How a recent biopic opened up a massive can of worms, along with a series of difficult questions on the nature of separating subjectivity and subject.
A few days ago I wrote a largely celebratory piece about The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt’s 2015 adaptation of David Lipsky’s non-fiction book Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself; an account of Lipsky’s time spent with renowned author David Foster Wallace.
At the centre of this movie lay a compelling dynamic between a Rolling Stone journalist who is also an aspiring (yet unsuccessful) writer, and a far more prestigious novelist. Wallace was in the closing stages of an extensive promotional tour for Infinite Jest, the 1996 publication which brought him international acclaim (and thrust him into the public consciousness) when Lipskey joined him for the last few dates.
What I was unaware of, up until I filed my review, was the unpleasantness, hurt and disgust which was created by the very existence of the movie. The fact that the filmmakers had even portrayed Wallace onscreen was enough to elicit a strong response from The David Foster Wallace Trust, who stated back in April 2014 that it would “neither endorse nor support” the film in a press release which left no room for ambiguity.
“This motion picture is loosely based on transcripts from an interview David consented to eighteen years ago for a magazine article about the publication of his novel, Infinite Jest. That article was never published and David would never have agreed that those saved transcripts could later be repurposed as the basis of a movie.……we do not consider it an homage.”
Not every biopic gets the seal of approval, so this in itself if nothing new. All Is By My Side, a 2013 feature from John Ridley, which starred Andre Benjamin, was denied accreditation from the Jimi Hendrix Estate, forcing the filmmakers to take creative measures when it came to the musical elements. Michael Fassbender recently hit back at critics of Danny Boyle’s Steve Jobs biopic, including Jobs’ family members who objected to the portrayal of the Apple co-founder and arguable corporate psychopath. Additionally, Richard Pryor’s family have recently voiced concern over the casting of Nick Cannon in an upcoming biopic of the comedian.
Even secondary characterisations within a biopic can cause ructions. Ex-NWA manager Jerry Heller was certainly very outspoken when it came to the use of his image in Straight Outta Compton, when it was released last year, going so far as to take out a lawsuit against the producers, Dr Dre and Ice Cube.
So, of course, when there is a personal connection with someone whose identity is being adapted into an onscreen representation, there will be inevitable trepidation. Does this, however, mean that the feature should not go ahead?
It’s a challenging subject and one which certainly warrants further analysis.
Wallace’s suicide in 2008 enlisted him in an unfortunate, yet eternally mystifying demographic, that of the artist who could not stand to be present in the world any longer. To reduce the whole of a person to the manner of their death, however, is a derisive and damaging act, which lends itself to undue mysticism and morbid speculation. Ironically, this categorical placement is a dehumanising process which can detract from the essence of the individual who creates the art in the first place. A difficult paradox, but the world will always fall for what they believe to be an artistic martyr, and celebrity suicide is not a club that can be posthumously left.
Continuing to read about The End of the Tour, I found a myriad of conflicting, accusatory and hurt feelings which created a sense of guilt within me. I actually felt bad for enjoying the film as much as I did. I had to ask myself if I was experiencing empathy towards the people who felt dissatisfaction at the film being made, and should that be a factor when it comes to appreciating cinema as a standalone medium?
Was the film devoid of morals in taking this unauthorised image of Wallace and creating a characterisation, or was this a justified representation of an artist who has a passionate fanbase who were eager to get closer to that world? Many who knew Wallace veered towards the former. It became a quandary which became difficult to shake, and so I kept reading.
One of the first names to appear was friend and editor of Wallace, Glenn Kenny, who also made his unhappiness felt when he discussed the prospect of the film on his personal blog, and in a subsequent article for The Guardian. For him, the very concept of a film about DFW was an affront in itself, but when he saw it, his despondency was overwhelming.
“…the in many ways very conventional independent film left me so angry I actually had trouble sleeping the night I saw it. I lay awake obsessing over the best phrase that could sum up Jason Segel’s performance as Wallace. I came up with “ghoulish self-aggrandisement”. For me, it recalls a line from a Captain Beefheart song: “I think of those people that ride on my bones.”
Kenny even tried watching the film several times, in an attempt to create a sense of objectivity in the viewing. Sadly, it failed.
