Friday, August 14, 2015

The End of the Tour

THE END OF THE TOUR              B                
USA  (106 mi)  2015  ‘Scope  d:  James Ponsoldt

There’s something altogether uncomfortable about this film, and not in the obvious sense, where the construct of the film allows the audience early in the film to understand the featured character commits suicide, leaving an empty feeling in the pit of our stomachs as we then go back, retrace our steps and digest the life of a man who would eventually take his own life.  The format is reminiscent of a similar occurrence in Gus van Sant’s ELEPHANT (2003), where early on the audience hears the sound of triggers being pulled in a high school film resembling the Columbine murders.  In a sense, what follows is an artful snuff film, as it’s all about what leads us into certain death, unfamiliar territory for anyone, to be sure.  Based on American author David Foster Wallace, who took his own life September 12, 2008, his suicide is the source of the discomfort, as no words and certainly not a movie could possibly do justice to the surviving family that has to continue to deal with his loss.  Imagine having to watch a fictional version onscreen that would only reignite the pain and passion associated with that death, not to mention having to hear all the superficial talk generated by the film’s publicity, where people might describe the actors and their performances, the music, what stood out in the film, the quality of the writing, and how they may or may not have even heard of the man whose life story the film is based upon.  As the movie gets caught up in the fictionalized Hollywoodization of reality, they have to contend with the staggering loss of someone they knew and loved.  It’s admittedly a sticky situation where the director is walking upon dangerous ground, creating an unauthorized version against the expressed wishes of Wallace’s family, (Alison Flood from The Guardian, April 22, 2014, before shooting of the film began, David Foster Wallace's family object to biopic The End of the ...), and the results are to some extent uneven, partially due to the source material upon which the film is based, written by Donald Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and the director’s college professor at Yale, adapting journalist David Lipsky’s 2010 book, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace, a collection of conversations they had while on the road together promoting Wallace’s book, published two years after Wallace’s death. The film recreates a 5-day road trip Wallace took in 1996 with Rolling Stone writer and struggling novelist David Lipsky right after the publication of his heavily acclaimed masterwork Infinite Jest, where it’s impossible not to be reminded of Cameron Crowe and his film ALMOST FAMOUS (2000) that showcases the experiences of a young, wild-eyed Rolling Stone reporter still in his teens who goes on the road with an emerging band in the early 1970’s, a fictionalized yet autobiographical recreation of Crowe’s own experience of going on the road for three weeks with the Allman Brothers Band at the tender age of 16, where he was the magazine’s youngest-ever contributor.  This film treads on similar territory, but explores an entirely different landscape, where the artist being depicted, were he still alive, would probably have found this a contemptable exercise, as he was intensely suspicious of fame and reverential celebrity worship as the potentially dehumanizing impact of having a public persona, writing extensively about how artists lose control over their own identity and ideas when they get sucked up in the world of entertainment and Internet technology, preferring the ideas “inside” his head to the steady stream of ideas swirling around “outside” that he had no control of that were attempting to label him or easily define him using conventional pat phrases that change the meaning altogether.  “The more people think that you’re really good, actually the stronger the fear of being a fraud is,” he tells Lipsky, which is similar to author Jonathan Franzen, one of the few literary figures with whom Wallace kept in touch, deciding “not” to go on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2001 when his book The Corrections was selected to her heralded “book club,” questioning the merits of placing the book club’s “logo of corporate ownership” on the cover, as it would be betraying his core audience of readers.        

