I don’t recommend watching the film The End of the Tour on a plane, which is something I did on a flight on Friday. I don’t really recommend watching any film on a plane, but this one would benefit from non-broken uncomfortable earphones and less ambient noise. But, BUT, I think I do recommend watching it. I even think that I would like to watch it again, in a slightly better setting, perhaps in a double bill with Liberal Arts.
I was totally uncertain about watching it, having been very nervous when it was announced.
A film about David Foster Wallace?
Jason Segal as David Foster Wallace?
In the film of a book about an interview that Wallace may have been deeply ambivalent about doing? A film that Wallace’s family were definitely not in favour of?
Basically the thing had all of the potential in the world for going extremely badly wrong.
And yet… it hasn’t. It’s strangely wonderful (Jesse Eisenberg is particularly good – I’m still not 100% sold on Jason Segel).
It performs this remarkable trick of showing you a David Foster Wallace who is deeply human, including flaws and – frankly – dickishness, and also a David Foster Wallace the author idolised by his fans. And even if neither version is the David Foster Wallace his friends and family knew (which it wouldn’t be, because even a journalist with good access and insight isn’t going to get to know that person) it still manages to show you the way that a person can be both of those things at once. Which is something that is valuable, because as the internet knows, all your faves are problematic.
I think perhaps it works in this case because a lot of David Foster Wallace fans love him because of the way he wrote about the temptation to dismiss the mundane, ordinary and frustrating things in life, and how hard it is to do, so watching him fail at that while simultaneously being strangely disarming and awkward, and able to write something like Infinite Jest provides validation for the rest of us who fail at it all of the time and who have wild dreams of maybe being able to write a sentence as good as some thing in Infinite Jest A person can be a jerk and also ranscend those flaws, uncertainties, and things about you that you really dislike to make something that is good, lasting and of value – without being a fake-out or a phoney.
But it also works because it gives a little insight into how hard it was to be David Foster Wallace. Like, it’s hard to be any human, but probably particularly hard to be a brilliant-bordering-on-genius person who suffered with depression, and to try and balance that fine line between accepting your brilliance and fame without being an arrogant asshat and trying to avoid being patronising while not being an asshat. There’s a nice moment when Lipsky identifies this, and Wallace has no idea how to respond, leading to bluster, and tension, and hurt. It’s this moment of watching someone who has learned that being that smart can be alienating so to hide it, and also knows that other people are lovely and talented and of value, and genuinely wants to tell them that colliding with someone who puts intellectual brilliance and being successful in that space and having it acknowledged as the quality that makes someone valuable. And it’s also a moment when they also both sort of know that the other person’s argument isn’t wholly wrong either, and they like the way the other person treats them from their respective positions – most of the time, until it becomes frustrating because it puts pressure on them to be a thing that they feel that they’re not.
This confliction between being brilliant but kinda wanting to be normally talented vs. being normally talented but kinda wanting to be brilliant is why I would pair The End of the Tour with Liberal Arts, a totally endearing film that manages to transcend its own earnestness. In which film Jesse, our disarmingly messed up lead, makes a connection with an even more messed up kid because the kid is carrying around a copy of Infinite Jest – and they both have to address the question of whether being brilliant enough to write something like Infinite Jest is worth it.
Jesse Fisher: Don’t be a genius who dies young. Be one who dies old. Being old is cool. Grow old, and die old. It’s a better arc.