The End of the Tour

Nearly two years ago, I wrote elsewhere about my ambivalence toward a movie — The End of the Tour — about David Foster Wallace on a book tour for Infinite Jest. I haven’t been sure whether I’d wind up watching the movie or not, for a variety of reasons including a fear that it’d be sort of a hatchet job or lionization and that it’d feel a little ghoulish to watch it, especially given the estate’s decision not to support it.

It came out on demand recently, and last night I decided to watch it. I’m glad I did.

The movie didn’t transport me or anything. It didn’t really make me emote a whole lot, and it also didn’t feel like an outright hack job or lionization to me. Mostly it felt sort of comfortable to watch.

I didn’t love Eisenberg in it because he brought his particular personal flavor to the character of Lipsky, so that he seemed sort of more like Eisenberg playing Zuckerberg playing David Lipsky, which I found distracting. I thought Segel did a remarkable job playing a Wallace who evoked the public Wallace I know from interviews and other recordings, which doesn’t mean he captured Wallace as his intimates would have known him, but which made me feel like I was watching the public person whose work I so admire. So for me it was a nice way to revisit some of the exchanges from Lipsky’s book from which the movie drew its material.

My wife recognized Anna Chlumsky (Lipsky’s girlfriend in the movie) as the actor who played the girl whose best friend dies in the 1991 movie My Girl. I remember reading a book adaptation of the movie when I was at more or less the ages of its characters and really keenly feeling the loss that Chlumsky’s character felt when her best friend (played by Macaulay Culkin in the movie) died. For the most part I was shielded from death when I was a kid, and I don’t know whether it was strange or normal for me to react at the time with real emotion to the death of a character in that book.

There’ve been a few times as an adult that I’ve felt curiously bereft by the loss of a public person, and Chlumsky’s appearance connected that childhood sense of loss to the sickening loss I felt when Wallace killed himself in 2008, which I wrote about at the time here.

I don’t really know whether The End of the Tour was good or not, in sort of the way that when you see ugly babies out there in the world, it makes you wonder whether parents ever know that their own baby is ugly or whether they’re so blinded by their attachment to their child that they can see it as nothing but beautiful. That is, I don’t feel like I have enough distance from the material to make a good aesthetic judgment. I think the movie was probably reasonably good, and it gave me a nice sense of familiarity, as if I was watching old home video of an admired acquaintance, so for me it was a couple of hours well spent.

The Wolf of Wall Street

I had been interested for some time in watching The Wolf of Wall Street. I’m not sure why I was really interested in it, as I’m not terribly interested in finance or the history of its madness, but the movie had been on my to-watch list, and finally I sat down last night and watched it. On looking at Martin Scorsese’s page on IMDB, I see that I’ve watched a lot fewer of his films than I had thought, but my general impression has generally been that I like his films. Right or wrong, I think of his work as gritty and real. This is the impression I brought to watching The Wolf of Wall Street, which I did not think turned out to be a very good movie at all.

I don’t think I have a great eye for such things, but even I noticed a number of really bad edits — hands moved or drinks suddenly refilled as the camera angle switched, pants suddenly adorning what had been a bare bottom without there having been opportunity to slip them on. I figure that if I noticed a few of these, there must have been many more that a better trained eye would have seen, so the movie struck me as rather sloppily edited.

It was also grotesque. Of course, the behavior of the characters depicted was grotesque, and so a grotesque depiction seems well enough in order. What I mean to say is not that the grotesqueness itself is inappropriate but that the manner of its assembly seemed wrong. Often I felt like the movie was a string of clips from a gag reel: the boys snort cocaine off of some hookers’ bodies; the boys do too many quaaludes; the boys have an orgy; the boys crack wise about little people; the boys tape lots of money to their friend’s wife; DiCaprio effectively does a Gilbert Grape impersonation. Yes, we are seeing here the sort of excess that I suppose the movie is supposed to criticize, but it feels like a series of snapshots, and it gets a little old and feels pieced together. Often enough it feels more like a variant on the Hangover franchise.

The Hangover movies are surely funny at times (well, I assume — I’ve seen only the first one and didn’t love it but also probably laughed at it), but they have no real moral center. From a Scorsese film about Wall Street, I suppose I had expected at least some cynicism or a sense of quiet outrage about the excesses depicted, but I watched instead a film that seemed to make comedy of it all. Maybe it wasn’t a bad film as much as that it wasn’t the film I expected, which is more my fault than Scorsese’s.

