There is nothing more grotesque than somebody going around saying, “I’m a writer. I’m a writer. I’m a writer.”
The above line, said during a car ride (dotted with numerous fast food franchises on each side of the road) between the two lead characters, is one of dozens that resonated for me during the one hour and forty minute biopic, The End of the Tour. The film depicts Rolling Stone on probation writer and author of negligible success, David Lipsky -played by Jesse Eisenberg, and the famous author of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace -played by Jason Segel, on the tail-end of a USA book tour in the snowy Midwest.
Lipsky pitches the idea for doing a story on a man he believes to be a “once in a generation” writer – like Hemingway or Fitzgerald – to his editor. A bold move given his status at the magazine and that Rolling Stone had never before interviewed a novelist. It’s a period film set in 1996 with early and late flash forwards to 2008 when Lipsky learns of the suicide of Wallace.
It would be easy to portray this movie as a tale of two writing Davids, one successful and uncomfortable with that success, one aspiring and envious of the other. It is more than that – it is about the upside and downside of discovering truths, illusions, and what it means to be human. The movie will have plenty of appeal to writers even though it is not a celebration of the art; it is more a dissection of the myths.
We learn many things about David Foster Wallace and his interrogator Lipsky, although I suspect with Oliver Stone like revisions when deemed suitable for this consumable product. The two form a suspicious friendship with Wallace being the more cautious one, as he needs to be. The Rolling Stone editor reminding Lipsky, in one of many telephone conversations shown in the film, to “get the story” and telling him he wasn’t sent there to be David’s friend. Yet it becomes a buddy/road trip movie of sorts focused on conversations in diners, cars, hotels, bookshops, and frozen tundra. It is not action filled, a welcome break from Hollywood norms. The USA culture is portrayed well and in uncomplimentary fashion.
One can’t help but like the strengths and foibles found in Wallace, (even if he didn’t have a picture of John Updike on his wall) as he tells Lipsky, “Be a good guy.” Wallace was a long-time professor of creative writing at Illinois State University, a job he enjoyed. The classroom scene with his students shows that he was a good teacher even if the professor seems less sure of that fact. Two frequent characters in the film are the black Labradors of the author, Jeeves and Drone – one of whom had been abused in his youth. We learn that fame doesn’t prevent one from having to pick up dog shit inside the home.
There is much talk of relationships past by both writers and on the subject of marriage in the future. Wallace makes small but wise observations about men and women, at one point declaring, “It is so much easier having dogs.” Female characters are present in the form of a past Wallace classmate and an admiring fan plus Lipsky’s girlfriend back in New York City. Wallace frequently analyzes the interview process – the tactics employed by Lipsky, real or imagined, create tension and distrust between the two. Wallace also worries about the seduction of fame and, worse yet, that he might actually enjoy it. He doesn’t mind appearing in Rolling Stone but he doesn’t want to appear as someone who wants to be in Rolling Stone. Dr Hook he is not.
Wallace is reticent to confess all, particularly when Lipsky presses him late in the film about rumors of heroin addiction. Wallace frets how the story will be shaped, given his history of depression and a hospitalization during his short Harvard stay. Wallace knows that some addictions are sexier than others and his, he maintains, are “typically American”.
A central question to the film is, why? Why do people want attention? Why do people fear attention? Why are people lonely? Why do we up our dosages of things that harm us when we know that low dosages are fine? Big questions and not all the answers are or can be provided.
One tenet of the film that is not explored much is Wallace’s faith. He has a quote from St Ignatius posted in his bathroom and he likes to dance inside a Baptist church. Considering Wallace is the son of atheist parents, who were also academics, I wish that aspect of his life had been made clear.
There is a school of thought out there that an author’s work is the end all, and that his/her life is minutia or trivia by comparison. I disagree. I won’t be reading Infinite Jest anytime soon. But I will peruse the essays of David Foster Wallace. I’m better for having learned about versions of these two writers by watching this as good as it gets biopic. In the end, neither loving dogs or a loving wife could save Wallace from himself.
The End of the Tour is a movie about conversations, amidst chewing tobacco, cigarette smoke, soda cans, Big Gulps, hamburgers and french fries. The worst nutrition the USA has to offer. And probably the best conversations you will hear in 2016. Seek it out.
Special thanks to Hong Kong based author Jame Dibiasio for steering me towards this movie. You can read Jame’s review of The End of the Tour at his blog found here