Film Scribblings: End of the Tour

There are some movies that simply make it impossible for me to judge their quality. This comes mostly from the fact that I find myself too closely engaging with the material, empathizing with some aspect of the story, be it character or situation, to such an extent that I can’t separate those deeply personal reactions from the objective understanding of what the film is. It’s invariably a confusing and disorienting feeling for me, especially when it comes out of left field.

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  • Year: 2015
  • Director: James Ponsoldt
  • Writer: Donald Margulies
  • Cinematographer: Jakob Ihre
  • Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Jason Segal
  • Website: http://endofthetour-movie.com

There are some movies that simply make it impossible for me to judge their quality.  This comes mostly from the fact that I find myself too closely engaging with the material, empathizing with some aspect of the story, be it character or situation, to such an extent that I can’t separate those deeply personal reactions from the objective understanding of what the film is.  It’s invariably a confusing and disorienting feeling for me, especially when it comes out of left field.

End of the Tour is exactly this kind of film for me.  While the performances are very good, and the interactions incredibly well-drawn, what makes this film so fascinating to me is the way in which it captures, on fairly deep and profound level, the inherent conflict at the heart of male relationships, particularly between intellectuals.  It’s not going to be the same film for everyone, and as I said, I find it impossible to remove myself enough from the experience of viewing it to offer any sort of objective analysis, but through some combination of topic, characterization, location, and ideas, I found myself utterly, and occasionally disturbingly engaged with this film.

The story is fairly simple, recounting Rolling Stones writer David Lipsky’s five day interview with author David Foster Wallace back in the mid-90’s, during the final days of Wallace’s book tour in support of the book many consider to be a masterpiece, Infinite Jest.

Lipsky is portrayed as a talented up-and-coming writer with a distinct lack of confidence in his work.  His relationship with Wallace vacillates between idolatry and jealousy, brutal professionalism and fanboyesque fawning.  Eisenberg is hard to like in the role, in a very real way.  Lipsky’s sniveling at times, arrogant at others, deeply flawed and, at least to me, extremely relatable.  Nothing is ever good enough for him, nothing the way he wants it to be.  He has a girlfriend in New York, played briefly by my longtime favorite Anna Chlumsky, who he seems determined to push away.  He has a published book and a job at a prestigious magazine, and yet he spends so much of his time complaining, looking at Wallace’s life and career as at his neighbor’s green lawn, and never seeing what is good in his own.  It’s fitting that their last interaction in the film is a small little poke of jealousy from Wallace, who is in reality just as deeply flawed, if not more so, than Lipsky himself.

It’s Segal’s portrayal of Wallace that complicates this film for me to such a degree.  There’s a doom hanging over everything Wallace does and says in this movie, helped along by the audience’s knowledge that he will wind up committing suicide 12 years later.  Segal plays Wallace with a level of complexity that I’ve not seen from him in past roles, and imbibes the character with an intellectualism, and a loneliness, that is haunting in its honesty.  He eschews his fame, hides from anything that will draw attention to him, is crippled by the idea that he could, and would gladly, fall into the sinkhole that his increased notoriety could become.  He jokes about being happy to parlay his book sales into sex, frets about whether people view his penchant for wearing bandanas as an affectation, and seethes when Lipsky has an easier time talking to women than he does.  It’s a powerful performance, deeply nuanced, and hauntingly familiar to me.

The complication for me arises because I found both of these characters, and their relationship, so reminiscent of the friendships I had with guys I knew in high school and college.  Ironically, one of my strongest memories from high school was of my more intellectual friends obsessively talking about Infinite Jest, and how I never felt included enough, or perhaps on their level, to read the book myself.  Most of my male friendships have been laced with a healthy dose of envy and competition, even with those I felt closest to.  Added to that, the location of the film, shot in the bleakness of midwestern winter, reminds me so much of my life in Iowa, the windswept snow-covered fields, the gray skies, the endless expanses of country roads.

I see myself in Lipsky, the lack of confidence, the need to engage with the world directly, but the desire to see it intellectually and abstractedly, and the jealousy toward people who do.  In Wallace I see my best friend, Erik Lemke, who passed away in 2012, his well-read and constantly philosophical nature, his disdain of popularity but his desire to be liked and respected, the older brother quality to his personality, as if he’s seen more and done more in his life.  Their interactions, their friendship and profound respect for each other, and their crippling jealousy toward each others successes, all struck a little too close to home for me.

And so I can’t judge this movie for its objective quality, but only in terms of it’s impact on me personally.  It made me think, about a lot more than I ever suspected it would, and made me connect emotionally in a way I haven’t done with a film in a long time, and for that I can only say it’s a success.

 

 

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