While the film never indicates, the piece was never published in Rolling Stone magazine for reasons that are never given, but one can only speculate that either the publisher felt he never had a legitimate story or the writer never figured out how to present the material.  It evokes a phone conversation Lipsky has with his employer during the Tour, when they scold him for not asking the tough journalistic questions, reminding him that he’s “a reporter, not his friend.”  A huge fan of the novel, considered one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years, Wallace is one of the director’s personal heroes, the same man who made The Spectacular Now (2013), where his motivation for making the film is largely filled with the same youthful rush of enthusiasm that Lipsky must have felt when he read the novel.  As played by Jesse Eisenberg, Lipsky is himself well-educated, but he is dwarfed by the intellectual stature of this brilliant literary sensation, always feeling as if he was in the presence of greatness.  Jason Segel is nearly unrecognizable behind the persona of Wallace, who almost always downplays his enormous intelligence and presents himself as just a regular guy, living an ordinary and unpretentious life in a modest central Illinois home with his two dogs.  The down home, folksy nature of the Midwest continually saturates the screen throughout, where the East coast bred Lipsky must feel like a fish out of water, never really finding his bearings, where the claustrophobic interior of Wallace’s home literally swallows him up, with cavernous gulfs left unfilled.  A writing professor at a local college, following in the footsteps of his parents, Wallace grew up in an exceptional academic household, remembering his parents reading Ulysses out loud to each other when they went to bed.  His father would read Moby-Dick to Wallace and his younger sister when they were 8 and 6, graduating from Amherst with the highest GPA in his class.  From an early 1987 profile written by Bill Katovsky, "David Foster Wallace: A Profile":

“Writing fiction takes me out of time,” he explains.  “I sit down and the clock will not exist for me for a few hours.  That’s probably as close to immortal as we’ll ever get.  I’m scared of sounding pretentious because anyone who writes fiction is saying, ‘Look at this thing I’ve written.’”

This is precisely the kind of thing Lipsky and Wallace discuss when they finally meet during a winter snow in Normal-Bloomington, Illinois at Wallace’s home and begin to interact, overcoming their initial tentativeness and natural shyness as they attempt an intellectual rapport.  The mammoth implications of success have already begun to be felt by Wallace, as he realizes his life is quickly changing beyond his control.  While the discussion feels overly safe, the adulation of female attention after publishing a successful book, including his views on the down-to-earth nature of Alanis Morissette whose poster graces a wall in his home, the question of a lasting relationship comes up, and his views on kids, while Lipsky never goes anywhere without his handheld, cassette-driven tape recorder whose red light is invariably always on.  While both are exceedingly polite, it’s clear that Lipsky is awed by this one-of-a-kind mentor, wondering what it would be like to be him, where his mind is filled with naiveté and childish illusion, often stunned by some of the unintentional revelations of a man who has spent the better part of his life fighting an ongoing war with depression, including suicidal idealizations.  Lipsky longs for Wallace’s success while completely missing the profound nature of his thoughts on depression.  The depth of these private confessions have a way of separating the two, as one is in possession of this kind of devastatingly intimate personal knowledge while the other doesn’t have a clue what he’s talking about, but can only imagine, as in his mind all he sees is a heralded “genius.”  On their flight to Minneapolis, Lipsky follows up by asking about Wallace’s hospitalization for suicidal thoughts, which has the effect of stopping the conversation dead in its tracks.  For one, it’s a routine question he feels required to ask, but to the other it’s a shocking invasion of privacy coming from someone he barely knows.  Clearly Wallace has been hurt and wounded by the starkness of the question, which didn’t develop in private context, but seemed to come out of nowhere in a very public place.  While the difficulty of Lipsky’s job is evident in every frame of the film, what’s also apparent is his lack of maturity and tact, including an ability to process the severity of this information in a more suitable fashion.  The man across from him is a walking time bomb, where deep-seeded inner turmoil is literally eating away at him, which he’s able to confide openly to a certain extent, but Lipsky, clumsily enough, is unable to figure out what to do with this gesture of openness.  Making matters worse, rather than defer to Wallace’s comfort zone, Lipsky openly socializes with his friends and acquaintances, as if he has free reign to interview them as well.  While Lipsky is clearly around someone he greatly admires, Wallace on the other hand has to endure this rude intrusion into his life, come what may, where occasionally he’s not too happy about it, losing patience with the innocence of his young protégé, registering his concerns, “If you wanted, I mean, you’re gonna be able to shape this essentially how you want, and that, to me, is extremely disturbing.  Because I want to be able to try and shape and manage the impression of me that’s coming across.”  The distance that ultimately develops between these two men is of cataclysmic proportions, like man and boy, where clearly Lipsky is out of his element.

