There’s much hay being made among fans of David Foster Wallace recently about the announcement that a film about Wallace is on the horizon. Titled The End of the Tour, the movie will be based on David Lipsky’s book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which I reviewed favorably here. Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg will star as Wallace and Lipsky.
I have pretty negative feelings about the idea of this film but haven’t been able to sort out exactly why. I can’t really object on the basis of the actors. I think I’ve seen Segel in one or two things and found him at worst unobjectionable; I’ve read that he’s actually done some good, sincere work, and he’s a better pick to play Wallace than droves and droves of people might have been. It’s not as if the producers cast Jack Black or the guy who famously screwed a pie in a couple of movies. Eisenberg I guess I know from The Social Network, but let’s face it — my undies are not in any sort of wad over the portrayal of Lipsky here.
I thought briefly along with Edwin Turner at Biblioklept that the movie would be a “crass cash grab,” but I’m no longer convinced, having read an argument on the wallace-l listserve to the effect that not much money would really have been in play here for Lipsky or the estate. And anyway, Lipsky I took from the beginning to have good intentions. He generously swapped a few emails with me at the time of his book’s publication, and I felt very much as if his heart was in the right place. He was at least as much a fan of Wallace’s as I was, and he was gracious and even sweet. I’m willing enough to grant that even if he made some cash by selling the rights to the book, his main motivation was to tell the story to a broader audience.
Questions of audience are probably what my negative feelings mostly come down to. My introduction to Wallace’s work came during Christmas of 1997, when I was given Infinite Jest as a gift while in college. I holed up and read the book over the course of the break, doing little else. It was an audacious, difficult book, one of the first things I remember recognizing on my own as a good book. Sure, I had read lots of classics and had jumped on the various bandwagons that young people jump on (Salinger so gets me!), but most of what I had read had been filtered to me as something I ought to read. I knew in advance that they were great books. I was given Infinite Jest explicitly because it wasn’t by a dead guy or considered (yet) a work of classic literature, and I blundered into recognizing greatness in it. So in a way, it was a validation of my ability to see a thing as a thing of quality. When I learned later that there was a community of readers devoted to Wallace’s work — that he was considered among these apparently smart people at least to be a writer with important things to say in artful ways — I felt further validated.
To write about discovering things relatively early (albeit after all the hype that I had somehow missed) is kind of dangerous ground for me. I’m vehemently anti being-a-hipster. I dislike the posture of it, the attitude that liking things before anybody else did is a thing that confers any sort of merit. Yet here I am patting myself on the back for feeling glad that I was able to recognize value in Wallace’s work before he was very far into the recent mainstream. Maybe I’m a loser hipster after all, at least in this one little part of my life. In any case, what I’m getting around to is that an affinity for Wallace’s work is something that I’ve always felt as if I had somehow earned. I did the work and recognized the quality of his writing and joined the little club of people who had done the same, and I suppose I came over time to feel as if I had some kind of stake in Wallace’s legacy.
So I guess a lot of my angst about the movie stems from my love of Infinite Jest and a selfish feeling that this sort of creation story around the phenomenon of the book can’t really belong to people who haven’t cultivated a basically emotional appreciation over time for Wallace’s work. I read Infinite Jest so many times, studied it, wrote about it. I felt a kinship with Wallace (even though doing that is stupid). It’s a very personal book to me. I also managed to take his death super personally (stupid or not). Of course then I read Lipsky’s story about the tour and later read D.T. Max’s biography and thought of them both as gifts. Wallace’s legacy was growing more and more mainstream, and it seemed a little weird. More and more people were reading the books rather than just carrying them around or using them as doorstops. I actually sort of loved the early post-mortem mainstreaming of Wallace. The Infinite Summer project was a wonderful thing, for example, and I was pulling for John Krasinski’s adaptation of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. So I don’t think it’s that I really object to broader exposure of Wallace’s work (maybe I’m not a hipster after all!). But still there’s something about this film that doesn’t feel quite right to me.
