This Reuters article describes how the British publishing house, Jonathan Cape, was forced to release Ian McEwan’s new novel, Saturday, early because the Evening Standard broke a publicity embargo and ran an interview two weeks to soon. Naturally, other newspapers, not wanting to be scooped by the Standard, also ran stories about McEwan’s book too early. Suddenly, Saturday was getting tons of press, but the books weren’t in stores, and now Bertelsmann’s Random House, which owns Jonathan Cape, wants the Standard to pay for the lost revenue that resulted from the runaway publicity chain reaction. The subtext to all of this, especially if you consider the story in light of the creation of the new made-for-tv Quill Awards, is that publishing companies, most of which are now owned by media conglomerates, are trying to market and sell books in the same way they might market and sell movies or music. In Hollywood, the financial success of many a film is determined by the opening weekend, or even the opening night, and all the marketing resources go towards getting people into the movie theatre on the opening weekend. The primary – though unstated – purpose of awards shows is to convince people to see the movies or buy the music that is being honored, not simply to honor it. My experience as a bookseller tells me that books don’t work this way. The book is the ultimate “word of mouth” product. The desire to read a good book is many times more likely to be initiated by a recommendation from a trusted fellow reader (or bookseller) than by a piece of clever marketing or even a prominent review. It’s my opinion that publishers shouldn’t be pushing for the huge first week numbers – forcing a book to boom or bust – but they should give books a chance to survive and thrive on their own merits… the way McEwan’s last book, Atonement, did.
Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give to The End of the Tour, the new film about a five-day interview between the writer David Foster Wallace and Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky, is that I finally started reading Wallace again. I hadn’t read him since his death in 2008, which hit harder than I expected, considering I had never read his greatest work, Infinite Jest. I feel the need to confess this up front, because The End of the Tour revolves around Infinite Jest; it’s the book that Wallace is promoting on his tour, it’s the book that Lipsky reveres with a mixtures of envy and gratitude, and it’s the book that Jason Segal, the actor who plays David Foster Wallace, read in solitude in a cabin in “the California boonies” in order to prepare for the role.
My excuse for never having read Infinite Jest is that I was in college when it was first published, too busy making my way through classic mammoth novels to have time for contemporary ones. And then, by the time I graduated from college, Wallace’s books, especially Infinite Jest, had been so thoroughly colonized by ardent fans and critics that it no longer seemed like much fun to read Wallace. In other words, he got canonized.
But before he was famous—or maybe, it’s better to say, before I knew he was famous—there was a two-year period when Wallace seemed to speak only to me via my parent’s magazine subscriptions and the public library. No one I knew read Wallace, my older sister didn’t read him, and my parents, astonishingly, didn’t even like him—they thought his prose was too self-conscious. So, he was mine. My secret portal to a new way of thinking and writing about the world, a way of thinking and writing that was infected by cable television, by email, and by the then-nascent internet, “the Web”. Wallace was the future. It made sense that my baby boomer parents couldn’t receive the message and that no one in my boondock town had heard of him.
In retrospect, my proprietary feelings toward Wallace make me laugh because it doesn’t take a great critical mind to notice that, hey, this guy can really write! It’s also funny because Wallace is one of those writers that everyone feels connected to in a secret, special way. That’s one definition of literary genius, that ability to get into people’s head, to make them believe that they aren’t even reading, that they’re somehow thinking the sentences. Lipsky describes Wallace’s literary gift as “casual and gigantic; he’d captured everybody’s brain voice.”
The End of the Tour is based on Lipsky’s 2010 Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, a book that is basically a transcript of Lipsky’s interviews with Wallace at the end of his 1996 Infinite Jest book tour. I read it after watching The End of the Tour, curious to see how closely the film followed it, and was pleasantly surprised to find that almost all the dialogue was taken from the book.
That said, the book is subtler than the movie (as books generally are), shaggier, funnier, less plot-driven, and less manipulative. Still, I loved the movie. It brought me straight back to my late teens, and to the beginning of certain literary dreams. It also brought me back to the late nineties, which is another way of saying that there is no way I can be even remotely objective about a film that begins with strains of R.E.M.’s “Strange Currencies”, a song so deeply stored in my memory banks that it inevitably dislodges the emotion-soaked memories surrounding it.
If End of the Tour is actually a good movie, and not just a nostalgia trip for thirtysomethings like me, it’s good because it’s a road movie, and the cracked-open car windows let air and views of the open road into scenes that might otherwise be too cramped and talky. Because of bad weather, Lipsky and Wallace’s flights are cancelled, and they must drive the last leg of Wallace’s book tour. It’s an inconvenience that ends up being fortuitous for Lipsky, who observes that the interview only worked because of “the Henry Ford road trip equation: two men will become comfortable if they have to drive any distance in excess of 40 miles.” There’s something dreamy about a car trip, with the scenery whooshing by, with music playing, cigarettes burning (it’s the nineties, remember). Lipsky allows himself to get wistful in his introduction to Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself:
When I think of this trip, I see David and me in the front seat of the car. It’s nighttime. It smells like chewing tobacco, soda, and smoke. The window is letting in a leak of cold air. R.E.M. is playing. The wheels are making their slightly sleepy sound of tape being stripped cleanly and endlessly of a long wall. On the other hand, we seem not to be moving at all, and the conversation is the best one I’ve ever had.
