not the least bit of evidence supporting the story - though Gregory, naturally, gnashes his teeth and sobs projectile tears at the shame of it all, even as he admits his absolute delight at hearing the news.

Astute viewers realize what Andre absolutely cannot (and Kleine seems unwilling to assert): that his grandiosity compels him to link his quotidian family issues to the most villainous evil the world's ever known. Andre's lousy father isn't just some lousy father. He's practically Hitler! Literally!

Now, here's the super weird thing. I actually lived a situation like this. When I was 22, and building a career as a jazz trombonist here in New York, I spent lots of time in black neighborhoods, where I was tolerated - sometimes a bit more than tolerated, sometimes a bit less. Among the less tolerant incidents came courtesy of a bass player named Tarik. He was friends of friends of mine, and I was kind enough to give him a ride home one night from a gig we'd played. I'm not sure why I'd offered, considering that he was a sour, glowering fellow with a huge chip on his shoulder. But, hey, as a white dude playing jazz, I blithely took my lumps.

As we drove, music played on my tape deck. Tarik asked whose recording it was, and I told him I don't label my cassettes, preferring to listen as freshly as possible, without knowing too much about what I was hearing. He didn't like my answer. In a voice dripping with self-righteous disdain, he replied "Well, that may be fine for you, but this music is my people's heritage, so it's important that I learn as much as I can about it." I of course wanted to stop the car and shove him, his bass, and his heritage out onto the curb. But I remained polite - then and in subsequent highly unpleasant encounters.

Years later, it was in the news that a jazz bassist had been arrested in a FBI sting operation. He'd run a sidelight business teaching various fighting and weapons styles, and had told the wrong person how eager he was to train jihadists, admitting to having sworn an oath of loyalty to Bin Laden. He boasted about his skill at blending in among infidels, always prepared to slit their worthless throats in an instant.

It was, of course, the same guy. Tarik. He's currently locked up as a terrorist, likely forever.

When I heard this, my emotions were complicated. There was a sense of validation (yeah, hey, I told you he was an asshole!). But the crazy scale of it wouldn't quite parse for me. To a picked-upon child, the school bully looms like a bona fide psychopath. We all have our pedestrian dramas which seem monumental to us, personally. So when there turns out to be a backstory that truly is monumental, something fails to compute.

Imagine if you were to drop a quarter into a beggar's cup and find yourself suddenly scooped up in a triumphal ticker tape parade down Fifth Avenue honoring your stunning generosity. The sensation of exaggeration would feel surreal, even if this result confirmed the exaggerated self-importance of your private fantasies. Gregory can't sense the slightest surreality, because his sense of self-importance is enormous and unwavering . Why, of course his hateful father worked for Hitler!

There are two differences between my experience and Andre's. First, mine actually happened. And, second, I register the absurdity. If Tarik had been just a garden-variety asshole, my emotional experience would have remained true for me.

But drama requires exaggeration. No one goes to theater to experience the everyday; dramatists traffic in the extraordinary. And, it seems, one can get quite lost in that. And the same dramatic imperative is true for the wife/chronicler of such lost souls. Because even the profile must be heightened. Whether dramatizing or dramatizing the dramatist, one recoils from the quotidian.

Out here, in other words, where there's no paying crowd, and theatrical-sized egos are little tolerated, we have the luxury of entertaining at least the possibility that we're everyday shmucks living unexceptional lives, and our little monsters are, in the big picture, just our little monsters. Even when they weirdly turn out to also be big monsters.

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