So, say you start a conversation, a very good conversation. How so? Why is it so good? Is it the other with whom you converse? Is it the topic? Is it the commonalities slowly weaving a lasting bond between both interlocutors? Or between speeches? What is it that makes for a good conversation? Maybe it is you: your assertive attitude, your opalescent openness, your laudable listening or your tuned-in talk. Maybe is neither you nor me but both. Or something in-between. No matter what it is though, the nature of a true conversation is rooted deep down in its etymology: it is always open to a possible conversion. So change, true change, is what is at stake during a conversation, a very good one for that matter.
An interview always insinuates, if deceptively, the possibility of such conversion — it is always open to become a good conversation between interviewer and interviewee. Potentially so. But in all actuality this doesn’t happen that much. And this we can appreciate in The End of the Tour. Pristinely so.
The End of the Tour sets to recount the consciously magnified five-day exchange, road trip, interview that David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg, “American Ultra”) did to David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel, “The Muppets”) for Rolling Stone during the last stop of the latter’s promotional pilgrimage in St. Paul, Minnesota, where Wallace closed his literary pageantry with exemplary stoicism as his masterpiece, Infinite Jest, sealed for him a celebrity status not even his social gaucherie could take away from him. Today, twenty years have gone by after this épopée of solitude was first published and it has finally been able to shake off a little bit its star-power-aura to, very gradually, start to surface only for its literary qualities, which render it as infinite (in all its 1000+ page-extension) as it is eternal. But then, at the end of winter of 1996, when a young Lipsky persuades his editor to send him in search of a story within the author, within the numerous rumors around him, within the fuzzy lore that lured his increasing readership and finally arrives in Bloomington Illinois (the small town wherein Wallace was willingly sheltered from the American intelligentsia: the bandana to his intellectual ego), the luminary and legend seemed to be already worn off by his recently acquired status.
Lipsky, a striving writer who has recently published an even more striving novel, finds in Wallace’s book everything he would have wanted for his own work, and so, naturally, he’s as puzzled as he’s enthused by Wallace’s weary view towards his own stardom. Thus he snoops, he looks, he intrudes, he inquires, pries, meddles and sneaks — the typical fanboy turned journalist turned professional trying to crack down the dark corners of his idol so as to dethrone it and affirm himself. The typical rite of killing the father. Typical writer. Typical riter.
And from this encounter a true conversation is constantly about to emerge only to sink again inside both characters’ true intentions. The End of the Tour at which these two characters share insights, thoughts, reflections, points of view, conflicts, fears, yearnings, foibles and . . . words is continuously thwarted as both their intentions hide and recede. It is in their purposes, their telos, their respective agendas that the conversation they are about to have, over and over again, falls into pieces once, twice, thrice, and then just throughout the whole five days that frame the narration. The tension thus created from this emerging conversation constantly trembling and tumbling, with its interlocutors tenaciously trying to pick it up and put in place again, is perhaps what keeps the viewer interested in the film, for insights . . . although worthwhile, although poignant and often deep, are no dramatic reward for a narrative. This is no interview.
Director James Ponsoldt knows it well. He has shown his acute eye for this kind of tensions (i.e., his excellent “The Spectacular Now”) in which intelligent characters utter intelligent words but where what is left between them, clinging, fighting to find its way out as an actual bond between interlocutors is what really matters. In the case of troubled teenagers trying to find romance at the midst of their atonal nurtures, this connection is possible. In the case of professional conversers seeking to outdo each other at the midst of their invested insecurities, this connection is doomed from the very outset (if in doubt, give a look to Lipsky’s book on which the film is largely based . . . opportunely completed and published after Wallace’s suicide in 2008, for the Rolling Stone interview never saw the light of the magazine stand). For yes, this much is true: No true conversation can occur when a beforehand decided agenda lingers and prowls on each question, each answer and each of the interlocutor’s effortless lies.
For this is part of a writer’s trade: Lying — but always truthfully. It is a form of lying without any set agenda what inevitably transforms into a fiction, into a structured, shaped product that may be a story or not, but that is invariably mediated by language. For a writer, in this sense, a conversation is a thing: A thingly thing. It is as tangible as the words with which writing constitutes itself. A conversation consequently comes as raw material for a writer. And these two writers, one successful beyond his wishes (but whose success has not contributed a bit in helping him to get laid) and the other wishing for a success he’ll never have (but succeeding at charming the ladies [some] around him) conjure what is probably the main virtue of The End of the Tour: The multilayered agendas unfolding like careless carpets thrown on a sunny beach.
As Lipsky expresses right away (almost the kick-off of his book): When reminisced, this is the best conversation he ever had. Too many things are there to like — retroactively so. Too many dramatic elements are there to spice up his memory: Wallace’s untimely death and ever-growing fame as a cult-literary-hero, his own relative literary success, the incredible name that Infinite Jest has made for itself, a book that time seems only to serve, and so on and so forth. Lipsky, likely unwittingly, hence shares what is one of a writer’s greatest secrets: They can only value conversations after they have transformed them into material, as they have been transformed into memories and as they have been jazzed and passed through the artifice of language — and thus abducted by the gravitational pull of their own construct.
To their credit, the interview turned bromance turned competition is very well pulled off by the two leads, who talk and talk and talk and exchange criss-cross after criss-cross and keep the film moving forward. Segel in particular adds to his usually goofy-everyday-guynness flair (something that, reportedly, Wallace also had) a depth and complexity that contributes to the enhancement, but also to the understanding of one of the most enigmatic artists of our generation. He pulls the heavyweight that Eisenberg keeps tensing up and shows with wits more than with guts how difficult it is for a writer to have a true conversation and yet how easy, how very easy it is for them to produce a meaningful one. That comes with the trade.
Even though the end product is, cinematically speaking, somewhat dull, its content (for this is a work whose form is clearly superseded by and at the service of its content) is not. Progressively throughout The End of the Tour we can discriminate between meaningfulness and truth. Meaning, as something made, is something that necessarily goes through a complex process of transformation in language, in time, in effects, in consequences. Meaning resides in the truth that language makes and thus makes meaningful. Truth, on the other hand, always lies beyond language, which, in turn, always resides at the very end of the truth: Between thought and expression, to cite Lou Reed at random.
“Some Kinda Love” results from making meaning with someone else, but definitely not a lasting bond. Some kinda conversation, but certainly not a true one. The only conversation of this sort a writer can have is with their work. The only thing that can truly convert them. Kind of.