CULTURE & ARTS
07/31/2015 09:22 am ET Updated Jul 31, 2015

The New David Foster Wallace Film Is Exactly The 'Grotesque Parody' He Feared

Why have we chosen to move further and further away from Wallace’s brilliant work?

“The End of the Tour” opened Friday with a well-deserved 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. Jason Segel and Jesse Eisenberg have, by many accounts, given career-best performances in this “biographical road trip” of the five days Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky spent with literary heavyweight David Foster Wallace as his book Infinite Jest was rising to national acclaim.

It’s a good film, maybe a great one. It’s also a cultural and artistic tragedy.

Because, regardless of the actors’ performances and script’s well-wrought pathos, “The End of the Tour” betrays and undermines the work of the author it portrays. It commodifies someone who criticized the danger of media commodification. It bolsters Wallace’s celebrity aura instead of his writing or thinking. It is the epitome and essence of what is wrong with American culture in 2015. And it is all those things not in spite of being a good film -- but because it is a good film.

These are bold claims, it’s true, and to substantiate them requires revisiting David Foster Wallace. Not the depressed maniac qua spiritual guru qua average American the film makes him out to be. But the actual writer -- the sort of writer, as the film notes, who is born once a generation, maybe less frequently. He’s known for the much-lauded, oft-bought, but little-read tome Infinite Jest, as well as the more digestible graduation speech “This Is Water.” He wrote brilliantly about lobster festivals, cruise ships and the intersection of mathematics and competitive tennis. 

Only Wallace could do justice to the existential anxiety induced by these luxury behemoths.

His best work addresses the insanely clever ways media and advertising corporations take advantage of our loneliness and laziness -- to sell us products that make us even lonelier and lazier. Their brilliant technique, Wallace argues, is to subtly package easy, seductive material along with a feigned critique of that very material.

In the essay “E Unibus Pluram,” for example, Wallace tackles the relationship between television and American consumer: the many who, in watching alone, are one. Television, he explains, gives us the sense that we’re interacting with people without requiring us to do the difficult emotional work of real connection. The result is an “alienating cycle,” in which we are lured into a vibrant, lively world we will never be able to access. It is a drug we were consuming for six hours a day when Wallace wrote in the ’90s.

Wallace was not, however, simply reiterating that age-old critique that TV destroys our sensibilities and intellectual capacities. After all, he himself watched copious amounts of television. He was more interested in why we’re so attracted to this simple, prurient medium. Why is its spell so seductive? What emotional void does it fill? 

“TV-type art’s biggest hook is that it’s figured out ways to reward passive spectation,” said Wallace in an interview. “It discerns, decocts, and represents what it thinks U.S. culture wants to see and hear about itself,” he wrote. With little emotional and no physical input, the screen bestows upon us plentiful rewards. So when we’re home alone at night, feeling lonely, looking desperately for external validation and satisfaction, we can access a sedative fantasy world with a button click. Wallace often compares it in the the film to candy: delicious, easy, devoid of nourishment. 

The argument transposes well from TV to today’s consumer-friendly movies, especially since the dawn of Netflix has made films the objects of solitary binges rather than social outings. In fact, “E Unibus Pluram” all but predicts the insidious rise of personal media machines. Though some thought they would liberate us from the dictatorial owners of cable, Wallace pointed out that that supposed consumer independence would be derived from corporations realizing that we wanted to feel independent. False agency would become the new mass commodity. 

Wallace took these ideas to their extreme in Infinite Jest, the central plotline of which revolves around a film called “The Entertainment,” so captivating it destroys the minds and volitions of all who watch it. Its presumed creator wanted it to solve “the womb of solipsism, anhedonia, death in life,” but the film is too successful. It removes all difficulty from human life, returning viewers to an infinitely entertained state.

This is the central horror of “The End of the Tour”: a good movie about a book that cautions against movies that are too good. Indeed, you can feel Wallace’s language pushing through the film’s glossy sheen -- less so than in Lipsky’s book, but still some. It’s as if Wallace’s ghost is trying to say: “This thing you’re watching is wrong! This is the problem!” Many will argue that this the point of the movie: it is a self-aware take on its own cinematic production.