And it’s entirely possible that I’ve simply misread the film. It is a narration for the most part from the perspective of the main character, who breaks the fourth wall from time to time. This device seems reasonable enough in a movie based on a book written by that character. Maybe what I’m reading as a weakness in the film is in fact the point of the film. That is, a cautionary tale told by a purportedly reformed scoundrel might in fact unfold in the way this film does, reveling more in the chain of zany exploits than in the reclamation of any true morality. How many times have I myself told gleeful stories of youthful debauchery without lingering overmuch on the regret and the hangover that followed? Is the film about this phenomenon as much as about Jordan Belfort’s particular exploits, and is the film perhaps cynical or moralistic after all, suggesting that there really is no such thing as redemption for such scoundrels? Does the book unfold in a similar manner, and is the film a critique of the book?

Even with this revised reading in mind, I didn’t love the film. It could be shorter and better edited and meaningful with a little less slapstick. I haven’t yet read any reviews of it, but I can’t help feeling that if it was favorably reviewed, it was more on the basis of its director’s reputation than on the merits of the film itself.

Moby-Dick on Encore

A few nights ago, I discovered that Encore’s recent two-part mini-series adaptation of Moby-Dick (IMDB page) was available on demand. Starring Ethan Hawke as Starbuck and William Hurt as Ahab with appearances by Donald Sutherland and Gillian Anderson, the show was fairly star-studded and not badly cast at all. I thought Hurt as Ahab was credible, though I think the part was misdirected. I’m not alone in thinking the show portrayed Ahab as rather more like the Buddy Jesus version of Ahab than what die-hard fans of the novel will really be on board with, but I do believe that with better direction and writing, Hurt could have pulled off a great Ahab. Southerland as Father Mapple was a bit of a joke, and the foregrounding (briefly) of Ahab’s wife rubbed me the wrong way, but it was nice to see Scully again. Hawke played Starbuck admirably, and Billy Boyd played a solid Ishmael. Second Mate Stubb I liked, but Flask was neither stout nor rowdy enough for my taste. All in all, I was pleased with the casting and acting.

The plot itself diverged rather drastically from the novel (predictably, I suppose). Steelkilt, who has an important thematic role in the novel but is by no means part of the main story, has a major role in the film. I guess that a movie adaptation of the novel does need someone to step up and speak out against Ahab more vocally than Starbuck is permitted by his station to do, and the introduction of Steelkilt for that purpose is actually fairly ingenius. The purist in me hates the move, but the pragmatist can see why the filmmakers brought Steelkilt to the screen.

The writers screwed rather a lot with the sequence of events in the original. In the film, the white whale attacks when the boats first lower for another whale, and I thought that sapped a lot of suspense from the movie. On the other hand, I suppose the writers felt as if they needed to let us know very early on that Moby-Dick was a real threat. (But doesn’t anybody who’d be inclined to watch such a movie have at least an inkling that there’s a great white whale and a catastrophe?) I don’t object at all to the idea that Moby-Dick might have been lurking about, and in fact I even sort of liked the notion that Ahab and the whale had a real sense of each other’s proximity, but I think the attack should have been put off and the suspense drawn out. Other plot divergences such as the omission of Fedallah and crew struck me as being in good service to the film without detracting from any sense of fidelity to the original.

Ishmael becomes a bit too important in this version of the tale. Ahab confides in him one time, trounces him another, and he’s generally just too present within the story. Of course the novel has a number of problems with point of view, in that it’s a first-person narrative in which many events occur that would not have been accessible by the narrator (e.g. private moments between Ahab and Starbuck). But these are problems of the novel and need not be dealt with by the movie, which naturally has its own omnipresent point of view. I suppose the writers felt a need to make more of a protagonist of Ishmael so that his escape at the end seemed somehow justified by his importance within the rest of the movie, but again the purist in me found it distracting and unnecessary.

Probably my favorite moments in the film occurred once the harpooners had sunk a dart in a whale and were being pulled along behind. Melville describes the peril of such moments in great detail in the novel, and I think this film does the moments justice. It was great fun to watch. I also enjoyed some of the visual depictions of life aboard a whaler — such as cutting up blubber, etc. — and found myself wishing there were more of these moments. I wish we had seen a better representation of the try pots, which Melville describes thoroughly and with great, appropriately hellish effect.

I did enjoy the movie, which had a budget of 25 million bucks and was on the whole a nicely put-together piece (the costumes, the staging, the special effects) as TV movies go. I think it’s a better adaptation than the one of a few years ago starring Patrick Stewart. It’s been long enough since I’ve seen the Gregory Peck version that I can’t really compare the two, but I suspect this version of the story is more vivid and engaging, the former probably truer to the original and a little less silly on the Ahab front. If you’ve got three hours handy and are of a mind to watch a version of the Moby-Dick story that differs significantly from the novel but has plenty of merits of its own, give it a watch. You can read a couple of other reviews here and here.