Competing Perceptions Part I: The End of the Tour

James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour comes down to a hug or a handshake. It’s a meandering two-hander road movie-cum-biopic with wall-to-wall dialogue and oodles of introspection. The film was transcribed, by and large, from interview sessions by David Lipsky, who accompanied David Foster Wallace at the tail-end of his book tour for Infinite Jest, and filled in with pieces from Lipsky’s memoir of the experience, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself. The film is the transliteration of lengths of tape and a one-sided account into a visual narrative, so it’s interesting on this count alone. But, ‘one-sided’ is the key, and Ponsoldt pinpoints this, changing the shape and tenor of the piece almost imperceptibly. If you were to watch the prologue and epilogue back to back without the meat, it’s likely they would play as identical; but they are in fact in conflict. And this is boiled down in a moment of social awkwardness.

At the end of the five-day interview, after sharing an aborted McDonald’s meal, Lipsky heads to his car and they say their farewells; and he goes in for a hug. Wallace cuts him off halfway with an extended hand. In Lipsky’s mind, we can presume, the whole film has been just as I described it—a buddy comedy road trip: meet cute, learn about each other, bond, fight a bit, reconcile, part changed, and remain friends forever. And such is our perspective on the matter—just scan the loglines and this is apparent. On the other hand, consider the films as a nagging reporter tagging along amidst other annoyances at the end of a publisher-mandated marketing tour. Lipsky is but one clambering journalist amongst many (there are mentions of several other reviews and write-ups and interviews conducted with Wallace, brought into the fold by Lipsky ironically enough, that remind us of this). He is tasked with summarizing Wallace based on his few days with him, because that’s what you do when NPR calls; but his perspective is eroded over the course of the film. And this is apparent in the manner in which The End of the Tour deconstructs the value of the source material.

So often, voiceover, and literary readings are given undue weight—just ask Robert McKee by way of Charlie Kaufman. They act as a shorthand summation, a lazy way of wrapping things up and making sentiments feel profound and earned. Here, in The End of the Tour, Lipsky’s end summation is meant to crumble in comparison with the experience (which itself is a facsimile, of course, feeding into the film’s tendency to eat its tail). His bookend summation/eulogy is given weight in the beginning, as an introduction to a modern literary giant. He represents a privileged window into the genius of the man, but by the end, when he rhapsodizes, it is made to feel hollow, silly, inadequate, rote, and dry, if urbanely competent; and his words are staged to make the context and the content counterintuitive. This is a rare thing for a film—to acknowledge its limits, to undercut itself and its source material so decisively, to utilize hagiographic technique to show the silliness of hagiography. At the same time, the film offers a strange paradox, crafting a hierarchy of literary acumen while constantly insisting that this is a myth and a useless, subjective notion.

Infinite Jest is untouchable in the film and made all the more titanic by its absence—referred to only in page numbers and evasive thematic deflections. Similarly, the complexity and thorniness of lived experience, which is so vividly evoked through the arrhythmic tête-à-tête during the film’s middle section, is compressed to accommodate but one perspective. In the film’s present-tense, as Lipsky listens to the tapes, he grafts new meaning on elliptical, guarded conversations. Film is always a filtered thing, and The End of the Tour acknowledges this. Doubt mounts and is never resolved the further along we go in the film. Both these characters have agendas. They, like the film, are trying to counterbalance antithetical impressions, to be simultaneously genuine and pragmatic. The tape recorder and the camera are the only objective parties here and their constant, easy-to-forget presence stratifies the proceedings. Ultimately, the perspective is limited and on the other end of the conversations is an unknowable, vast internal universe that we can only glimpse in a dense epochal tome and an Alanis Morissette poster.

This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine. 

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