But Wallace knew, too, that the industry’s greatest innovation was to incorporate its own critiques. In other words, TV and movies have kept up with their ironic, savvy audiences. They’ve learned that we’re skeptical of media, so they add in a dose skepticism into their own media.

"For to the extent that TV can flatter Joe about ‘seeing through’ the pretentiousness and hypocrisy of outdated values,” Wallace wrote, “it can induce in him precisely the feeling of canny superiority it’s taught him to crave, and can keep him dependent on the cynical TV-watching that alone affords this feeling."

It’s a brilliant marketing move. Because we still end up watching the films and consuming the advertisements and buying the products -- but we feel superior and distanced by pointing out the product’s irony. Wallace’s keen insight was that a self-aware addiction is still an addiction, that a junkie who spends his highs intelligently ruminating on the dependency is no more likely to quit than one who does not think at all. “The End of the Tour” is a good film like Reese's are a good candy or heroin is a good drug. It performs its role beautifully, rewarding passivity, pretending to empower us as critical watchers, and ultimately lacking nourishment.

<span>Jesse Eisenberg and&nbsp;</span><span>Jason Segel have given strong performances -- and that's the problem.</span>
Rebecca Cabage/AP
Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel have given strong performances -- and that's the problem.

Any film covering Wallace’s life would, on these terms, be subject to suspicion: for smoothing out his ideas, engulfing his critiques, and nullifying them in viewing pleasure. But “The End of the Tour” is particularly culpable. It presents him as more schmuck than polymath genius, bogs his brilliance down with Lipsky’s questions about fame, and delivers an out-of-touch saccharine ending: a voiceover after his suicide paired with a slowmo reel of Wallace dancing joyfully in a Baptist church. Who cares about all that time he spent thinking and writing, it seems to say -- all he really wanted was to dance!

For Wallace devotees, it’s a despairingly enjoyable scene. His biggest fear, as the film notes, was to be known for his celebrity aura instead of his writing, to have fans instead of readers, to become a “grotesque parody” of Infinite Jest -- which strikes as just the right epithet for “The End of the Tour.”

The question here is simple: Why have we chosen to move further and further away from Wallace’s brilliant work? Why have we opted to read an interview or to watch a feel-good movie about the interview?

The real<em>&nbsp;</em>David Foster Wallace at a reading.
Steve Rhodes/Flickr
The real David Foster Wallace at a reading.

Part of the answer is that reading Wallace is hard. Whereas watching Segel talk and dance like Wallace is easy -- as grotesque parodies tend to be. Infinite Jest, as the movie says again and again, is 1,079 pages long. It includes footnotes and interweaving plots; it requires patience with dense vocabulary and a good attention span. It is no Hollywood. But, as Wallace’s writing reveals again and again, that is exactly the point.

Wallace once described his desire to make the reader “put in her share of the linguistic work.” He argued that active engagement is what differentiates higher art from “commercial entertainment” and in particular television. “You teach the reader that he’s way smarter than he thought he was,” Wallace says about great art, “I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy.”

Wallace, in a sense, was a committed avant-gardist. Someone who thought that readers should be pushed beyond their apathetic norms. Some call this elitism, but it’s actually a very optimistic way of viewing the world: believing that people will rise to the challenge when they confront great art. It’s why we teach Shakespeare to Middle Schoolers and why gifted readers are often given classic novels long before they could understand them. Because though we may not quite be ready for the arduous material, we can always push a bit harder, and someday we will become its equal. 

Movies like “The End of the Tour” never asks us to push, never make us lean into discomfort. Television and film today serve us up candy and popcorn, let us lean back in the seat, and become children. A perfect novel rattles and matures you; perfect media anesthetizes and infantilizes. It approaches “The Entertainment.”

The problem may be a cultural and artistic tragedy, but the solution is actually simple: Read. Cancel your plans to see “The End of the Tour,” and take those precious 105 minutes to sit down with Wallace.

What is wonderful about literature is that it always allows a personal, primary return. No matter how commodified or warped the author has become, you can always grab the book and get straight back to its potent source.

Go do that with Wallace. Read his words, link his unparalleled mind to yours without the muddling clouds of media or celebrity. No candy, just slow-simmered stew. 

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