08 October 2015
The End of the Tour
When I first heard of The End of the Tour, I wondered 'Is this a fundamentally awkward thing to make into a movie?' and I've wondered that ever since. I wondered when I saw the picture of Jason Segel as DFW, I wondered while I was watching the movie, I'm still wondering. It's a hard question to shake! Is there a story to milk out of the interview transcripts? Are there enough Wallace fans to subsidize the movie? Or, if not, does it appeal at all to non-fans? I'm not sure! And I enjoyed the movie! Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg are very good! Their characters are both generally likeable but also often uncomfortable and then sometimes Segel is scary and sometimes Eisenberg deserves to be scared. They are funny! The movie is dramatic! But it also doesn't overdo the drama. It has prayed faithfully at the altar of exquisite real awkwardness, joining the ranks of The Office or that Sigur Ros interview. There's a beautiful feeling that I'm getting a three-day-slice-of-life glimpse at two people, and they're both carrying their pasts into the situation and they'll both keep on keeping on after the situation passes. There's sort of a conflict-buildup-climax-resolution but also kind of not really. I wanted it to keep going! I want a sequel! If you're not a Wallace fan, see it! and tell me if it does anything for you. If you are a Wallace fan (say, with reservations about a movie being made about Wallace), see it!
I came into the movie as a Wallace fan: after reading Infinite Jest I did the obvious thing and watched/read/listened to all available DFW interviews and nonfiction and assorted paraphernalia. I was worried that the movie would do something awful to the picture of Wallace I've formed in my head, but it didn't! (related: God I hate all those articles about the 'real' DFW that've cropped up in the last six months.) It wholeheartedly satisfied me on that front! I came out with the impression that director James Ponsoldt is at least as big of a Wallace nerd as I am and that he made the film with similar Wallace-nerd-concerns in mind, f.ex I get worried that with all this talk of David Foster Wallace, people are forgetting Infinite Jest, which is imo where all the beauty and complexity and action is, and yes Ponsoldt has made a movie about Wallace and not a movie about Infinite Jest, but I also got the impression that he's aware of my concern. He cares! There's something deliberate in the way that he's cropped the content of IJ out of the film, f.ex at Wallace's reading, we don't see him actually read from the book. And this deliberate cropping of IJ makes focusing on Wallace ~the man~ rather than Wallace ~the work~ more palatable, to me. Like, to understand The End of the Tour all we need to know about Infinite Jest is its author, its acclaim, and its size. The movie is very pointedly about the author and the interviewer, and not about the book! I can respect that. (Aside: Lipsky's Rolling Stone piece was never published. I'm inclined to think that's because Wallace ~the man~ was both not that interesting and not that forthcoming about the parts of him that would be interesting. Like sure he bought a gun to shoot his lover's husband, and he went to Alcoholics Anonymous and kept it a secret by calling it church/dancing, but the movie doesn't address those things. D.T. Max's biography does though! And in the film Wallace repeatedly cuts off Lipsky's permission to dig up any interesting stuff from his friends and his parents. Also if you want more about Wallace ~the work~ then I kindly direct you to The Point and Raw Thought.)
So anyway, is this a fundamentally awkward thing to make into a movie? I kept wondering! Even while I was enjoying the movie!
Structurally, the meat of the film can be divided into two piles. The first pile is what I will call the Wallace-insight. The man says smart things about television, loneliness, depression, happiness, philosophy and fiction. It's why people like him so much! So the film drops some of his better quotes, like the one about depression and the burning building and Wallace's complicated and interesting explication for why he gets a sweaty forehead at the thought of going to tea with Alanis Morisette. I got a Clerks vibe from the two guys talking about life and culture while being surrounded by 90s culture. Remember when people used to say they didn't own a TV as a meaningful statement about their relation to culture and how they use their time? Anyway I'd throw the Wallace-insight in the trash because depending on what you're interested in, your time is better spent reading "E Unibus Plurum" (about television and loneliness), "The Depressed Person" (depression), "This is Water" (happiness), Wallace's review of Wittgenstein's Mistress (philosophy, fiction), or Infinite Jest (the whole shebang). Maybe scrapping the Wallace and going for a writer-on-writer envy-fuelled highbrow Clerks would've been the correct route? but I'm not a moviemaker.
