Here’s something surprising: a movie starring two Hollywood A-Listers, Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg, about a real writer not named Ernest Hemingway or F. Scott Fitzgerald was made. Here’s something not surprising: the movie, in its distinctly small circle of appeal, is controversial. Even if the movie had been about a truly well-known writer (as in, 99.9% of Americans have heard of him or her, or were forced to read him or her in high school), the movie probably would have still been controversial in some circles: namely, literary ones. For there as always been a difference that exists between the life of the writer and the life of the imagined writer that many readers simply don’t care about, or maybe don’t want to know. There is the fact that Ernest Hemingway is on the Mt. Rushmore of American writers due to The Old Man and the Sea, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Sun Also Rises, and others. Then there’s the fact that his lifestyle would be considered disgusting and abhorrent by many of the people who read him today. He was sexist, racist, anti-Semitic, and loved violence such as bullfighting, a sport ingrained hopelessly with animal cruelty.
But. He could write.
It is a perplexing question that I return to multiple times each week: Why were so many of the greatest writers, the greatest thinkers, the people seemingly so in-touch with what it means to be human, seemingly often bad people? My best attempt at an answer to the question is the human-contradiction of putting things into boxes, but not realizing that our boxes for what we think are singularities, actually contain multiplicities. So I turn to the subject of this post: David Foster Wallace. Was Wallace a good person? That turns out to be loaded question, too simplistic to deserve anything but ridicule. I tend to think that people are as good as they can be, as good as their mind lets them be. When I read Wallace, I find that I am in tune with the music he is playing. Infinite Jest, “Good Old Neon,” and “The Soul is Not a Smithy” are pieces of writing that hit on something in me that nothing else seems to be able. When I read about Wallace, I’m not as keen on liking the guy as much as I am almost certain we wouldn’t get along, and I would very nearly despise him for some actions.
When I first heard about The End of the Tour, an adaptation of David Lipsky’s Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, I was conflicted by my excitement to see a movie about a writer whose work I really do adore, and the fact that I knew that David Foster Wallace would probably have despised the idea of the movie being made. Then I began to wonder which David Foster Wallace I would actually see in the movie. Would it be David Foster Wallace, the man who pursued writer Mary Karr like a stalker for years, a man who acted like asshole when things didn’t go his way? Or would it, instead, be David Foster Wallace, the man who wrote fiction on how to understand loneliness and the existential hole that humans have? What I expected was the latter.
I expected the movie to portray Wallace like a character in one of his books. I expected “The Legend of David Foster Wallace” to find its new home onscreen, moving from the forums and Amazon Book Reviews to the light of day. I expected the movie to use a portion of Lipsky’s interview, then ham it up by essentially making Wallace an icon the masses could continue to adore; quoting his most famous passages about being alone and being human. I expected more the of what can be deemed The Hemingway: Making any portrayals of the writer actually of the writer’s work, not of the writer, the person. Pretending, such as in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, where Allen writes a fantasy that Hemingway wouldn’t have just told Owen Wilson’s character, a young writer, to “f*ck off” and instead makes him a brash man with a heart of gold who is nothing but helpful to Wilson. I expected the man, the myth, the legend: David Foster Wallace.
What I viewed, though, was not that until the final moments of the film.
The movie depicts Wallace as an insecure, quiet, shy, clever, strange, rude person who is, while not wholly unlikeable, definitively someone who would wear on another human being, potentially very fast. His house is filthy and he looks like someone who would, frankly, smell. What can be seen in the film is a picture of Wallace that is the closest anyone outside of his friends and family can get to seeing him. Which was refreshing and surprising. What is strange, though, is why the film chose to spoil this presentation with the final scenes of the movie, which consist of Wallace remarking to Lipsky: “David, you don’t want to be me.” (Which makes it seem like Wallace felt he would end his life any day now, when in reality he lived twelve more years). Then proceeding to a monologue by Lipsky in which we are shown Wallace dancing (yes, dancing) at a church get-together. The entirety of the film before these moments was well-done and intriguing. Never over-the-top or boring, but not fake either. The last shot doesn’t undermine the rest of the film, but it does fail to remain in-line with the previous 95% of the movie. As noted here, Wallace hated dancing, and the character of Wallace that is presented in The End of the Tour is impossible to imagine dancing, and it is upsetting to even see it.
But the ending doesn’t change how I felt about the movie. It surprised me in how it exceeded my own expectations in doing what has to be seen as a surprisingly good job of portraying Wallace not as a walking book of quotable moments that make a person feel better about being a human being, but as man who had some worthwhile things to say if you could survive through the sometimes nastiness of his personality. Its faults are what was to be expected: the inescapability of Wallace’s suicide forever makes Wallace one to be interpreted as a man who just barely had it together. You can’t picture the man in this movie as an athlete, for example. The movie seems to grasp his personality as best a person outside of his block of friends and family can hope, but it’s a mistake in the first place to think the movie fails or excels solely on whether it achieved a perfect portrayal of Wallace. Even here, I have found myself writing more about how the movie did in its picture of Wallace than whether the movie is any good or not.
I suppose that’s perfect, in a way, though. What could be more appropriate in a movie concerning David Foster Wallace than an infinite question of whether or not the David Foster Wallace we just saw was fraudulent?