Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Fri Aug 07, 2015 2:41 pm 
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Was it wrong to make this movie?

James Ponsoldt's The End of the Tour, adapted by Donald Margolies from David Lipsky's book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself (2010), brings to life an intense short-term experience. It's the five-day "interview" Lipsky (played by Jesse Eisenberg) did with David Foster Wallace (played by Jason Segal) for Rolling Stone at the end of Wallace's book promotion tour for Infinite Jest, the long, complex novel just then out (in 1996) that made Wallace famous.

Anthony Lane may get it right -- anyway what he says in his short New Yorker review made it easier to go and watch this film. He begins by saying you will not encounter "the formal dazzle" of the writer David Foster Wallace in The End of the Tour (that, one could say, is putting it mildly) but still, he says, the film "is worth exploring." And he hints at why: under its surface simplicity, there is some complexity. Eventually Segal and the film delve into the ambiguity of the man, or the man in the film, whoever he is, who may be "pleasantly unpleasant," and here, anyway, for the moment, for Lipsky, is unconvincingly playing the "regular guy" when he is (in Lane's words) "deeply irregular."

But really the film's justification and interest are just how intimately and painfully it captures a few tiring winter days on the road in the American Midwest; the uncomfortable relationship in which the two writers seem to befriend each other while one is microscopically examining the other, under too much public scrutiny already, who is trying to fend him off. Dave, as we'll call him, is brilliant, nervous, insecure, hyper-conscious, embarrassed at his fame or at enjoying it. David, as we'll call him, with his own recently published novel that's already virtually forgotten, is eager, ambitious, attracted, excited, admiring, jealous. You can call this a dumbing-down, but surely films about author-on-author interviews aren't exactly cineplex popcorn-movie stuff. This is a character study, not a comedy, or, though it hints of it, a brom-com.

There are many, many reservations one could express about this film -- and I will express some. I write as a serious fan of Wallace -- one for whom total immersion in his great opus Infinite Jest, along with some of his other books, especially the hilarious, brilliant essay collections A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again and Consider the Lobster, was the life-changing literary experience of the decade, along with equally intense first encounters with Proust's great roman fleuve and all the novels of Cormac McCarthy. Wallace's premature death was deeply saddening. It was hard not to cringe at the very idea of, well, any dramatization of Wallace, not to mention having an Apatow comic like Jason Segal suiting up in Wallace's granny glasses and bandana headband, however much this may be a surprise serious acting breakthrough for Segal.

When this film was in post-production, the Wallace Literary Trust, which holds the copyrights to his works, declared that it did not support the venture. Add to this the obvious pain for Wallace's family and friends, who still remain freshly angry and wounded at the writer's suicide seven years ago at the age of forty-six. On top of that I have to admit it already feels callous of Lipsky, whose Rolling Stone interview piece according to a Rolling Stone review "was never filed or finished," to have "capitalized" on the publicity of Wallace's suicide to expand it into a book. The film is bookended with scenes of Lipsky before and after he wrote his book on Wallace, which try to explain why in the light of the writer's suicide, he felt his experience (and his cassette tapes) too interesting to keep secret. But "capitalized" is still the word. That feeling kept me from reading Lipsky's book.

But it was reassuring to see a lot of movie critics had praised The End of the Tour. They could all be wrong, but they might not be. There probably was something there. And there is. The film did actually draw me in, for the reason I've already mentioned: you become involved in the interviewer's experience, which is very well dramatized by Ponsoldt, of Dave's cluttered Bloomington, Illinois house in the snow, his two big dogs (Jeeves and the Drone), the hotel rooms, the junk food binges, the two women friends who come to stand by, the smoking, the soda pop, the little tape recorder David always has in his hand. There's an initial visit to one of the classes Dave teaches before the tour trips. Dave apologizes for the class; David notes the students plainly love him (Wallace was reportedly a marvelous teacher, possibly most appreciated at Ponoma, where he was teaching when he died). Then, what's fascinating is the edgy almost-bromance. Dave insists David stay at his house; they even share a hotel room later; they ride to the airport in David's rented car. They share the cigarette, pop, and junk food orgies and partial TV binge including "Falcon Crest," "Magnum, P.I.," and "Charlie’s Angels"; the movie they go to on tour in Minneapolis with the two women friends is Broken Arrow. You don't get to see David Foster Wallace talking as much about books or being as calm and articulate as he was in other, sit-down interviews; but these circumstances, on the road, in winter, are different, exhausting -- and as Dave says, unreal.

Passive-aggressive Dave opens up, then shuts out. His reserve is natural for an intensely private, sensitive genius who's suddenly become a literary rock star, but when he tells David contacting his parents is off limits, there's no smile. Then when David asks the woman who dated Dave in graduate school for her email address to ask her about that time, Dave pounces and becomes angry and jealous. Compare to this David's anger at his wife for talking to Dave 25 minutes on the phone (he clocks her).

Obviously depression, dysfunction and addiction are topics hovering around The End of the Tour all the time. Ponsoldt's first three films were clearly spurred by an interest in alcoholism. But at least at this time, Wallace was very cagey (also not mentioning the key factor of his long term reliance on MAOI antidepressants); he insisted his primary addiction was television, but he was hiding his substance problems, perhaps wanting partly to protect the status of the rich and hilarious 12-step meeting sequences in Infinite Jest as fiction. He insisted he'd never used heroin, a question Lipsky's editor considered of prime interest. Nonetheless every sequence of Dave-and-David is a display of addictive behavior. And Wallace's masterpiece, Infinite Jest is, above all, a brilliant book about addiction, as well as the larger related topic of the pursuit of pleasure's power to destroy the soul.

If you want to enjoy it, you probably don't want to read the angry remarks of Glenn Kenny, who knew Wallace, about this film (which he reports seeing twice); or those of other aggrieved friends or disapproving persons. Right before or after seeing The End of the Tour you probably don't want to watch interviews by Charlie Rose, or for German radio, with Wallace, because they will make Segal's performance feel like a caricature. It is easy to see this movie as harmful or wrong. Too easy. It's destined to be a fraught topic. But for all its issues, The End of the Tour might turn out to be one of the best American films of the year, as the critics are saying it is.

The End of the Tour, 106 mins., debuted at Sundance January 2015; over a dozen other festivals, mostly US. Limited US theatrical release began 31 July 2015; Landmark Embarcadero and Sundance Kabuki San Francisco 7 August. Its Metacritic rating of 85% puts it currently in the top 20 movies of 2015.
Interview with DFW in 2004, when he was 42. And "The Soul Is Not a Smithy," the story he reads from at length in the interview.
German TV unedited 85-minute interview with Wallace (with visual). 11/2003.
Charlie Rose interview with David Foster Wallace. 1997. (There is a 1996 Charlie Rose interview on demand from Amazon.)
DFW fan resource website since 1997 "The Howling Fantods".

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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