On an impulse, I dropped in at CineArts in Palo Alto Square to see James Ponsoldt‘s The End of the Tour, the talky film on the late great author David Foster Wallace. Silly me. I hadn’t read much about the film and thought it would be a kind of documentary, made up of recorded interviews during his life. It’s not, at least not entirely. However, much of the 90 minutes of conversations is indeed Wallace’s own, since the narrator is another writer, David Lipsky, then a reporter for Rolling Stone, who interviewed Wallace on a five-day binge in 1996. The conversations were transcribed, fourteen years later, for publication in a book called Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself.
Remember 1981’s My Dinner with André? That’s another talky film recreating a long-ago conversation. How times have changed, even in three-and-a-half short decades! My Dinner with André, a restaged reunion between avant-garde director André Gregory and actor/playwright Wallace Shawn, did a deep dive into the human psyche, sure, but it was outward-facing, discussing worldwide travels and explorations and revelations. The End of the Tour is all inward and self-doubt and neuroses, shot through with insight, suffering, and light – but we never seem to leave these two men’s heads. The 1981 film never seems claustrophobic, although it is almost entirely filmed within a New York restaurant; in The End of the Tour, although it “opens out,” as they say, into Minneapolis, never seems to leave Wallace’s cluttered Illinois home in the middle of nowhere, in the overwhelming winters of the American Midwest. Well, this turn of events is what Wallace predicted would happen, isn’t it? See the film clip above.
So here I am. As one commenter put it, a writer writing about a movie about a writer writing about a writer. A few reflections:
I’m ill at ease about portrayals of “America” as a land of spiritual desert and strip malls – and I come from the same part of the world that Wallace did. If one sits in front of a TV and gets one’s food from 7/11, yes, it will be that way. But the way of the Twinkie is chosen, not inevitable. Some of us listen to Schubert and talk about Stendhal with our friends, over tapas and Cabernet. I’ve never had a poptart. Why would I?
Full disclosure: I’ve only read some of Wallace’s essays and short stories – I’ve never even tried (yet) to read Infinite Jest. So I take this warning to heart, from A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times: “Funny, intriguing and revealing as this talk may be, it does not have anything like the status of Wallace’s writing. The film not only acknowledges this distinction, but it also insists on it. In his would-be profiler’s company, occasionally glancing at the menacing red light of the predigital tape recorder, Wallace is by turns cagey and candid, witty and earnest, but he is always aware, at times painfully, that he is playing the role of a writer in someone else’s fantasy. Actually writing is something he does when no one else is around.” A minor point: Lipsky flings his tape recorder from jacket pocket to restaurant table, from his hand to Wallace’s, casually waves it around – and yet he seems to get crisp, usable recordings out of it. How does he do that? I can’t do that with today’s up-to-date recorders.
Any journalist watching this film should cringe with self-recognition. Jesse Eisenberg‘s Lipsky, a journalist who is a Wallace wannabe, conveys hunger and avidity in his every beady glance. That’s why I flinched at the tear trickling at the end – he wasn’t a tear-trickling kind of guy. This is a wolf cub. It was as phony as the magic tape recorder that never runs out of tape or drops an AA battery into his Coca Cola.
I always felt reluctant to do investigative reporting, though I know it has a vital role to play in the public square. I am always aware that I am telling the story, spinning my narrative of what I see and hear. It has to be so. Nobody wants to sit through the undigested outtakes of hours of interviewing and pages of notes. You have to assemble the mess in a way that makes sense to a broad spectrum of readers and is, above all, a compelling read – even if the reportage partakes of your own obsessions and prejudices and quirks. But what if you’re wrong – as you are wrong or unjust in a thousand relationships throughout your life? How often did you misinterpret a parent, a teacher, a lover, a child, a boss? How often did we misinterpret Wallace himself, who died by his own hand in 2008?
From the New York Times again:
In real life, David Lipsky might be a great guy, but on screen he is played by Mr. Eisenberg, which means that his genetic material is at least 25 percent weasel. Wallace at one point playfully describes himself as “pleasantly unpleasant.” Lipsky is unpleasantly pleasant, which is much worse. Twitchy and ingratiating, he wants to be a tough journalist and a pal. He desperately wants Wallace to regard him as a peer and can hardly contain his jealousy. He berates Sarah after she chats with Wallace on the phone and falls into a defensive snit after Wallace accuses him of flirting with Betsy (Mickey Sumner), a poet who had known Wallace in graduate school.
His awfulness is, to some degree, structural. A profile writer, especially in the company of another writer, is a false friend who dreams of being a secret sharer. Lipsky’s assignment is to pry, distort and betray, to use Wallace’s words and the details of his existence as material for his own dubious project. Wallace knows this and acquiesces to it — “you agreed to the interview” is Lipsky’s fallback when his subject gets prickly — and generally handles himself with grace and forbearance.
As Emily Yoshida points out in The Verge, he makes his own deal with his own devil: “in the face of Lipsky’s insatiability, the Segel can’t help but portray Wallace as constantly on the defensive, protecting nothing less than his own interiority. This, perhaps in combination with the nature of the source material, paints an even more saintly, beleaguered picture of Wallace than a conventional Oscar-bait biopic would. The film is bookended by flash forwards after Wallace’s death by suicide in 2008: we see Lipsky eulogize Wallace on NPR and at a (much better attended) reading of Although Of Course…, and these are his final acts of consumption and assumption of his subject. After his death, Lipsky becomes the foremost authority on Wallace, which is almost as good as being Wallace.”
This is said to be a life-changing role for Jason Segel, as Wallace (I wouldn’t know; I very rarely go to films). His portrayal rather overshadowed Eisenberg, but Eisenberg, too, makes a portrayal of great subtlety. We all smell Oscars in the air. But can’t two guys win?
This isn’t about the real David Foster Wallace, of course. How could it be? No wonder family and friends have resisted this film. For purposes of comparison, watch the short clip from the Charlie Rose interview below, made about the same time as the setting of The End of the Tour, and note the difference in tempo, energy, pacing. Wallace is bigger, softer, fuzzier, more self-doubting. Even the timber of the voice is radically different. Segel has created a whole new person for the cameras.
The film doesn’t end with Wallace’s death, or Lipsky’s reading of his book about Wallace. It’s much better than that. Wordless after so many words, Wallace resumes his normal life after the departure of Lipsky. As he explained to the young reporter, he is part of a dance group that relives the dances of the 1970s in the basement of a Baptist Church. And we finally leave his head: we see him in the basement, jumping and gyrating to the music with uninhibited joy. It’s a good way to leave him. The end of the tour.