To say that this film is dialogue-driven is an understatement, as it recalls the lengthy dinner conversation of Louis Malle’s MY DINNER WITH ANDRE (1981), which is more of a free spirited, two-person conversation, where they’re free to discuss anything, while Wallace and Lipsky don’t actually engage in conversation, as Lipsky is on an assignment of limited duration, where he’s free to shape the interviews as he sees fit.  So the structure throughout is centered around questions and answers, though they do occasionally spend free time with others, improbably taking a side trip to the Mall of America to watch John Travolta in John Woo’s nuclear bomb fantasy, BROKEN ARROW (1996), where Wallace is literally entranced by what he sees onscreen.  Something of a television junky, where there’s no sign of a TV in his home, he allows himself to get lost in thought as if retreating into another world.  Segel is amazing transforming himself into another figure, much like Philip Seymour Hoffman playing Truman Capote in CAPOTE (2005), and at times he can be so captivating, where words literally flow out of his mouth like literary morsels, but what continually dominates his thoughts are outcast feelings of loneliness and self-loathing.  Lipsky truly misses the mark in identifying the tormented soul of this man that continually cries out for help, but is greeted only with the sheer emptiness of silence.   A man alone with an empty page, day in and day out, is a daunting task that grows more and more ominous, especially when it becomes expected that he is supposed to fill those empty pages with unending ideas of literary wit and candor.  Instead of ever getting behind the man in the mask, the genius who has the capacity to understand what no one else can, this film centers more on the limitations of a mortal man, becoming a portrait of the flawed man asking all the curiously irrelevant questions, as they’re not leading him anywhere, as it’s never clear how truthful either one is being with each other.  Despite a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, writing a feature Rolling Stone article on a brilliant contemporary writer, something the magazine had never done before, with the chance to expose an open vein of literary terrain the readers have never experienced, there’s simply no focus in what he’s trying to accomplish.  While Lipsky is smart and clever, the gulf of knowledge between the two men who are nearly the same age is enormous, where Lipsky is so awed by the stratosphere of his intellectual superiority that he never quite sees the man, as if he’s already communicating from the beyond.  On the other hand, Lipsky’s mix of anger and jealousy, where he’s painfully aware of his own human limitations, provide the emotional journey of the film, which is largely seen through his eyes.  His frustration becomes our frustration, as he’s never able to unlock the key to Wallace’s cleverly concealed mind, or even ask what inspires him, or to share a favorite passage, including other influential literary works.  We’re never able to tap in on what drives this man to write except to escape the loneliness of his own anguished soul, having fought so many of his battles alone locked in a tiny room.  Lipsky actually has a chance to befriend a comrade in arms, but refuses to enter the field of battle.  There is something cowardly about that, where only in death does he summon the courage to reveal the contents of these conversations that form the basis of the film.  It’s a sad portrait, where Wallace’s family, friends, and associates are not involved in any way, where the final image, set to the music of Brian Eno’s “The Big Ship,” Brian Eno "The Big Ship" - YouTube (3:04), exactly the same music used in the enthralling finale of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015), but here, instead of a transforming moment, it resorts to illusion and fantasy, believing the feel good myth that Wallace suspected he wanted to hear all along, foregoing the agony of the truth.  


To clarify a few lingering issues.

That dance sequence never happened - - is what I mean.  It was all an invention, telling the young reporter exactly what he wanted to hear by telling him a fictitious feelgood story, the kind of thing his readers would love to hear.   But it’s just a story.

By that time, things between the two men had deteriorated to the point where there simply wasn’t any truth left in the relationship between them. 

So yes, I am questioning Lipsky’s account as unreliable.  Not that he didn’t say it, but that he didn’t mean it.  By that time he couldn’t tell the difference. 

While it’s clear that an entire life is filled with peaks and valleys, where a joyful moment may have been chosen as a final image to remember.  I just got the feeling this one was completely made up. 

And Ponsoldt bought into it hook, line, and sinker, as if it was true, which is a myth that he’s feeding to the viewers.

In my view, it’s all just part of a dishonest vein that I believe runs right through this film, which is why I’m not as high on it as others.

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