On two films about writers

Last week I watched two films about writers: The End of the Tour and Listen Up, Philip. The first film is based on the real-life occurrence of a Rolling Stone journalist interviewing David Foster Wallace towards the end of his book tour for Infinite Jest. During the film I slipped into my usual gripe: ‘I can’t be a real writer because I have neither the time nor the solitude presented in this film’; ‘I have not made the right life choices to write properly’; ‘this life has crept up on me while I was distracted elsewhere’. A, of course, with customary wifely ESP, clocked this reaction instantly. She tried, later, to call me out on it, but I resisted stubbornly. With the distance of a few days I am thinking about it all more positively.

The primary subtext of The End of the Tour is that writing is not all the stuff that surrounds writing – the industry of publicity and such. The depiction of DFW is presumably at least partly accurate, if clearly inspired in part by the plot and characters of Infinite Jest. There is much discussion on the dangers of engaging images, moving and otherwise, and at one point we see the writer spitting into a coffee mug, a la Hal Incandenza. Jason Segel’s DFW is a man who purports to be bewildered by his success, but who craves it like sugar regardless. He is a writer desperate for attention and yet suspicious of anyone who will give it to him too freely; a quaintly apposite Kurt-Cobain-and-fame paradigm that was still feasible in the naive 1990s, when the film is set.

Within this presentation is a comment on writing that, I felt, chimed with my own conclusions. Travelling the world is not writing; doing radio interviews is not writing; talking about writing is not writing. The DFW of the film sums it up adroitly: “That’s not real.” And Jesse Eisenberg’s character, the reporter David Lipsky, speaks a line to the effect that a writer has lost sight of what’s important when he derives more satisfaction from talking about writing than he does from the task itself.

One of the most compelling moments in the film’s denouement is that in which Lipsky snoops around in the great author’s house while he is outside scraping ice off his car. The other, lesser, David frantically reels off the things he sees into his Dictaphone as a record of the way this private genius lives, a final scrutiny that Wallace has resisted for the whole film. Lipsky ends up in the darkened room in which Wallace writes, which he respectfully leaves in darkness, a concession to DFW’s famous inscrutability but also an acknowledgement of what writing really is at heart: sitting alone in a room.

In Listen Up, Philip, we see the writer as hateful misanthrope, selfish and jealous guardian of his own solitude. Jason Schwartzman is unusually dislikeable as the titular fictional Philip, a cipher for a young Philip Roth. Philip systematically destroys his relationships under the tutelage of an older cipher for an older Roth, called (of course) Ike Zimmerman, whose name is only a few phonemes away from real-world Roth’s narrative alter-ego, Nathan Zuckerman. And is Ike’s buddy Norm, who the protagonist encounters at a party and thinks he recognises, supposed to be a version of Thomas Pynchon?

This film is full of writer cliches: the writer as bastard; the writer as grasping and self-involved; the writer as philanderer and drinker; and ultimately the writer as lonely depressive. In the end, the film left me with the sense that, while all this solitude looks enticing in onscreen shots of Schwartzman riding his bike around Manhattan in a tailored jacket, the truth is that no-one can really live like that.

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2 thoughts on “On two films about writers

  1. Before anything, it’s nice to see you back on your blog; it has been too long. (I think I’m learning how to use semicolons properly now).

    In reply to the introduction, I am realising with time (and due to your instruction) that the American Dream is a fantasy. In my vain youth, I still have the optimism that I hope will carry me to those who succeed, or burn me with them. I do not think that my hope is ill-founded. I think that all ambitious people, at some point in their life, face a wall of comparison that reminds them how many who were younger achieved so much. This is, I’m realising, not at all important, nor is it a fair reflection of one’s own achievements. There will always be one person younger than you, and due to the nature of time, you cannot change that. But there are many who never even tried, and many who did not succeed even at the start. I’m sounding too ‘self-help’ for my own taste, and I’m writing this more to allay my own fears that anything, but I do not think that I am incorrect.

    You conclude this post by saying that no one can live as lonely as geniuses are portrayed to do, but I wonder why such a portrayal exists. My initial thought is to think that it is a reaction from those who do not want to sacrifice their time for work (which I feel is the basis of the stigma around the ‘nerd’ -a term I proudly own). Still, I feel that this is an unfair reaction on my part; my defence against the term meant as an insult.

    In truth, I do think that the loneliness of the artist is productive, and perhaps necessary. Even in my own experience, I find that solitary work is most creative, but I still have a need to interact with close friends and family to stay sane. The strangest fact is that spending time with friends does not progress me objectively, but makes me feel better nonetheless (I suppose that the happiness is objective, but very short-term). I have to admit, as you may have noticed, many of my discussions with friends are nothing short of academic debates. (I am currently in the process of trying to prove the crucial nature of philosophy as the foundation of all human knowledge to them.) I wonder, then, whether I seek the social interaction, or the knowledge gained from such discussions. I guess I may still be a lonely depressive, replacing books with humans -and blogs.

    Unlike what you said at the start, I do not think that this is not a choice. Such a life has not distracted me; I think I chose it, but not consciously. This explains why I can’t exactly tell why I appreciate my friends so much. I appreciate the time I spend not working (not all of it, I procrastinate way too much), and I am trying to understand why. I think that no one *should* live as lonely as portrayed because such an ideal is unhealthy. Not only this, but I do not think that confining oneself like Einstein and Newton is necessary to be a real artist either. They are outliers, and the vast majority have learned from their varied lives to have a richer breadth of writing and imagination. The fixation upon the extreme is only because that sells. It is not completely true. I suppose the following is wishful arrogance, but even if the lonely image is true, there is always a first, and that’s what creative writers want to be anyway. On the other hand, if it is the only way to succeed, I am starting to believe that such success is not the only thing to live for. I am only now starting to appreciate the things that bring me happiness without helping me succeed at whatever my ultimate aim may be. What do you think?

    I have to say that this comment has been a great spew of my own thoughts, but it was sparked by the ideas of your article, so I won’t feel bad posting it as a comment. In regards to your article, this has also been a large dump of self-involvement, but I’ll excuse it as self-reflection, and turn it to your (quite literally) shining mind for judgement. Sorry, couldn’t help it.

    I really look forward to your next post; Illustrative Ad Verbatim is hilarious and deserves to be a series to torture J and L later on in life with embarrassing stories of their childhood.

    Liked by 1 person

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