“When I try to look at the picture from a less personal perspective, eg, as a movie about two bro-ish dudes in the 90s doing Writer Stuff, and then years later one of them kills himself, The End Of The Tour is still lacking. As is Segel’s performance.”
Wallace and Kenny had known each other since the mid-nineties, when Wallace was writing a piece on David Lynch’s Lost Highway for Premiere magazine (for whom Kenny was working). It came to light that an interpretation of Wallace was being used onscreen in Mr Jealousy, a film by Noah Baumbach, and the thought of this apparently terrified him. When it transpired that some badly worded comments had resulted in a slight misunderstanding and that the person onscreen (Chris Eigeman’s character of Dashiell Frank) wasn’t doing any kind of DFW impression. “Wallace’s sigh of relief when I gave him this news is something I remember pretty vividly.” notes Kenny.
Would this not be the reaction of any sane individual, however? In the contemporary cultural environment of limitless entitlement and hubris, it may seem strange, but some of us wouldn’t want to be the subject of a feature film. Does that mean that we should never be focused upon in such a format, should a desire and motivation to see our story be told arise?
From that perspective, it would seem that the public demand would take precedent over the wishes of an individual, but in this instance, there is another factor at play, which to examine it becomes necessary to revert back to the David Foster Wallace Trust, which is run by his widow, Karen Green.
Green and Wallace were married for four years, during which time they had settled in California. A successful visual artist, Green’s primary concerns seem to stem from the romanticism which has been created around her husband’s tragic suicide. In a 2011 interview (only her second on the subject of Wallace), Green reflects on the transition which took place in the aftermath of the incident.
“When the person you love kills himself time stops. It just stops at that moment. Life becomes another code, a language that you don’t understand. I think I’m supposed to buck up and be the professional widow, and I have found that very hard. Very hard. I mean one day you are a couple living in a little house and watching The Wire box-set for the third time, and letting the dogs do their antic stuff, and then suddenly you are supposed to be functioning as the great writer’s widow. That wasn’t how we lived when David was alive. I felt about him like I would if I had been married to a sweet school teacher.”
The rawness and sadness of the interview make it challenging to read in places, but it allows for an important point to be made, that behind every characterisation, such as Jason Segel’s portrayal in The End of the Tour, lies a human being. One with family, one with friends and one who left a personal legacy which, for those involved, greatly outshines the artistic, or professional achievements for which the general populace knows them (and occasionally uses to claim ownership of them).
In the case of a suicide, there is a peculiar, macabre fascination when a creative person takes their own life. This is something that Karen Green now has to deal with on a regular basis. Aside from having to deal with the influx of letters and emails which attest to this, she is also (understandably) wary of the press.
“I know journalism is journalism and maybe people want to read that I discovered the body over and over again, but that doesn’t define David or his work. It all turns him into a celebrity writer dude, which I think would have made him wince, the good part of him. It has defined me too, and I’m really struggling with that.”
When the movie came out, David Foster Wallace had only been dead for less than seven years. Not a long time by anyone’s rationale. Certainly not long enough for the effects of bereavement to have subsided. Unless you’re working on internet time, which is both fragmented and distorted, existing in a different realm to that of the real world. Things are forgotten quickly and there is always something else to focus on. Perhaps this is what causes the detachment within the viewer; and the fact that, aside from a fictional portrayal of Wallace, the only way of attaining an insight into the man is by reading his work and watching the existing interviews online. This would certainly allow for a more puritanical approach, but a biopic is something else entirely. It’s a movie.
Biopics take liberties for the benefit of effective storytelling. The truth becomes distorted as a creative goal is aimed for. In the case of The End of the Tour, it just so happened that the subject was a beloved figure whose image is now caught in an ethical tug of war.
“This is a movie for those people who cherish This Is Water as the new Wear Sunscreen: A Primer For Life….The movie’s reverence actually works in reverse; it’s stifling,” says Kenny of the end result. This is Water, Wallace’s speech to Kenyon College’s 2005 graduating class, became something of a viral hit when people latched on to its sentiment of mindfulness and awareness. It was approachable and resonant, but for many, that’s where their knowledge of Wallace’s work begins and ends.
Is that such a heinous thing?
Bret Easton Ellis, author of Lunar Park, Less Than Zero and American Psycho, seems to think so. In a scathing essay for The Talkhouse, he echoed Kenny’s sentiments, almost word for word in places.
