A Conversation with Film Critic Glenn Kenny
by Editor Brett Rawson
Back in July 2015, I decided I wouldn’t see The End of the Tour. I felt I had read enough of David Foster Wallace’s work — his thickest books and sharpest essays — that I doubted a Hollywood film staring Segel would have all that much to offer to my understanding of Wallace’s life or work. If anything, I imagined, the visuals of Hollywood would overshadow the image I had of him in my head. And so, I decided to leave Wallace lodged within the experience of time, and in the wake of the film’s release, I simply watched as the hype flowed by.
The headlines were about what I expected: “For Jason Segel, The End Of One ‘Tour’ Is The Beginning Of Another”; “The End of the Tour Flattens David Foster Wallace Into the Grinding Machinery of Fame He So Often Detested“; and “Could the Internet Age See Another David Foster Wallace?” But then I came across this one: “Why The End of the Tour Isn’t Really About My Friend David Foster Wallace,” by Glenn Kenny. Without a thought, I clicked in and two nights later, I was sitting front row, watching Segel mope about onscreen.
Kenny didn’t recommend watching the film — quite the opposite. And yet, there was something about his words that provided a sense of permission for me. Yes, Kenny is a renowned film critic and journalist, but he was also a personal friend of the late writer, and as a result, he wrote from the perspective of a lived experienced, something so many other articles lacked. People were quick to clash with Kenny’s view of the film, Wallace fans included, which happened to be something else Kenny contested in his article: The idea of what it means to be a “fan.”
All of this was timely for The Seventh Wave, as two contributors for our first issue had just co-written an essay about cinematic information gaps from a similar position: lived experience. Mark Lijek and Cora Amber-Lijek were two of the six hostages in the 1979 Iranian takeover of the U.S. Embassy, known largely because of the 2012 film Argo. Mark Lijek had written about his experience before — an entire book, in fact — to set the record straight. Neither Lijeck nor Kenny discredit or blamed the institutions of film. But for us, reading these accounts raised questions about the intersections of entertainment and information: When a film is meant to entertain, how closely does it have to replicate reality?
I reached out to Kenny after I saw the film, asking if he’d be interesting in doing an email-based conversation on David Foster Wallace, Argo, and cinematic information gaps. His reply? “Sure, let’s go.” Below is the outcome of our digital conversation.
THE SEVENTH WAVE: You said in your article, “In my own film criticism I’ve often defended work that comes up short on historical accuracy, insisting that each picture is a circumscribed world in and of itself, for better or worse.” What films did you have in mind when you mentioned this? What or where are the lines, or is it hard to say in advance and are they only known once crossed?
GLENN KENNY: Well, one of the more recent and more pertinent examples was Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which I wrote about here. But a film that I’ve thought about more recently is Steve Jobs, a highly fictionalized and contrived portrait of its title subject, which both Tim Cook and Jobs’ widow have expressed reservations about/taken exception to. I objected to The End of the Tour on a number of grounds, one of them being the ethics of creating a fictional version of David Foster Wallace against the wishes of his family, who had no recourse because of the end run the filmmakers took in adapting a work in which Wallace appears as a non-fiction personage.
I understand that Lipsky’s book has its own ontological integrity so I’m being a little glib in describing it here, I suppose. The point I’m getting around to is that the ethical path of the Steve Jobs movie is much more linear and clear cut. Jobs cooperated with Walter Isaacson’s biography, Isaacson sold the rights to the biography, cooperated with screenwriter Aaron Sorkin even as he spun out a very fanciful Jobs scenario, etc. I found the movie a pretty entertaining two hours (it’s not something that particularly resonated with me, though, and in retrospect I’m finding a good number of Danny Boyle’s directorial choices kind of silly) and not personally objectionable in any way, although it didn’t give me much insight into the man or anything. I liked it on a level that I liked — this is a reach— the Robert Wise movie Executive Suite. Except it had less sex than the Wise movie.
It’s funny; I’ve read reviews of the movie that say the enjoyment of it is dependent on how much you want to see Jobs lionized, because as unpleasantly as the film depicts his personality, it DOES lionize him. And on the other hand, some are saying Michael Fassbender’s energetic performance in the title role will not get its awards “due” because the character is not likable enough. How much different would the film be, or be received, were it a completely factually vetted account…It’s a false hypothetical, I understand. But while the truth will set you free, it’s not a narrative film’s factual truth that provides the impact, so in a sense that becomes immaterial to a critic who’s obliged to weave the quality of his direct personal experience throughout his accounting of the work.
TSW: Yes, how “history” is “made” — in the moment, almost by accident perhaps, and in reflection, or cinematic recreation. As for Hollywood being hostile to thought (which you mentioned in your Selma review), where does this emerge from — the need to entertain and not inform?
GK: I don’t want to be too hostile to Hollywood as it’s where a good deal of my own sensibility comes from and thrives on. But, I think Hollywood is hostile to thought not because of an innate anti-intellectualism — although film art and film grammar were not, to put it mildly, developed by intellectuals — but because film is a poor medium by which to convey thought. In the same way it’s not very good at showing painters painting. Thought can only be conveyed effectively in film through the expenditure of time, and in narrative films that want to keep themselves down to 120 minutes or under, time is a luxury.