Part of it I suppose is that I’m struggling to understand how the story could possibly be of any interest to anybody who doesn’t know Wallace’s work well, who hasn’t read Lipsky’s book out of a real sense of yearning to know the story behind the creation of Infinite Jest. In other words, it’s not just my selfish feeling that prospective moviegoers are not entitled to the story but genuine incredulity that most moviegoers would be inclined to receive it. Why make the movie, then? Or, if you’re going to make it, how are you going to manufacture an audience for it? Well I suppose you’re going to go dirty with it, or sensationalize things in it. Or maybe you make it a movie loosely based on Lipsky’s book and Wallace’s life, but in that making you lose a lot of the nuance. You write a bullshitty movie about mental illness or you write some kind of bro flick that squeezes the humanity and intelligence out of the conversations Lipsky gave us in his book. Or you write a story that’s not about Wallace at all, that’s about his name and his tour but that mythologizes him for better or for worse but that doesn’t actually portray him (in which case why pick over the corpse?). I suppose I’d be happy enough to see the movie as a documentary, but there just seems so much opportunity to get a biopic wrong, and I can’t figure that Wallace is well enough known that he merits a mainstream biopic, which fact all but necessitates fictionalizing the story and telling the wrong mythology (I know, I know, there’s no right mythology). So then it begins to feel like a movie that rides whatever wave Wallace’s recent broader fame has created without actually having much of a chance at doing Wallace any justice.
Putting aside my personal hangups, there’s the fact that part of the point of Infinite Jest is that too-easy consumption can have bad consequences. So here we have a movie starring mainstream actors that many people who’ve never read a word of Wallace’s will spend a couple of hours staring passively at, and in the story, the main characters will talk about heady issues surrounding a book in which people who did pretty much exactly this type of passive consumption had their brains fried. It could practically be a blurb from James O. Incandenza’s filmography (just add maxillofacial pain). Maybe it’s a brilliant concept after all.
I also have anxiety about actually watching the movie, which I will almost certainly do in spite of my reservations. Once years ago, I went and saw a friend perform in a play. I had known him first as a friend and only later as an actor, so that when I saw him on the stage, he wasn’t the character but was my friend pretending to be a character. It was very strange, and I couldn’t distance myself enough from my knowing him as a person to decide whether his performance was good or not. Was he playing the part well or badly? If I thought he was doing well, was I biased? If I thought he was doing badly, was it simply because he seemed so different from the person I knew and because I somehow felt almost as if he was lying to me? Watching The End of the Tour will likely have a similar effect on me. It’s hard to imagine that I’ll love it even if it’s very good, and if it’s very bad, I won’t know whether to trust my judgment of it or not, since maybe I’ll think it’s bad thanks purely to all the angst I’m feeling about its existence in the first place. For me, then, the movie is almost a guaranteed failure.
Since the movie seems destined to be made whether I wring my hands or not, I’m going to try hard to root for it. I hope it shows some of the good and some of the bad in Wallace. I hope it shows his intelligence and humanity. If it shows him being a pig sometimes (as it probably rightfully should), I hope it shows some moral conflict over it, as a big part of what’s so valuable to me in Wallace’s work is how it grapples with wanting to do the right thing but doing the wrong thing anyway (because sometimes you just can’t help it) and hating yourself for it.
Just about in the middle of Lipsky’s book (page 163 if you have it handy), he quotes Wallace on Pauline Kael on the movie Scrooged:
And Pauline Kael has this great thesis about, what’s terribly pernicious about a lot of movies, is that they make the bad guys wholly unlike you. They turn them into cartoons. That you can feel superior to. Instead of making you realize that there’s part of the villain in all of us. You know?
I think one of my biggest fears is that the movie will strip out what’s so enriching about the dialogue Lipsky shared with us and give us instead a road trip movie or a feel-good movie, that it will make Wallace too much the villain or too much the saint, just a character with Wallace’s name and history, that it will wind up a real travesty of a cartoon. I really hope it manages not to do that, though I have a lot of trouble imagining it can avoid it.