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“Critical Film Studies”: The Hazards of Reference

"Critical Film Studies": The Hazards of Reference

“Critical Film Studies,” the 19th episode of the 2nd season of Community, was probably pretty confusing to most fans of the series when it aired in the Spring of 2011. Heavily promoted by NBC as the show’s full-scale Pulp Fiction parody, the episode turned out instead to be a lengthy and rather muted (by the show’s standards) homage to Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre, with only a few Tarantino sight gags tucked neatly away in the periphery. People were understandably disappointed: Community appeared to have traded a spoof of one of the most enduringly popular and widely acclaimed films of the last several decades in a for a more affectionate and high-minded take on a film few in the show’s key demo knew anything at all about. It was, in a sense, an intellectual bait and switch: they promised something familiar but delivered a reference that would prove more substantive, both intellectually and emotionally. 

Though My Dinner With Andre was the toast of the upper-crust New York literati when it was released in 1981, it is now widely regarded by people who haven’t seen it as a movie they’d rather not, ever, lest they become the sort of snobbish intellectuals who regard a film about two guys talking as “interesting” rather than “unendurable”, which they assume it must be. Its reputation has trickled down through pop culture for almost three decades now, and its high-concept setup, of course, has been prime parody real estate for years. One of the advantages of the format is that your audience doesn’t need to be familiar with the film as a whole for the reference click: the novelty lies in recognizing the basic structure–two men meet for dinner and, over the course of an extended discussion or argument, learn more about each other and about themselves–and an un-clever title riff along the lines of “My x With y”. Everything else is context-specific and just sort of writes itself.

A My Dinner With Andre parody is not in and of itself particularly special. Part of the problem is that the format has become a bit of a cliché, but a bigger issue is that lifting the premise of My Dinner With Andre wholesale somehow devalues its content and execution, or at least contributes to the pervading misconception that the film is boring and stuffy and worth remembering only for its setup. My Dinner With Andre is by no means a perfect film, but I’m still immensely fond of it, and it means a lot to me personally for reasons that “Critical Film Studies,” in its own modest way, articulates surprisingly well. It might sound trite (or too typical of a former film student), but I honestly believe that watching My Dinner With Andre for the first time several years ago was something of a life-changing experience, and that it made me, to some extent, a better person.

Before Andre, I felt depleted and vaguely adrift, remote from my friends and from myself. I was living in a run-down student bungalow with four disparate twentysomethings, struggling to care enough about the fifth year of my undergraduate degree to prevent the need for a sixth, and I was one Bukowski book away from drinking myself into utterly cliched oblivion. It was all admittedly pretty juvenile. One night, one of my roommates lent me a copy of My Dinner With Andre, a movie he thought I might enjoy, and, in a bid to avoid schoolwork for a few hours more, I decided to give it a shot. It was a revelation. I mean that: it was though a new world of emotional and intellectual depth had been revealed to me, a world of real conversations and connections and living. My life seemed childish and empty by comparison. Why wasn’t I dining with old friends, sharing a worldview and learning to see things from another person’s perspective? Why was I so reliant on simplistic humor, and on the pop culture that had saturated my life? I suddenly didn’t want to drink too much and quote “Pulp Fiction” and act like a jerk–that wasn’t living, it was acting, and it wasn’t the life of the person I wanted to be.

The next night I brought My Dinner With Andre over to the apartment of some close friends to watch it a second time with them, and then I watched it a third time a week later with another friend. I felt I had to share this feeling with other people. Naturally, I gave into the impulse to call friends from whom I believed I’d drifted apart, and I began dining and talking constantly. It was a strange experience: I was rejecting pop culture in favor of what I perceived to be unmediated experience, but it was a work from pop culture that had inspired me to do it. I didn’t want to rely on movie tropes and references, and yet by imitating Andre I was living an elaborate reference out. I knew this personal sea change had been good for me, but I couldn’t help but worry that my route to being what I felt was a better person was just as steeped in pop culture and cliche as the life I was trying to leave behind.