There’s a scene late in Jacques Rivette’s 2008 Secret Defense in which a character played by Sandrine Bonnaire has to decide whether or not she’s going to kill the man she believes is responsible for the death of her father. It’s a scene in which nothing “happens” per se, but the combination of Rivette’s shot choices, cutting, and the sheer duration of the scene convey everything. This is not standard practice in classical filmmaking, particularly classical Hollywood moviemaking. By the same token, there’s a reason Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev is four hours long. Essentially, we’re talking about the difference between cinema as narrative/commercial concern and cinema as a different kind of art form; and many others find value in both.
TSW: Fascinating, this compression and expression of time. But I’m curious: what does this division — cinema as narrative/commercial concern vs. different kind of art form — mean for films based on a true story?
GK: Yes, we’ve kind of gotten off on a tangent here. To take it back to Andrei Rublev, which is a film about a person who actually lived, albeit one about whose (f)actual life there is not as much available material as there was with respect to David Foster Wallace or Steve Jobs, there’s a film that uses a historical figure as the springboard for an autonomous work that’s about art, and spiritual life, and historical brutality, and the creative process, and labor, and maybe even genius. And all these themes are most convincingly and coherently explored via time. Sounds and images in time.
A.O. Scott, a friend and colleague, one of the lead film critics at The New York Times, has suggested that The End of the Tour is not really about David Foster Wallace at all, rather that it’s about the competing egos of writers. And it certainly is that, although I was, as it turned out, constitutionally incapable of even beginning to be able to appreciate it solely as such. This does, though, beg the question: If what you really want is to make a film about the competing egos of two young white male writers at the end of the 20th century, why not just do that? The existence of David Lipsky’s book — which in essence makes Wallace a character, and makes him, with Lipsky’s cooperation (I could say collusion but I’m trying to be fair here) “fair game” for whoever ponies up option money and production money and so on — is the only marketing hook for such an exploration. So I don’t know. If a contemporary cinematic equivalent to Tarkovsky (big if) had made a four-hour motion picture based on The End of the Tour, would I have been more appeased? It would have to be really some kind of unbelievable masterpiece for me to be able to see around the ethics of its existence — that fact that it uses the pretext of “homage” and/or “tribute” to appropriate Wallace in a way by which he would have been mortified. The filmmakers say they intended a tribute, but they got to make that tribute not only by ignoring Wallace’s estate but Wallace’s own words, own thoughts. It strikes me as an odd tribute.
TSW: Two of our contributors wrote about the film Argo from their lived experience, as they were two of the six hostages during the 1979 Iranian takeover. Not so surprisingly, there are bits of the film that don’t align with the factual account. So much so that Mark Lijek, one of the contributors, has previously written a book to correct the cinematized account. I’m all for entertainment and the elements of imagination in storytelling, but I suppose my question is: In a film that purports to be based on the declassified true story, how tethered to the truth do you need to be?
GK: Well this speaks directly to what I was just saying about the End of the Tour filmmakers. The story was out there, they had the right, not just in terms of material “rights” to Lipsky’s book, but a right that was attached to that. The Sorkin/BoyleSteve Jobs film, while hardly a biopic in any kind of conventionally structured way (that’s also true of Tour), is purported to be an adaptation of an authorized biography by Walter Isaacson, and Isaacson sold the rights to that property, cooperated with the filmmakers, participated in the promotion of the film. And there was nothing that Jobs’ widow could do about any of it save express her objections personally. The Wallace estate, similarly, found itself in the same position.
As for whatever extra material Argo purports to be based on, there are two distinct sources actually credited: a section of a book and a magazine article. And the thing is, once you’ve got the source, you can represent or misrepresent it to your heart’s consent and nobody can do anything about it. Happens to fiction books all the time, from Nightmare Alley to Breakfast of Champions. With novels, though, the original’s always there. In other cases it’s trickier, and more frustrating, and yeah, you might end up having to write a book in order to refute a movie. One wonders how many people who saw The End of the Tour are going go to their graves believing that David Foster Wallace regularly attended a dance at a church in small town Illinois.
TSW: Good points — things worth keeping close in mind going forward. Looking back now, almost half a year after you wrote the article about the DFW film, if there were a takeaway for you, what would it be?
GK: I’m still of the opinion that fictions, including or maybe especially those that try to derive a kind of cachet from their proximity to actual events and to people who actually lived, need to be dealt with as fictions first. That is, is there a credibility to the worlds they create that doesn’t entirely depend on the aforementioned proximity?
Having dealt with the reality of The End of the Tour from a number of different perspectives from its 2014 announcement to its 2015 release, I appreciate that my devotion to this ethos has possibly been more than a bit cavalier. It’s a tough row for a critic to hoe, though. It becomes a little less tough when the work in question doesn’t make the dent in the zeitgeist that its creators were hoping for. I suppose that Steve Jobs’ widow might be deriving some satisfaction, or hopefully peace, from the fact that this turned out to be the case with the Steve Jobs movie. I’m certainly quite fine with the fact that the awards season machine has passed entirely by The End of the Tour.
Glenn Kenny is a film critic and journalist, formerly of Premiere magazine and .com. You can read his latest reflections at Some Came Running.