In our coverage of Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck earlier this year, we examined the idea of fame as a distorting factor of certain folk heroes. Kurt Cobain, whose status as the unofficial king of the Grunge music scene in the 1990s, has (since his untimely death in 1994) been turned into a caricature of himself by legions of fans, pop-culture historians, and music aficionados who might wish to project their own ideologies onto the person who was the lead singer of Nirvana. In Morgen’s film, Cobain comes off not so much as a character of a shared imagination as much as he does the person that he may well have been in real life. Morgen’s portraiture is lent significant credence as evidenced by the film’s use of featured home videos, writings, and audio recordings from the late songwriter’s estate, most notably including a series of several home videos taken by Courtney Love that depict her life at home life shared with her late husband. In summarizing the impact of Morgen’s approach towards his subject in the film, we surmised:
“It would be hard to definitively exhaust our shared cultural interest in Kurt Cobain as an individual and a performer, the lurid nature of his demise coupled with the far reaching accessibility of his music serving to cement his appeal far into the foreseeable future. Following that line of thought, it’s easy to find the appeal in a documentary such as Brett Morgen’s Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, and others of its sort. While it may be a long time before anyone attempts another biography of Cobain and Nirvana to such an extent, Morgen’s film will inevitably be succeeded by countless documentary features after it, even if they don’t all prove as intellectually nuanced and emotionally subtle as Morgen’s intensely aesthetic odyssey.”
Much the same can, could, should, and has been said regarding director James Ponsoldt’s latest film The End of the Tour. The film is due out this Friday, and is based on an interview conducted by Rolling Stone editor David Lipsky. But where Ponsoldt’s film takes chief aim is in its depiction of the late American author of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace, as yet another character of the pop-cultural landscape. Based on the book Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace (itself an unedited conversation transcribed from a four-day long road trip conducted while Wallace was on the final leg of his Infinite Jest book tour in 1997), Ponsoldt’s new film is already the center of a lot of withering attention from Wallace’s estate and closest personal friends. Among them, his former editor from Premiere magazine, Glenn Kenny, wrote a heartfelt screed against the makers of the film, and Jason Segel, who will portray the late author, in particular. According to Kenny’s critique of the film:
“When I try to look at the picture from a less personal perspective, e.g., as a movie about two bro-ish dudes in the 1990s 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. Far from being a ‘channeling’ of Wallace, as some have called it, Segel’s performance is, to me, more of a feast of Heavy Indicating. A tic here, a tic there. Much brow furrowing. Even when the camera captures him from behind, you can see him thinking really hard about what it’s like to be such a tortured genius. Wallace the artist and Wallace the conversationalist take a distant back seat to Wallace the eventual suicide. Even when he’s cracking wise, there’s no light or lightness to the character. When uttering lines like, ‘I’d rather be dead,’ or, ‘I’m not so sure you want to be me,’ Segel might as well be nudging the viewer in the ribs. He, and the movie, insists that suicide loomed over everything Wallace did a full twelve years before the end.”
What’s truly unfortunate about such a negative, embittered reaction doesn’t come in Kenny’s self-righteous task taken in defending Wallace from beyond the grave. Nor does it reside in the editor’s criticism of the film itself. Everything that Kenny claims in his much longer piece originally published in The Guardian rings true. Kenny’s contentious reprimand of Wallace readers for becoming overly sensitive towards having anyone who might have actually known the writer outside of his fiction and non-fiction describe the man that they knew from personal experience is well said and indispensably aimed. What is unfortunate is Kenny’s complete dismissal of Segel as an actor capable of bringing his deceased friend to life. The former Wallace editor’s snide dismissal of Segel’s turn in Ponsoldt’s film is belligerent, uncalled for, and personally combative, with a description of Segel in a scene towards the end of the film’s script being particularly snide, which reads:
“But as Segel’s exuberantly horrible dancing at the end of the film practically blares in neon, this awkwardness represents Segel’s conception of a Genius Who Was Just Too Pure And Holy For This World.”
All of this is not to say that Kenny is wrong, subjectively or objectively, in his preening tone taken against Ponsoldt’s new film. What should be said, however, is how confrontational Kenny seems to be in regards to a comic actor such as a Jason Segel-type in even attempting to portray someone like David Foster Wallace. It’s all well and good if Kenny dislikes Segel’s “awkwardness” as a performer on general principle, but in his presumption to dismiss another person’s interpretation of a script within the context of a job description, however tangentially related, is entirely dissimilar from Kenny’s, betrays such a screed as the snobbish ribaldry of a grade-A curmudgeon.
In an article published last week in The New York Times, columnist Cara Buckley provided a portrait of Segel that betrays an actor fully aware of the summit before him in accepting the role of David Foster Wallace. Moreover, Segel is shown to be someone who has actually read the 1,079 page tome that was the author’s magnum opus, a task that takes commitment, intelligence, and compassion for the author who wrote it. In conversation with Buckley, Segel summarized his own understanding of the literary works of Wallace as such:
“’It felt like an S.O.S., saying, Does anyone else feel this way,’ Mr. Segel said, ‘that there’s something about the American promise that x, y, and z are going to satisfy this itch that you’re not enough, that a whole generation found to be a false promise. No achievement or pleasure or entertainment or consuming is going to be the thing that makes you feel like everything’s O.K. And it really hit home with me. Because you really are still you when you go back home at night. No matter what award you’ve gotten or how much money is in your bank account, you feel the same going to sleep.”
In conversation with stand-up comic and podcaster Marc Maron in an episode that was published online last Thursday, Segel went further along this line of thinking, remarking on his own struggles with alcohol abuse (an addiction that he and Wallace shared in real life), and how the desperation that surrounded such a trying period in his life forced him to grapple with notions of fame, celebrity, and the desire for the kind of artistic integrity that forces one to think that they are being simultaneously perceived as a fraud. While Wallace’s estate, and surviving wife of four years Karen Green, have been adamant in their disappointment with the new film partially based on Wallace’s personal identity, director James Ponsoldt and screenwriter Donald Marguiles remain determined that their film doesn’t exploit the David Foster Wallace character in any way. The issue over who should be allowed to define the David Foster Wallace character is still up for debate, and is a large part of why the film feels so opportunistic and wrong headed at times from varying perspectives.
In Brett Morgen’s portraiture of Kurt Cobain, the documentarian avoided usurping the humanity of his real life subject through personal consent from those closest to the late musician in life. Going a step further, Morgen received outright collaboration from many of the parties and individuals most intimately involved in the affairs of Cobain throughout his life in the making of his epic, cinematic tragedy. In contrast, David Lipsky is first and foremost a journalist and a writer whose own interest in his chosen subject was entirely solipsistic and rooted in a desire to soak up whatever genius or celebrity (not that the two are mutually exclusive) that Wallace was popularly presumed to possess in 1997. In Ponsoldt’s feature film adaptation of the David Foster Wallace character, the director takes on a subject similar to Morgen’s without the full disclosure afforded by the documentary genre. Ponsoldt’s seeming dramedy is crucially a fiction first and foremost, and an apparently imaginative one at that. Jason Segel appears earnest in his attempt at understanding the art and mind of Ponsoldt’s character-based subject, though that might not be able to save the film from devolving into the very same sort of self-aggrandizing misappropriation of the individual that the film claims to be celebrating in the spirit of genuine admiration; an admiration, moreover, that is never the same thing as first-hand knowledge and understanding, which is the crux of Kenny’s primary concern.