The End of The Tour: The Loneliness of the Long-Form Writer
Films About Writing: Can They Appeal to Audiences?
Literary adaptations are as prevalent in contemporary cinema as remakes of hallowed film classics, but movies about literature are far more sporadic. One notable recent example is the Beat Generation drama Kill Your Darlings, and there are several classic films about writers, such as Henry & June and Barton Fink. However, the act of sitting down and unleashing one’s inner thoughts into a keyboard for hours at a time is far from inherently cinematic. Often, filmmakers will compensate for this fact by integrating audience-friendly elements such as a murder mystery and a sensual romance into an otherwise static story-line. This may detract from the purity of filming a movie about the writing process, but it makes this niche subject matter appeal to even the most casual fans of literature.
The talented independent filmmaker James Ponsoldt (Smashed, The Spectacular Now) faced a difficult decision when he decided to film David Lipsky’s 2010 account of his interview with the late, acclaimed novelist David Foster Wallace. Not only is Wallace a cult figure who is likely to be unknown to a large segment of the film’s potential audience, but the screenplay is structured as a series of penetrating conversations, rather than an action-heavy plot. Refreshingly, Ponsoldt refuses to pander to the whims of popcorn-movie audiences, and holds steadfast to the integrity of his unique and haunting film. By centering on the insightful reflections of the visionary Wallace, as told to the budding writer Lipsky, Ponsoldt’s film achieves an intimacy far greater than most films about writing and literature. By the end of the 100-minute running time, the alienation and rewards of being a writer are laid bare. No murder sub-plots or romantic interests are needed, and in the film’s narrow focus, the true subject of The End of The Tour is revealed.
Above all, the film conveys the innate loneliness and isolation that the writing profession perpetually entails. After all, in order to be a writer, one must have significant extra time in order to perfect one’s craft. It takes a particular type of personality to eschew experiencing life and instead sit in an empty room and write about it. The solitary existence of a writer is perfectly sensible when considering a book’s potential audience. Readers, especially those who would take the time to read a 1000-page behemoth such as Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest, are often as content to be alone as the writers themselves.
David Foster Wallace as Cinematic Protagonist
The End of The Tour introduces the audience to the struggling novelist and promising journalist Lipsky (played by the reliably sincere and neurotic Jesse Eisenberg), but it truly kicks into gear with the introduction of Wallace himself. It may be expected of most prominent writers to live and work in thriving cultural centers such as Manhattan or San Francisco, but tellingly, Wallace spent most of his time in the sheltered municipality of Bloomington, Illinois. The film is set in 1996, the year Infinite Jest propelled Wallace into the literary stratosphere, yet the writer was more than happy to live in a small farm town with only loyal dogs as companions.
In Ponsoldt’s most inspired decision, the comedic actor Jason Segel (Forgetting Sarah Marshall, How I Met Your Mother) is cast as Wallace. This choice may seem perplexing, but Segel’s gentle giant persona and sincere, aching vulnerability make him an ideal fit for this challenging role. The sloppy clothes, bandana, and thick glasses Segel dons throughout the film may initially appear to be a contrivance, or even a “David Foster Wallace Halloween costume,” as one review in The Guardian put it. Luckily, Segel’s soulful, lived-in performance embodies the cult writer far more than just aesthetically. Wallace was a writer prone to privacy, and as he freely admits in the film, he preferred living with pets than facing the inevitable heartbreak associated with romantic relationships. This makes it completely unsurprising that at first he is suspicious of Lipsky’s motives, and is cryptic and reticent.
As the film rolls along, however, Wallace begins unspooling layer and layer of his soul and mind, making for a fascinating and intriguing character study. As Wallace remarks to Lipsky, he refuses to engage with literary groupies, realizing that these women are fans of his reputation rather than his authentic personality. Lipsky pointedly responds, “Don’t they feel that they know you through your work?” The concept of literature being a window into an author’s psyche is a tired one, and Wallace was always a novelist who defied easy categorization as an “autobiographical writer.” The post-modern complexity, esoteric references, and intense experimentation with form exhibited in his novels would lead most to assume that Wallace’s interests were simply too narrow to relate to the masses. His loneliness, as shared by countless other writers, would simply appear to be the result of his intellectual sophistication and inability to connect with mainstream viewpoints.
The Surprising Mass Appeal of Apparent Insularity
Yet, as revealed often in The End of The Tour, Wallace’s personality often dovetailed with “simple” middle-American values in surprising ways. As the son of two English literature professors, one could imagine Wallace spending most of his time reading Proust, drinking Pellegrino, and watching films by Tarkovksy and Fellini. In contrast to expectations, Wallace’s palette was drawn to diet Pepsi, Pop Tarts, and Die Hard.