It seems doubtful that this was one of Wallace’s all-time favorite conversations. Lipsky interviews him at the end of a hugely successful book tour, a moment that Lipsky imagines as joyful and triumphant. But Wallace is fretful and self-conscious. He’s between projects, rarely a comfortable place for a writer, and he’s made even more uncomfortable by his growing awareness of his fame. He knows he needs to protect himself against this new genius-writer persona, otherwise he’ll lose the almost childish sense of privacy it took to write Infinite Jest. At the same time, if there’s a public persona happening, he wants a hand in shaping it.
Wallace’s simplest defense is to deny that he is famous, or that he even cares about fame, one that Lipsky tries to tear down throughout his interview. He wants Wallace to cop to his ambition, both because (presumably) he wants some good quotes for his profile, but also because Lipsky is a novelist, too. He can’t help being curious about, and more than a little jealous of Wallace’s success. But instead of getting satisfying descriptions of the pleasures of literary fame, Lipksy gets quotes like this (excerpted from Lipsky’s book, not the screenplay):
I follow the crap. But I struggle much harder against the temptation to follow the crap. And I follow it from more of a distance—and yeah, I have some sort of idea of it. But have some compassion. I mean, I’ve already told you that, like, I gotta be very careful about how much of this stuff I take inside. Because I go home, and I spend a month getting this manuscript ready [his 1997 essay collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again]. And then I got to start working on something else. And the realer this shit is to me, and the more I think about it—and, of course, you’re holding the tape recorder so that I will end up reading what I’ve said in this article. That will feed the self-consciousness loop.
The irony is that Lipsky never ended up writing the piece that Wallace was so worried about reading. According to Lipsky, his editor changed his mind. This was a relief: “I tried to write, and kept imagining David reading it, and seeing through it, through me, and spotting some questionable stuff on the X-ray.”
It seems important to me that Lipsky never wrote the profile, although the film doesn’t bother to mention it. If Lipsky had written the profile, he would have been forced to look at that “questionable stuff on the X-ray” and make a diagnosis. He probably would have had to cut all the Lipsky out of the interview, all the projections, all the posturing, all the angst, and figure out what story he wanted to tell about Wallace. But Lipsky couldn’t bring himself to do that, and so the material remains raw and unfiltered. It’s not clear what Lipsky is looking for when he presses Wallace, again and again, for a detailed report of what is feels like to be—what? Famous? Critically beloved? Quasi-canonized? A genius? The writer of Infinite Jest? The film tends to simplify the dynamic between the two men, with points of jealous conflict that don’t appear in Lipsky’s book. Jealousy is certainly an ingredient in Lipsky’s interview questions (and one he acknowledges in his preface) but the even simpler truth is that Lipsky was a young reporter without a lot of experience. Wallace was the first writer he ever interviewed.
Jason Segal is already getting a lot of praise for his convincing portrayal of Wallace, but for me, Jesse Eisenberg’s interpretation of David Lipsky was more revealing. His performance reminded me of the thrill of reading Wallace as a teenager, of the way, when you finished his essays and stories, you felt smarter, more analytical, more curious, more observant. At the very least, you’d learned a new word or two. And you wanted to use those words in a sentence, immediately! In The End of Tour, you see Lipsky imitating Wallace without even meaning to, picking up his pronunciation of certain words, his mannerisms, his jokes, and even trying his chewing tobacco (he spits it out immediately). There’s a great moment when Lipsky and Wallace are smoking cigarettes in the car with two of Wallace’s friends. The windows are cracked to let the smoke out but cold air is whooshing in, causing Lipsky to announce, gleefully, “we’re on a hypothermia smoking tour!” One of Wallace’s friends comments that it “sounds like something Dave would say”. She says it without any particular malice; it’s as if this has happened before, with Dave’s new friends. I recognized myself in that scene, and I recognized the generation of writers who continue to live and wrestle with his legacy.
I recently had the opportunity to see The Tree of Life while sitting two rows in front of Terrence Malick’s 99-year-old mother. The special screening took place in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, a small town north of Tulsa. Malick spent part of his youth in Bartlesville and recently returned to film his still-untitled next project (though some have called it The Burial) starring Ben Affleck and Rachel McAdams. The film was screened in a fairly unassuming shopping mall located just off of state highway 75. Okay, so it wasn’t the most majestic setting possible, but it was good enough. Not scheduled to be officially released in Oklahoma and the surrounding region until later this month, I heard about this “secret” happening a couple of days before from an acquaintance that lives in the area. It was touch and go until the day of the screening as to whether or not I would be able to attend, but I was greeted with an early morning text that simply said, “You’re in.”
