A Supposedly Fun Movie I’ll Never Watch Again

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I don’t hate “The End of the Tour.” I think it does some things very well, some things not so well, and ends up somewhere in the middle overall. But it feels like a missed opportunity. 

Maybe we should admit to the inevitability of a film being made about David Foster Wallace, despite the very legitimate protests of his friends and family. If it was inevitable, thanks to Wallace’s cultural significance, then David Lipsky’s interview-book from 2010 seems like a natural place to go for filmable material. So if we start with this flawed premise – that they were going to ignore Wallace’s wishes and make this movie anyway – then we can judge the film from a different perspective than “this movie shouldn’t have been made” (which is, again, a totally valid perspective). We can look at how it handled the material it was given. And from that angle, I find problems with its basic construction.

The main problem is that it caves to a certain kind of pressure, a certain tug or pull that occurs whenever David Foster Wallace is discussed. It’s the same tug you may be feeling as you read this right now, which is: “When will they talk about the suicide?” Almost any conversation about Wallace now centers on his death and what it might mean for his work and his legacy. It becomes the definitive element of his life and career, the anchor for any exploration of his writing. “The End of the Tour” acknowledges this by bookending its main narrative from 1996 with episodes from the days after Wallace’s death in 2008. The entire film becomes a genuflection. It’s almost impossible to exist in the present moment with the film, because it almost demands that the viewer be constantly referencing back to September 2008, wondering, oh, god, did he know then? Is this when he knew he would do it?

This feels insincere to me. It collapses 12 years of his life into a simple calculation, instead of allowing for a more complicated reality. Answers to interview questions in 1996 become portents for 2008, ignoring the period in between in which he led an actual life. And that life from ‘96 to ‘08 isn’t really relevant to this film, so I’m not arguing for its inclusion. But there was an opportunity here to shift the discourse a bit, to focus solely on those weird few days from 1996 when Wallace and Lipsky became road trip buddies. It could have been a snapshot of a notable time in their lives rather than the memorial service it is now.

Wallace was a towering figure in American literature at least since the release of “Infinite Jest” in 1996, and by the 2000′s his influence was visible everywhere from contemporary fiction to personal blogs. His suicide in 2008 led to a shift in the popular conversations around him, eventually settling on a conception of him as a “tortured genius” archetype, the kind of grim and serious person we expect to be behind monumental works of art. This is ultimately the portrait proposed by the film, as well, despite some small efforts otherwise (like an awkward dance montage). And while Wallace certainly battled depression and other difficulties for his entire adult life, I don’t believe that this one-dimensional portrait reflects the entirety of who he was as either a person or an author. I don’t know that any person could be fairly represented by that characterization. I never met him, of course, but reflections from his friends and family suggest that there was much more to him than the depression he experienced.

But the tortured genius trope persists. Look at the comments on a video like this interview from 2003

People argue back and forth over whether or not his facial expressions, his mannerisms, and his speaking cadence indicate that he would commit suicide five years later. Some see omens in his self-consciousness or insecurity. Wallace becomes a sort of symbol for his own death, and his choice now looms over everything he said, did, or wrote.

This isn’t uncommon and I understand the impulse. People hope to make some sense of something we will likely never be able to comprehend for ourselves. His suicide was a tragedy and an unimaginable loss for the people in his life, but I’m not interested in speculating on the circumstances around it or in making any judgments. 

But when I read his writing, I am surprised at the persistence of the idea of Wallace as the Severe and Serious Author. To be honest about it, I didn’t start reading his work until about a year ago, and I’ve still never read any of his fiction. So I’m not an expert. In reading some of his essays from throughout his career, though, it becomes immediately apparent that there was much more to him than suggested by the depressive portraits we’ve come to accept.

He was serious about his work and not particularly optimistic about the state of the world he lived in. But his love of reading and writing announces itself in his essays, and he leaves no room for skepticism about his passion for the written word. It’s obvious in the basic construction of his essays, which are often dense and long-winded and feature esoteric or archaic vocabulary. His sentences stretch on and on. He clearly loved putting words on the page in a very fundamental sense, and as a reader, I just admire his dedication to that pursuit. I’m not about to suggest that Wallace was a perfect writer, but there is something invigorating and even joyful in reading stuff that is as shamelessly word-y as Wallace’s.

His essays move between academic and conversational approaches, mixing close analysis with humor and digression, which can be both engaging and ridiculous. He understood that ridiculousness, of course, and frequently pointed it out as it occurred. And maybe it didn’t always work; certainly for some readers it never worked. For me, I think that his intellectual curiosity and ambition keep his work genuine even when he drags an essay far off the rails for a tangent. He approached topics with a trademark web of self-aware postures and perspectives, but at the root of it all is a curiosity, an itch to learn that is undeniable and a little infectious.

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These are all very deliberate literary choices on Wallace’s part, and they are choices that leave him wide open to criticism. I don’t know how he felt about that criticism, but the fact that he put so much visible effort into his work suggests that he was at least willing to be part of whatever dialogue was happening around him and his peers. The problem with the sanctification that has occurred in the years since his death is that it effectively removes him from that dialogue. It places him and his work outside the realm of conversation and into the realm of unimpeachability, which is bad news for any artist. At that point, the work becomes inert, unable to be engaged with for fear of disrespect or disruption. But Wallace, like many artists and writers and cultural observers, understood that criticism could be a form of respect, even when it pointed out flaws. Because it’s through criticism that a work can make real connections outside of itself, to other works and to other people and places and times. To presume perfection, as we’ve often done with a book like “Infinite Jest,” fossilizes a work. It no longer evolves with the world around it.

This is all why “The End of the Tour” is disappointing. In focusing on a very narrow point in time, it could have aimed for a more honest portrait of Wallace than the one we’ve been using for the past seven years. Whether or not it would have succeeded is unknown, but the effort would have been appreciated. It likely would have had to risk a more unflattering depiction than this film does (despite its attempt to humanize Wallace through a weird tangent about his jealousy regarding an ex-girlfriend), but that’s a necessity when being honest about someone, dead or alive, no matter the circumstances of their death or the significance of their work.

One of the ways to resist the deification of Wallace is to read what he wrote without expectation. Unless you hate it, I guess – although, even in that case, you’re still participating in the dialogue, still engaging with what he was trying to do. In some ways, even saying “fuck this” is better than the somber, respectful, distant gaze we’ve adopted with respect to authors like Wallace. “Fuck this” keeps the discussion going and challenges people to decide for themselves.

Wallace’s life and struggle certainly deserve respect and a measure of sensitivity. I think this can be honored without setting his work on a higher pedestal than everything around it. It can be honored without feeling the need to view everything he wrote or said through the lens of his suicide. Resisting those urges lets his work grow, even if our responses are negative – it gives the work a chance to rejoin the culture around it despite its age.

This is what I wished “The End of the Tour” had aimed for. I wished it were a movie that showed its audiences a glimpse of an author at an important cultural and personal crossroads, a movie that allowed its viewers to decide for themselves what to make of Wallace’s words in person and on the page. Instead, it’s reverent to a fault, and keeps the mainstream hagiography in motion.

(As a side note, I’m aware that now is a particularly bad time to admit to liking Wallace’s work. I’ve got no defense on that front.)

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