The second meat pile is the story. And it's a doozy! It's the tasty pile! It's packed with subtle conflict that never quite gets resolved but instead boils beneath the surface without bubbling up violently enough to explode and/or drive the two main characters apart. Ponsoldt milks the story for all its worth using three objects: a tape recorder, Infinite Jest, and Wallace's dogs. Lipsky is interviewing Wallace, so they have different roles and they have different goals. This creates a power dynamic with tension and conflict! Wallace is worried about saying interesting things and about how the interview will make him look. He asks for the right to retract anything he says if he realizes five minutes later that it was a stupid thing to say. Lipsky needs a story: the movie starts with a cliché "there better be a story here" from Lipsky's editor. When Lipsky first pulls the tape recorder, tension rises and moods shift. And this happens again and again every time he turns it on. The camera likes to zoom in on the tape recorder. It's a reminder of the constant low key battle of wills going on between the two men, a reminder that Lipsky's interests are not Wallace's interests. Lipsky's power is that Wallace agreed to the interview: he says "you agreed to the interview" when Wallace doth protest too much. He's a sly little rat and sometimes I wanted to punch him. His other power is flirting with Wallace's ex.
Wallace's power is that he's a successful novelist and Lipsky wants to be a successful novelist. When Lipsky sleeps at Wallace's house, he's on the floor in a guest room full of books Wallace has written He looks up at dozens of Infinite Jests and The Girl With the Curious Hairs and The Broom of the Systems. They tower above him! Wallace is living the Lipsky dream. Lipsky wants Wallace's fame and he wants Wallace's talent. After questioning whether Infinite Jest could be as good as people are saying, he gets partway through and says "Shit.". He's annoyed by how much his girlfriend enjoys the book. He probably even wants to be the first author Rolling Stone has interviewed in a decade! Copies of Infinite Jest are everywhere! Being read, being talked about, being written about, being bought. The only copy of Lipsky's novel (The Art Fair) is in his suitcase, waiting for him to build up the nerve to offer it to Wallace.
And my theory is that the sort of heartbreaking minor tragedy at the core of the film is that, if it weren't for envy and such, Lipsky and Wallace would be the best of friends, or at least pen pals! (They live in different cities.) They laugh together, they talk about deep shit (f. ex their lives, their thoughts about life). Lipsky slips up and talks about his parents and his childhood for a while before remembering that he's not the interviewee here. Reading the intro to Although of Course..., Lipsky calls the weekend the best conversation he's ever had (cute!). Romeo and Juliet are driven apart by warring familes; Lipsky and Wallace are driven apart by an interview and an acclaimed novel. imo this is the story that James Ponsoldt really wanted to tell! He tells it with dogs. They're big beautiful black labs. They like Lipsky (and they usually don't like anyone, says Wallace!). Lipsky doesn't mind when they drool on him. Whenever the dogs are around, Lipsky and Wallace are getting along. Those are the times when their could-be friendship shows. The dogs are bearers of good moods. I like dogs.
My other theory is that The End of the Tour was financed by the best McDonald's product placement I've seen. The movie's basically an hour and a half long ad for McDonald's. And it's a really good ad! One of those ads that you don't regret watching, that you're glad you saw. Like my thoughts were 20% "O product placement, the joy of the 21st century moviegoing experience !", but 40% "I want french fries" and 40% "lol". It's funny! Even remembering it makes me want french fries. They hit that one out of the park. (OK but yeah you do see the joke coming from a mile off.)
Wallace's suicide bookends the film. At the start, Lipsky hears of Wallace's death. (The story is a flashback while Lipsky listens to the tapes after he's dug them out of his closet.) At the end, Lipsky is reading to a full house from his Wallace-book, tears in his eyes. (But how does he feel that his fifteen minutes of fame are only because of his relation to Wallace? Can that be the sequel? It can't have been good for his jealous side!) The climax of the film is Wallace waking Lipsky up in the middle of the night to spit some hot truths about depression, which brings up a paradox I also felt big time while reading "This is Water". Here's someone who can say unexpected and insightful things about depression, happiness, the meaning of life and not succumbing to the bad feels when you have to wait in line at the supermarket after a hard day's work, but also that someone killed himself. He came up with deep thoughts about how to live but at the same time he himself was clearly not very good at living! How can we process that? Do we say that the supermarket line won? My thoughts have never gone beyond "that's weird". It's probably too interesting of a topic to say anything substantive about.