The Unknowable, by Tyler Smith

29 Jul


James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour is a fascinating and sensitive exploration into the inner life of an unknowable person. In an attempt to delve into the complicated world of David Foster Wallace, Ponsoldt goes so much deeper and uncovers truths that are at once specific to Wallace, yet universal to anybody that has ever attempted to express himself, creatively or otherwise. It is a dark and invigorating place, and Ponsoldt has captured it perfectly.

Taking place over the last few days of Wallace’s tour to promote his literary masterwork Infinite Jest, as a young Rolling Stone writer interviews the reclusive and mysterious author. The result is a series of conversations in which both men at once admire and suspect one another. There is personal connection and professional jealousy.

The young journalist’s name is David Lipsky and he is played by Jesse Eisenberg as a deeply insecure, narcissistic man who can nonetheless acknowledge genius when he sees it. He approaches Wallace with caution and awe, having built up an idea of Wallace in his mind that he is constantly adjusting with each new topic of conversation. As he becomes more comfortable in Wallace’s world, he soon finds- as he inevitably would- that the paranoia of his hero isn’t just a facade or a persona. It is very real and must be navigated with a light touch.

As Wallace, Jason Segel has a two-pronged challenge. The first is to effectively shed the on-screen person that he has spent years developing. Segel is a nice guy, well-meaning and put-upon. Wallace is neurotic and frightened, while simultaneously being effortlessly eloquent and profound. Segel understands that the best way to play Wallace is as a regular guy with an extraordinary amount of talent, rather than an inexplicable genius who occasionally says normal things. Wallace was that, to be sure, but he also puts considerable effort into being relatable, the authenticity of which becomes the source of some conflict later in the film.

The relationship between these two men is at the heart of the film, and it is all the better for it. Rather than simply use David Lipsky as a simple observer of the fascinating Wallace, the film makes Lipsky every bit his on-screen equal. There are two protagonists in this film, which is in many ways exactly as Wallace himself would have wanted it. To elevate his character above the other would put too much pressure on him to perform. Better to share protagonist duties with somebody else and explore both.

Of course, as I write this, it seems strange to be talking about David Foster Wallace as though he were a consultant on the film. He has been gone for many years now, but James Ponsoldt seems determined to capture as much of his spirit as possible, and it shows. The joy the film takes in lowbrow pleasures, like Twinkies and bad television, mirrors Wallace’s own fascination and delight with such things. But more than that is his desire to be thought of as a regular guy, which the film goes to great lengths to do, while always understanding that this isn’t a regular guy.

Striking this balance is one of the pleasures of the film, and it’s not something that comes easily. The characters are constantly debating what is and is not false. Is Wallace’s persona completely fake, or a genuine projection of himself? Is he really connecting with Lipsky, or is he trying to manipulate him in order to get a good write-up in Rolling Stone? The answer isn’t simply one or the other, but both. And the tension of that is palpable inside the character of Wallace, whose capacity to make himself miserable in his contradictions will make it very believable that he will one day kill himself.

And that tragedy hangs over the whole film, while never quite dictating the specific tone of it. There is a sadness here, as we know when Wallace makes comments about depression and suicide that they will eventually be more than mere comments. But the sadness isn’t oppressive. It is simply matter-of-fact, like a good journalist trying to capture the spirit of an event.

It is this tone, and desire to never over-explain that which is largely unexplainable, that makes The End of the Tour such a wonderful bit of biographical filmmaking. So many other, lesser films would approach David Foster Wallace’s story in either a standard hero-worship style, or adopt the warts-and-all philosophy that so often ruins our view of the figure we’re meant to admire. In this film, however, the director is content to simply let the man be a man, and to allow those characters around him to live and breathe, as well.

As a result, we feel like Wallace- though unmistakably himself- could be any creative genius, still trying to find exactly where he fits in the world, even if his work has already established that. And David Lipsky could be a stand-in for any number of other creative types, deeply aware that, as good as they may be, they’re never going to quite capture the lightning that some others have, and that they have to deal with that.

Or perhaps Lipsky is our own entry point. Though a writer himself, he is also a Wallace fan, excited to meet his hero. Maybe it’s a status thing, or maybe it’s a desire to try to figure out where these truths came from, so that he might attempt to explore some of them himself. And so many of us attempt to do that very thing, every time we watch a movie or read a book or engage with any kind of art. We’re trying to see another person’s point of view, to see if it can help us make sense of the world around us. And, sometimes, it does. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that those artists that produced these seminal works are any closer to understanding a larger truth than we are. They don’t necessarily have the answers; they’re just better able to articulate the questions.

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