“Critical Film Studies,” it turns out, is about exactly this sort of double-bind, about the implications of attempting to reject the influence of pop culture and about the effect of My Dinner With Andre specifically. The episode begins precisely as it needs to: Abed, in the Andre Gregory role, has invited Jeff, his better-looking Wallace Shawn, to meet him for dinner at an uncharacteristically lavish restaurant, which Jeff describes as in an Andre-style voiceover as something he’s not been looking forward to. Abed arrives in a chunky grey sweater, channeling Gregory’s jovial grin, but because Community imitates the forms and conventions of pop culture touchstones as often as its characters explicitly refer to them, it isn’t quite clear if the show is sending up My Dinner With Andre or if Abed is setting it up to look that way deliberately. This ambiguity serves a narrative purpose as well as a thematic one: when a waiter inadvertently brings up My Dinner With Andre and Abed quickly silences him, Jeff begins to realize that he’s been acting out a movie reference without even being aware of it, and a lack of familiarity with the plot and dialogue of My Dinner With Andre is what allows Jeff, as well as the audience, to be fooled by the gag. The writers know the reference will be as much a surprise to most of the show’s viewers as it is to Jeff, and they’re more than okay with that fact–if the episode is in part about a desire to return a state of pop culture innocence, ignorant of references and ready for real conversation, it makes sense that most people watching wouldn’t catch the principal one.

The audience’s assumed lack of awareness is important because it corresponds directly with what Abed’s claims to be afflicted by, which is that his obsession with pop culture has been preventing him from truly living his life and connecting with other people. The point of the dinner, he tells Jeff, is for the two of them to have a meaningful conversation without resorting to shallow pop culture references, which is, of course, what watching My Dinner With Andre has inspired so many of us to go out and do. The problem with following through yourself is that attempting to bond with a friend without pop culture references under the influence of Andre is itself a reference to pop culture, even if it’s a piece of pop culture that’s considered stuffy and obscure. Can a movie inspire you to reject the pervasive influence of other movies? Can a fictional connection drive you to seek out a real one?

Over the course of the dinner, Abed explains a revelation he had while appearing as an extra on the set of ABC’s Cougar Town. As the director calls “action,” Abed realizes that it would be impossible for any character in the fictional world of Cougar Town, even an extra with no lines, to be familiar with Cougar Town the series, because obviously the fiction doesn’t exist in the world of that fiction itself. In order to satisfy his need for authenticity, Abed imagines a fictional persona for himself to pretend to be during his walk-on appearance, but he becomes severely distressed when it occurs to him that this character might have been living a richer and deeper life than his own. It’s the central conceit of almost all fiction: the characters live, actively and with purpose, rather than watching, passively and with disinterest. Like the character in David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King who has an awakening when he hears “you are watching As The World Turns” on TV, Abed is made suddenly and intensely aware of his own relationship to the pop culture he’s been consuming, and being on the passive side is too much to handle. It’s a problem we can all relate to, with one key difference: Abed himself is a character on TV, and we’re watching him discuss his Cougar Town crisis on a show called Community. Fans should be used to the meta impulse on Community, but “Critical Film Studies” takes it a step further–here it’s self-critical.

I sometimes worry about consuming too much pop culture, as I imagine many of us do. Nobody wants to feel shallow, and there’s a constant feeling of obligation to read or watch things that are more serious, or that have more depth. We worry about being the passive spectator, and about coming to be defined by that passivity. For me, “Critical Film Studies” deals with exactly that kind of anxiety, and with how the need to live and connect sometimes seems impossible to take on. There’s no such thing as a totally unmediated dinner, and there can never be a culture-free conversation; even talking openly and honestly with a close friend over dinner becomes a reference to something. Abed tries to reject his dependence on tropes and quotes, hoping instead to have depth, but doing so ultimately proves shallow. Jeff gets indignant when he finds out that’s his been tricked into opening up, but he ultimately learns something. The point isn’t that connection is impossible or that pop culture is toxic, but that we can still have the former while totally subsumed by the latter: sometimes connections cut through all the movie references and surprise us. What “Critical Film Studies” made me realize is that it’s okay to feel weighed down by pop culture, and that’s it natural to struggle fruitlessly against it. It made me realize that the change afforded me by watching My Dinner With Andre could be both shallow and deep, that being inspired by it could be both an elaborate reference and the route to true connections. “It has something to do with living,” Andre says to Wally–and that’s a reference I don’t mind knowingly making.

Calum Marsh is a frequent contributor to Slant Magazine.

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