“This is the movie that prefers the Wallace who was knighted into sainthood with his Kenyon commencement speech called — deep breath — “This Is Water: Some Thoughts Delivered on a Significant Occasion About Living a Compassionate Life,” which even his staunchest defenders and former editors have a hard time stomaching, arguing it’s the worst thing he ever wrote, but which became a viral sensation as well as a soggy self-help guide for lost souls.”
Yikes. Okay, so it’s time to get to the crux of the matter. The issue seems to be that the version of Wallace which made it onscreen in The End of the Tour is not a fully rounded or accurate portrayal of the man himself, but an appropriation of a character which has been adapted to benefit or enhance the story being told. That, some might argue, is the nature of cinema and something which separates it from documentaries.
At several points it is argued that Wallace was smarter, edgier and less self-obsessed than he was shown to be in the movie. One of the things I remember referring to when I wrote my review was that I always referred to the ‘portrayal’ of Wallace. It was never assumed that Segel had become his subject. It was clear that this was a well-known Hollywood actor who was working outside of his range to give a performance which was compassionate and affecting.
There is a terrible tragedy at the heart of this, which makes it such a precarious subject, but the fact remains that film is a medium which takes no prisoners and, whilst there may not have been anything overly incendiary within the material itself, it cannot be forgotten that the majority of it is based on transcripts of interviews which did take place, as well as assimilating the reflections of the interviewer, David Lipsky.
It seems that those who were not part of Wallace’s life take quite a lot of positivity and joy from the film. Rebecca Mead of The New Yorker astutely observed the nuances of the journalist / interviewee relationship which created so many of the film’s strongest moments. Even the title of her article, How The End of the Tour Nails An Entire Profession, concisely sums up her feelings.
“…his (Eisenberg’s) delivery of the tropes and gestures of the profile-writing reporter is pitch-perfect. Every time Eisenberg’s eyes flickered to his tape recorder to insure that the red “recording” light was showing, I cringed with recognition. I can’t think of another film that better captures the curious artificial intimacy that can arise in the process of interviewing, at length, the subject of a magazine profile.”
Whilst her fellow New Yorker contributor Richard Brody held a slightly opposing point of view, the film continues to find an audience. Segel has been tipped for an Academy Award nomination and has spoken publicly about how he knows it wasn’t a ‘normal choice’ for him. It’s certain that he was unaware of controversial a role it would be in certain circles.
For those who prefer to take a statistical approach, the movie currently holds a score of 91% on popular critic site Rotten Tomatoes, and an 82% score on Metacritic.
Writing for the New York Times, A.O. Scott made an important observation:
“Mr. Segel’s performance, whether it captures the true Wallace or not, is sharp and sensitive, in no small part because it’s modest and appropriately evasive. The essential David Wallace is precisely what the film reminds us we can’t see, even as David Lipsky wants desperately to track him down and display him to the readers of Rolling Stone.”
Did all of this effect my view of the film?
That’s a difficult question and one which I hoped to resolve as I pieced this together. On a personal level, I took a lot of beauty from the movie. I can understand the misgivings of those who knew Wallace, but many of us didn’t, yet we have a vested interest in his being, for his work has spoken to us in some way, shape or form.
Does this give us the right to bastardize and misappropriate his image? Of course not. But do I feel that The End of the Tour does this? Not from an objective point of view.
If the temperament of Segel’s portrayal is not completely indicative of the actual Wallace, does that make the film any less effective? I don’t believe so. It’s a film about writers, and the moments which occur off the page. It’s confident and engaging and in many ways, understated.
The debate of cinematic representation versus realistic interpretation will be an ongoing one. If we were to exist in a landscape of biopic which were only made under the supervision and licence of the official bodies for the given subject, then the restrictiveness which stemmed from that would be catastrophic. Cinema cannot be limited in that regard.
This is an endless debate and one which has appeared in recent weeks once more, with the revelation that Whitey Bulger’s family are angry at the Johnny Depp portrayal of the Bostonian gangster in his new film Black Mass.
As long as cinema continues to use real life for inspiration, controversy will exist. The important thing is to ensure that in the quest for a great story, that the essence of the subject isn’t completely lost, even if it does change form along the way.