2015 Film Essays

The Dueling Cavalier: The Challenge of Representing Creative Genius in ‘The End of the Tour’ and ‘Whiplash’

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On the one hand, quite a bit of the dialogue from The End of the Tour, the David Foster Wallace biopic/anti-biopic, comes directly from Wallace himself. The film is adapted from journalist David Lipsky’s book on his experience profiling Wallace for Rolling Stone, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, and screenwriter Donald Margulies is remarkably committed to using Wallace’s exact words in the script. On the other hand, the screenplay omits a crucial detail from the source material, and it’s one which undermines Margulies’ (admittedly valiant) attempts at textual fidelity.

Late in the film’s third act, Wallace (Jason Segel), unable to sleep, comes into Lipsky’s (Jesse Eisenberg) room to chat. Attempting to express the feeling of depression, Wallace paraphrases a famous excerpt from Infinite Jest in which a depressed person’s suicide attempt is likened to the act of leaping from a burning building. In both cases, Wallace says, death is no less terrifying to the person choosing it, but the alternative is undoubtedly the more painful option.

A comparable scene occurs in Lipsky’s book, but it’s presented differently enough to reveal a critical flaw in Margulies’ adaptation. To start, Wallace’s reference to the excerpt occurs much earlier in the book than it does in the film, highlighting Margulies’ placement as an attempt to make the scene climactic. In The End of the Tour, the moment becomes a culmination of Lipsky’s attempt to understand Wallace, when in reality it occurred fairly early on in their relationship. I’m not opposed to alterations of “the truth” made for cinematic or narrative reasons, but they backfire when they feel blatantly deployed for maximum emotional impact. The filmmakers may as well be shouting, “YOU’RE WATCHING A MOVIE,” thereby ruining the attempt at cinematic naturalism.

Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Lipsky’s Wallace refers to the paraphrase as “a thing in the book.” As a result, the scene feels genuine: Wallace had already expressed the mentality of a suicidal person so poetically and accurately in his novel that he had no better way to describe the feeling to Lipsky. The line has only become as famous as it has due to its power and obvious resonance with Wallace’s tragic history, and it’s understandable that the line would stick with him as an expression of being in such a tortured state (as it has with so many readers).

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But Margulies removes Wallace’s attribution of the quote to his novel, framing the line instead as indicative of his off-the-cuff genius and poeticism. He doesn’t have to toil away locked in a room to come up with words this brilliant, Margulies tries to show the viewer, he’s capable of spouting them off the top of his head. As a result, the scene comes across as an attempt to depict Wallace’s unrestrained brilliance, presenting him as being capable of spouting one of the most famous excerpts in Infinite Jest without the effort formulating and perfecting the line undoubtedly took. That being said, it’s an attempt so blatantly contrived that it undermines what Marguiles appears to be trying to represent.

The need for such a scene is borne out of, I think, the gap between the romantic idealization of creative genius (as well as a desire for the entertainment value it provides) and its dull reality. The creative process is rather boring to an outside observer, making the cinematic depiction of the person who engages in it a challenge. (This is part of why there are so few good movies about writing.) This challenge is intensified by the emphasis in The End of the Tour on Wallace as a normal dude who eats Pop Tarts and has a crush on Alanis Morissette, an emphasis which Margulies attempts to compensate for by having Wallace recite one of his most famous lines as if it merely came to him in a flash. Yet it’s ultimately an overcompensation, and one which leaves the viewer with a Wallace who feels like a screenwriter’s invention rather than a human being (even if he’s a human being responsible for one of the great feats of contemporary literature).

The method Margulies uses to represent Wallace’s genius is comparable to the approach taken by writer-director Damien Chazelle in last year’s Whiplash. The film tells the story of a young drummer learning his craft, and Chazelle depicts the process as a purely physical one. The boy (Miles Teller) pounds away at the drums in a fervent effort to play faster and faster, and the hypnotic cinematography and editing capture his vigor exquisitely.

Left to right: Miles Teller as Andrew and J.K. Simmons as Fletcher Photo by Daniel McFadden, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

Left to right: Miles Teller as Andrew and J.K. Simmons as Fletcher
Photo by Daniel McFadden, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics

But there’s a whole lot more to learning music than merely being able to play the drums fast, and Chazelle excludes most of it from his cinematic representation of the boy’s musical education. As critic Richard Brody points out, Chazelle never shows his protagonist studying music theory, listening to jazz, or playing tunes with his peers, leaving out three crucial steps in the path to becoming a great musician.

Chazelle’s exclusion functions as an ostensible solution similar to Margulies’ removal of Wallace’s attribution in The End of the Tour. Showing someone push his physical limits in a desperate attempt to play the drums well yields a higher entertainment value than depicting him sitting around with headphones blaring and concentrating at hard as he can; likewise, representing an author capable of inventing one of his most famous lines in the course of casual conversation is cinematically sexier than having him merely reference his work. In both cases, though, the effort to maximize entertainment value sacrifices credibility and sabotages whatever inroads are otherwise made towards achieving the ever elusive “truth.”

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The achievement becomes especially difficult when that truth is ultimately as banal as the one represented in both The End of the Tour and Whiplash. Watching someone actually learn to play an instrument well would be about as much fun as watching a snail run a marathon, as would seeing an author toil away at his thousand page magnum opus. But in attempting to infuse the mostly dull nature of creativity with thrilling (and contrived) representations of genius and ability, both Margulies and Chazelle end up with films which don’t feel much much like what they’re intended to depict.    

Max Bledstein (@mbled210) is a Montreal-based writer, musician and world-renowned curmudgeon. He writes on all things culture for a variety of fine North American publications. His highly anticipated debut novel will write itself one of these days, he assumes.

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