The majority of the reviews for "The End Of the Tour," the movie about David Foster Wallace and the Rolling Stone writer who followed him on the last leg of his 1996 "Infinite Jest" promotional tour, suggest it's an artistic triumph: "A special, lovely little gem," says Indie Wire; "quite touching and, at times, wise," according to the Guardian. "[Actor Jason Segel] is not doing an impersonation. It's a performance," declares Rolling Stone. "Very much the film that lovers of Wallace's dazzlingly perspicacious fiction and essays would want," claims Hollywood Reporter.
Well, as a "lover of Wallace's dazzlingly perspicacious fiction and essays" (a LOWDPFAE, if you will), I'm not so sure that they're right. And I'm not so sure this actually is the film we would want and I'm not so sure it's even a film that should have been made. See, prior to "The End of the Tour's" production, the David Foster Wallace estate (i.e. his family, literary trust, and publisher) announced that they don't support the film, and that DFW himself would never have consented to having transcripts from a nearly 20-years-old unpublished interview made into a film (the interview was published as "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself," in 2010, two years after Wallace's death). For the film, the estate had not been asked permission to use the interview, and weren't even warned about the film project prior to its production. When the estate took issue, the response from the filmmakers was pretty much, "well we already started making it, so . . ."
In effect, the estate was sandbagged by the filmmakers. Very few if any reviews for the film mention this fact. None of them stop to question whether this film should have been made, and questioning the propriety of making the film in the first place is important here. I'm not advocating a boycott of the film, but I am imploring real fans of David Foster Wallace to consider the lobster—er, the ethical problem in question.
David Foster Wallace was a writer painfully aware of his image. The trademark bandana he wore at all times started as a nervous habit, but long after he overcame the emotional need to wear it he continued to do so anyway, because by then, he was nervous about what the not-wearing-the-bandanna would come to represent. The philosophy behind "The End of the Tour" is that because Wallace is dead, he no longer has a right to control of that image and that's true, of course. Even if DFW were alive today to protest the film, he could not stop it, which is all the more reason to question "The End of the Tour's" existence. Let's go back to "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself," the book which provides the basis of "The End Of The Tour." That book, published in the wake of Wallace's suicide, was in and of itself a violation. Writer David Lipsky dredged up his old audio from hanging out with DFW and turned it into a book and now he has turned that book into a movie.
Real David Foster Wallace fans are people who have devoted serious, camaraderie-abjuring hours to reading his work. They are people who have hungrily devoured his short stories, his novels, and his essays, relying on inter-library loan requests and birthday, Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa gifts to fuel their insatiable hunger for more, more, more. They are people who have developed optometric disabilities from long hours spent squinting at footnotes, and possibly permanent orthopedic problems from months spent lugging around their hardback bricks of "Infinite Jest." Yes, we real David Foster Wallace fans may be pale squinting hunchbacks, perhaps even weirdos, but most of all we are people who respect and adore the author.
The David Foster Wallace fans I've spoken to don't view this film as an homage to the author. They view it as sacrilege. As my erstwhile boyfriend blandly said, "I'm turned off by the whole thing, because I know he would've fucking hated it." (More acronymic than acrimonious, the EBF remains my go-to soundboard on all things DFW.) Another friend, equally appalled by the very existence of the film, asked me, in total seriousness, to form a "blood pact" to ensure that neither of us would "let curiosity get the best of us." The DFW-obsessed community of Reddit is equally up in arms, torn between criticizing Jason Segel for not "looking scraggly enough" and decrying the whole notion of the film as "hella lame." One of my English major friends even went so far as to liken the movie to "spitting on Wallace's grave."
Of course, most of the audience for "The End of the Tour" won't be fans this zealous. In fact, it's likely they will not even have read anything he wrote. And maybe that's the problem. DFW is dead—yes, I get that. But every time someone sees the film and thinks he understands DFW but doesn't, doesn't really, it's as if he dies again and yet again. And more than others, his fans know that DFW cannot be known through a film, no matter how well written and acted. He can only be distorted.
"The End of the Tour" opens at the Charles Theater Aug. 14.