"We're all lonely for something we don't know we're lonely for. How else to explain the curious feeling that goes around feeling like missing somebody we've never even met?" -- David Foster Wallace
David Foster Wallace spent the last years of his life teaching creative writing at Pomona College. Pomona College is no more than a 10-minute walk from where I live. It is also where David Foster Wallace chose to end his life in September 2008 at age 46.
Our paths crossed a few times at the local independent downtown record store, but I never approached him. If I'd had something more interesting and cliché-free to say to him other than "I've been this huge fan of yours for years," I'd like to think I would have. Instead, I maintained this hope that one day we'd be formally introduced by some mutual acquaintances. I thought there'd be time. And when that time came I'd have something more worthy to say to him than "I've been this huge fan of yours for years." But that time never came.
I never thought he'd be leaving the party so soon.
And so it was with a lot of hesitation and trepidation that I walked up to the box office window earlier this year and asked for "one for the 1:15 matinee showing of The End of the Tour." My main concern was this: Would it be yet another bio-pic that lazily recreates and strings together a video montage of all the "important" moments of its' subject's life and pushes some forced narrative arc onto the viewer like that Steve Jobs biopic starring one of this year's best actor Oscar nominees -- Michael Fassbender -- did? SPOILER ALERT: Steve Jobs' daughter inadvertently creates both the iPod and iTunes at that film's climax.
The End of the Tour did not fall into that sandpit. In fact, it cleared it by a mile. 2016 was a year where moviegoers were blessed with not one but two cinematic miracles (neither of which were nominated for best picture). The biggest cinematic miracle of the year was the first decent, no preservatives added, 100% Jar-Jar free Star Wars sequel in 15 years. The second biggest was The End of the Tour. In a year that the academy has given us best picture nominee nods to the like of the ham-fisted Spotlight, it should probably be no surprise that a film focused on two writers having an enlightening, nuanced, and humorous conversation was overlooked.
I may just be another voice in the wilderness howling to an uncaring sky about this year's Oscar slights but howl I must. I get that The End of the Tour is not typical Oscar fare. It is not a refined historical drama, nor is there an "important" message being hammered like a rusty nail into the viewer's forehead, but years from now The End of the Tour might be studied in film schools as a film that established a new cinematic sub-genre - the bookworm buddy-road movie. For those who have not seen the film imagine what the characters portrayed by Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hours would have been like had they both received masters degrees in English from Ivy League universities.
The "buddies" viewers are introduced to in The End of the Tour are Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky and one of the most critically lauded authors of the late 20th Century, David Foster Wallace. Like most pairs featured in "buddy" movies, Lipsky and Wallace seem dissimilar on the surface but are two people who are ultimately as similar to one another as the proverbial two sides of the same coin - their level of success might be different but they are both two solitary beings typing across blank screens to an invisible audience into the wee hours of the morning.
This year's heavy favorite for a best actor nod is Leonardo DiCaprio for tangling with a bear in The Revenant. No slobbering bears are wrestled in The End of the Tour, only the tortured demons lurking quietly beneath the surface of two men. In End of the Tour Lipsky enviously yearns to be in Wallace's skin as Wallace yearns to be in anybody's skin but his own. In an Oscar-worthy performance, Jason Segal embeds Wallace with a warm, prophetic and lonely Zen-like grace.
"We're gonna have to develop some real machinery inside our guts to turn off pure, unalloyed pleasure," Wallace tells Lipsky as they indulge themselves behind the wheel on a classic road trip diet of convenience store cuisine. "Or, I don't know about you, I'm gonna have to leave the planet. 'Cause the technology is just gonna get better and better. And it's gonna get easier and easier... and more and more convenient and more and more pleasurable... to sit alone with images on a screen... given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. And that's fine in low doses, but if it's the basic main staple of your diet, you're gonna die."
Although the film is set in 1996 it speaks to who we are now in a way that no other film released this year did. And it does so without lecturing, pointing fingers or giving any easy answers. It is a quietly, fearless film that is unafraid to examine a contemporary cultural question that popular culture and its' self-congratulatory awards show would rather not have raised on the red carpet: Is this who we are? A binge-watching, technologically-sedated mass with an almost religious conviction that instant celebrity and spiritual contentment are one and the same.
"Is this who we are?" is a question that will not be getting asked on this year's red carpet. The questions asked will remain the same empty, salivating ones that were asked on last year's red carpet: "Tell us about that designer outfit you have on, how surprised were you to be nominated, and of course who do you think will win?"
We already know what the stock answers will be: "It's such an honor to be here. A dream come true. Wish me luck."
The End of the Tour ends with a plaintive cry into this celebrity-obsessed wilderness. "I'm not so sure you want to be me," the celebrated Wallace melancholically tells the envious Lipsky as he waves him goodbye and recedes back into the wintery distance. "I'm not so sure you want to be me." It's a simple expression but an almost revolutionary sentiment to express in a culture balanced atop billions of advertising dollars and celebrity endorsements and awards shows hellbent on conditioning us into spending all we have to become anyone but who we are.
I never got to have that conversation with David Foster Wallace when I had the chance. After seeing The End of the Tour, it felt as if I had.
It felt like missing someone I've never even met.