This Friday, nerds and friends of nerds in the vicinity of “select theaters” will finally have to decide whether or not they are willing to go see The End of the Tour, the movie covering the days David Foster Wallace spent with Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky at the close of the promotional tour for Infinite Jest. The movie has been controversial, from the casting of comedic actor Jason Segel as Wallace to the disavowal of the project from the Wallace estate. Good people (again, mostly nerds) are wrestling with the question of whether they should go see it.
Until last night, I myself was one of those people/nerds.
Before I get to that, though, one thing needs to be made clear right here at the beginning: If you’re not going to see the movie because you think David Foster Wallace hated movies and entertainment, you’re doing it wrong.
David Foster Wallace did not hate movies. By all the evidence, Wallace loved good movies and probably a few really terrible ones. And by “the evidence,” I mean his essay on David Lynch, or the fact that he wanted an image from the filming of Metropolis to be the cover of Infinite Jest, or how he called film critic Pauline Kael his favorite non-fiction writer, stacking her up against Joan Didion, John McPhee, Frank Conroy, Tobias Wolff and Annie Dillard. For God’s sake, in the trailer for The End of the Tour we hear Wallace calling Die Hard “the best.” Or as he said in the transcripts that the movie is based on, “The first Die Hard? I think it’s a great film.”
That all said, it’s not wild speculation to think that Wallace would have strenuously objected to having a movie made about him. According to Michael Pietsch, Wallace’s friend, former publisher and
literary executor posthumous editor (i.e. someone who actually has made decisions on Wallace’s behalf since his death), “David would have howled the idea for it out of the room had it been suggested while he was living.”
My point is that this is obvious: the movie’s source material is propelled by Wallace’s anxiety about fame. The primary tension between the two men is that Lipsky is desperate to be famous like Wallace, and Wallace is uneasy about the whole endeavor. The point of stating that this is obvious is to recognize that it was also obvious to the actors and filmmakers.
Which brings me to last night, and the 92nd St Y in New York City, where Jason Segel sat down with Rolling Stone writer David Fear to talk about the movie. I was there, in balcony row AA, as it happens.
Segel talked about a lot of things, from dancing with the Muppets to Freaks and Geeks. Hearing him discuss his process and vision for The End of the Tour was reassuring for those, like me, who don’t want to see Wallace’s complicated life (and death) turned into drama or, worse, melodrama.
Segel said last night, essentially (the quotes are pulled from scribbles and memory and are not perfect transcripts), “this is not a dramatic biopic; it’s the story of the end of a press tour.” To prepare, he first tried to get to know Wallace, but felt it was more effective to try and understand the very particular situation Wallace was in during the story itself. Again: “I realized that this was a guy at the end of a press tour,” something Segel is very familiar with — “It’s what I’m doing right now.” In the story, Wallace has spent months talking about his novel over and over again to different audiences. “So I tried to focus on what I thought the themes of Infinite Jest were.”
When he was asked if at any point he felt he made a breakthrough in playing the part of Wallace, Segel was careful to say that he felt he made a breakthrough in the story. He talked about his worries that, as a comedic actor, even if he succeeded people would just take his performance as a really good impression.
I got the sense, after hearing him talk, that casting Segel was itself a move of respect for Wallace, and deference to the impossibility of making a movie about him. Segel is not, so far, a powerhouse, virtuoso performer. He will not portray Wallace with “intensity” or some other bullshit. He just has to give an honest performance, and not distract us with how well he acts – he can be there, be believable, and tell the story. And he’s funny. And Wallace was funny.
The question of watching or not, then, comes down to whether the movie treats Wallace and all his complications and contradictions with respect. And maybe you feel that to meet that criterion, the right move would have been to not make a movie at all. That’s a legitimate feeling*. But if you’re not sure, and you kind of want to go see the movie, I think you should. Because it appears to me that the actors and filmmakers have made a good faith effort to get it right.
Or, you can stay home and watch Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp on Netflix, which also comes out on Friday. I think Wallace would have enjoyed it.
*Let me counter, a little, by asking: What is the real difference between the Wallace movie — which uses DFW’s writings and recordings to build a narrative about who he was and how he got that way — and Montage of Heck – which uses Kurt Cobain’s writings and recordings to build a narrative about who he was and how he got that way? Montage has been widely celebrated, I’m guessing by more than a few people who want to lay down in front of the theaters to protest The End of the Tour. What’s the difference?