In one humorous and telling scene, Lipsky and Wallace take two “hipsters” (Mamie Gummer and Mickey Sumner) out to see the B-action picture Broken Arrow. While the two noted writers are enthralled with the film’s mindless motion, their companions scoff at the apparent lack of intellectual weight. In the popular consciousness, novelists are often considered effete snobs who cannot (or will not) fathom that which is held dear by the majority of society. That Wallace was able to enmesh himself in Midwestern culture beyond his own academic upbringing is a testament to the inherent ability of literature to reach the masses.
Akin to Wallace’s down-to-earth personality, the challenging Infinite Jest can easily engage a wide range of readers. Wallace’s landmark novel is a notoriously dense and disjointed work, but its vision of a brave new world is universal in its scope. In its portrayal of a near future where calendar years are sponsored by corporate products (e.g. “the year of the Whopper”, “the year of the Depend adult undergarment”), Infinite Jest speaks to the common fear that faceless corporations are slowly taking over humanity. In Wallace’s juxtaposition of an elite tennis academy and a halfway house for recovering addicts, the novelist unflinchingly depicts the thin line between limitless ambition and substance-addled defeat.
In the novel’s most fanciful conceit, that of an “Entertainment” that transfixes and eventually kills any individual who watches it, Wallace satirically dissects a collective culture that prizes television over authentic human interaction. As Wallace notes in the film, he refused to own a television, as it is his “greatest addiction.” Wallace further reveals the spell cast by popular culture in his obsession with then-superstar Alanis Morissette, and bemoans a society that would rather masturbate to unknown celebrities than embark on a meaningful relationship. Wallace’s status as a professor and writer clashes with the approachable humanity showcased in Segel’s subtly powerful performance.
Writer and Reader, Together in Seclusion
What Ponsoldt’s film is perhaps most adept at is its uncanny ability to replicate the experience of reading a great writer’s work. Although Lipsky asks pointed questions and engages with Wallace, his primary role in the interview (and film) is that of a passive but deeply engaged listener. This parallels the act of closely reading an author’s text, and the profound illusion of intimacy that ensues. When reading a novel, essay, or poem, the reader may start to feel a deep connection to the writer. This connection is often far greater than one felt between a moviegoer and a filmmaker. As Wallace notes in the film, his fanbase is largely “lonely and nerdy,” as one would “have to be” to read a novel clocking in at 1000+ pages, plus a plethora of end-notes.
As evidenced by Infinite Jest, excessive television consumption is an easy target. Frequent watchers of TV programs are often labeled “social misfits.” However, avid readers are frequently praised for spending hours at a time curled up in a book. Despite the fact that it has long been documented that reading has a far more positive impact on the brain than television, this activity is similarly a solitary, obsessive experience. As Lipsky sits, listens, and takes notes, it is clear that he is deeply involved in Wallace’s conversation, as much as he would a novel by Fitzgerald or Pynchon. The viewer may share in this close reading, and it is likely that the film’s seemingly limited focus on conversation will instead come across as intimate and engrossing.
When one becomes transfixed by literature, it may appear that the author is communicating directly to the reader. The writer may be pouring their individual quirks and experiences into their work, but the intimate relationship between writers and readers across the world speaks to the universality of most great works of literature.
The talky and overtly literary subject matter found in The End of The Tour may alienate viewers, but like a great work of fiction, its pleasures are more accessible than they initially appear. The extended, free-flowing conversation between Lipsky and Wallace encompasses the desire for human connection, the complexity of interpersonal relationships, the struggle to make a name for one’s self in an intensely competitive world, and the addictions that all humans harbor. It is likely that viewers, no matter how interested they are in the film’s ostensible subject, will find much to relate to. Akin to the surprising elements of accessibility found in Infinite Jest, Ponsoldt’s film has the potential to transcend the apparently narrow audience drawn to character-driven films about literature.
At the close of The End of The Tour, the viewer is left with the gleeful image of Wallace joyfully dancing with “ordinary” middle-Americans at a local baptist church. For once, the isolated and depression-prone writer can be seen interacting with fellow humans and letting go of all fears and neuroses. For all moviegoers who attempt to find belonging and solace in an often disheartening world, The End of the Tour is a refreshing dose of humanity.
Anderson, Porter. “Are You Lonesome Tonight? The Dreaded Solitude of Writing.” Writer Unboxed, 2013.
Hoffman, Jordan. “The End of The Tour-Review,” The Guardian, 2015.
Lipsky, David. Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. Broadway, 2010.
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