I’ve been a Terrence Malick fan since my late teens when my father, having loved Badlands since its original release in 1973, took me to the video store to rent a somewhat-scratchy VHS copy of that landmark road movie. The films that followed, Days of Heaven (1978), The Thin Red Line (1998), and The New World (2005) all mean a great deal to me both artistically and personally. So it’s no surprise that I was just a little excited several years ago when word first began to circulate about The Tree of Life. I followed the rumors, the casting changes, the false starts, and the rest with a great deal of attention. With each new morsel of information (dinosaurs, space, asteroids) my hunger grew. It’s hard to explain, but I wanted to both know everything and absolutely nothing about this film before I saw it.
I left work a little early the day of the screening, giving myself ample time for the 45-minute drive from Tulsa to Bartlesville. The road between is straight and flat, peppered with occasional cattle, goats and abandoned cars. I blasted classical music, recalled my previous experiences with his films, and pretended the late evening light was meant just for this moment.
I sat in the second row back from the screen. The theater was small and I wanted as much of my field of view as possible to be taken up by the film. Among the other attendees were relatives and friends of the Malick family, none more important than the director’s mother, Irene, sitting behind me in a wheelchair. According to Malick’s wife, Alexandra “Ecky” Malick, who spoke briefly before the film, this was Irene Malick’s first time seeing the film. Malick himself was characteristically absent, as was his father, Emil.
If you’ve seen or even read the copious amount of press this film has already received, you know what a personal statement it is. The central story is set in Waco, Texas in the 1950’s and follows a father, mother and three brothers through the eyes of the eldest boy, Jack. Terrence Malick was the oldest of three brothers. He lived as a boy in Waco. One of the brothers in the film dies at 19 under mysterious circumstances. Malick’s brother, Lawrence, is said to have taken his own life around the same age. Terrence Malick’s remaining brother, Chris, died in 2008 at age 60. A cause of death was not released. Though it’s been portrayed as obtuse in its telling and abstract in its ideas, this film is as starkly autobiographical as any by Fellini.
On the drive back to Tulsa, completely wrecked by what I’d just experienced, I couldn’t get Malick’s mother out of my head. What did she think? Was it obvious to her? Did she get it? In the film, the mother is portrayed as an ethereal, almost angelic archetypal figure of grace and beauty. Yet sitting behind me, in a stainless steel wheelchair, having lived on this earth for nearly a full century, was the woman herself in flesh and blood. As images of an imagined afterlife flickered on the screen, I wondered if it would ever cross her mind that her son may have created for her, the only true afterlife that really exists.
Unlike the last time I reviewed a film, when I felt compelled by virulent dislike so to do, I was moved and surprised by This is England, Shane Meadows‘s 2007 movie about restless 80s youth in a shitty northern town. At the start, the film’s world is shaped by Thatcher and the Falklands and council housing and having no money; the youth, as is their wont, are acting out and wearing silly clothes.
Twelve-year-old Sean, whose father died in the Falklands, is left with a young and loving (if kind of dotty) mother, a pair of uncool jeans, and a big hole in his heart. Finding refuge from his various neighborhood persecutors, he becomes the little brother and mascot to a group of lovable non-racist skinheads (the sharp-dressing reggae kind, which were apparently a thing, not the white power murderous kind). Together, they get up to minor destruction and harmless hijinks. Then a couple of old friends show up, newly minted ultra-nationals fresh from a stint in jail. Lines are drawn, choices are made, and suddenly the film gets stops being carefree and comic with a cheerful Specials and Toots soundtrack, and the threat of violence immediately becomes ever-present and terrifying.
The movie has a couple of problems, namely the “sad music” selection accompanying some of the serious scenes, and its abrupt denouement. I would have liked the film to be longer and to see what happened to everyone, mostly because I was so engaged by the incredible performances–especially by Tom Turgoose, who plays the young feller Sean, and Stephen Graham, who plays Combo the nazi–as well as the great, if sometimes unintelligible dialogue and the glimpse afforded into this particular zeitgeist. It reminded me not a little of David Mitchell‘s wonderful novel Black Swan Green, if only because of the Thatcher and the Falklands and the dialogue and the teen angst.
Basically, it’s a movie about the dangers of poverty and powerlessness, the aching hearts of youth, and the horrors of prejudice. Since, in my crude estimation, 20% of every story ever told is about these things, as a film This is England doesn’t break new ground on the human experience. But it is mesmerizing in its specificity, and the acting is spectacular. And, unfortunately, although the film’s milieu is now almost three decades old, the rampant unemployment, the ignorance, and the attendant nativism it relates are not unrecognizable today.
I saw an incredible movie on Friday night, The Triplets of Belleville. It’s a very odd French, animated film. Barely two words are spoken the entire film; instead it is all raucous song and a canvas that is blissfully full of movement and energy. It was a joy to watch. Here’s the trailer.More WoodyAs was discussed in the comments of my recent “bookfinding” post, it turns out that all three of Woody Allen’s humor collections are available in a single volume entitled Complete Prose of Woody Allen. Or they were available, anyway. This one appears to be out of print, although used copies are for sale. Meanwhile, Ms. Millions has been attempting to read Without Feathers and has been unable to get very far because she can’t stop laughing. Every time I look over she’s silently guffawing, too winded to hold the book in front of her face. It reminds me of that old Monty Python skit about the world’s deadliest joke.