After making it through a viewing of The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, I swore off watching films with primarily straight white male casts. The trailers for the Scorsese film looked colorful, seedy, and a mockery of the lifestyle that the protagonist believed was his own golden age. The actual plot and progression of the film showcased the decrepit and vile inner lives of stockbrokers who are pulled into the trade by a penchant for greed. I didn’t feel a bit remorseful for Jordan Belfort’s demise because it seemed he didn’t regret for a moment his choices in the past. It made a slow burning anger take light towards the male sex when I really should have been more discerning in how I generalized half of the human race.
The hypermasculinity that accompanied another prominent Oscar winner in recent years, American Sniper, only convinced me further that the celebration of these films were both damaging the male psyche and tied violent desires to how men engage with the world around them without apologies. These movies certainly did not represent the men I surrounded myself with, but were held in a high regard by those who believed that to be sexist and misogynistic made you more of a man. Instead of seeing the traumatic effects of PTSD that American Sniper apparently was trying to communicate to the American public, they felt a thrill from the violence depicted by being part of the military and the pride of killing “savages” in the name of their country. They left The Wolf of Wall Street wanting to get into the stock market so they too could hire prostitutes, take excessive amounts of drugs, and become a part of the 1%. It made me feel sick to see these films promoted as “patriotic” and “laugh-out-loud comedies” when both subject matters depicted a reality where serious political issues are being constantly analyzed within the national agenda. Instead of addressing where these films were problematic in their approach, the directors defended criticisms to market their own agendas and the public celebrated the destruction they watched unfold in ignorance.
Of course, The End of the Tour is a much quieter film. From the trailer alone, aren’t you kind of relieved that for once in recent memory the male characters are not shooting off guns, no bombs are exploding and there are no humorous scenes that show scantily clad women being objectified in a strip club? The two main characters are talking. That’s right, talking to each other. About life. About their anxieties. About their fears. It’s refreshing and nearly unheard of in this day and age. Both men are single and are writers in the nineties at the height of Alanis Morrisette’s popularity. They don’t have the call to duty that sparked the high enlistment rate after 9/11, they aren’t really out to make their millions on Wall Street. They yearn for the success of reaching an audience through their work and to create a work of fiction that touches the collective nation. These ambitions aren’t what many may call exciting or action-packed, but it makes a lot more sense to me than most of the American propaganda they try to speckle the theaters with.
The plot follows Jason Segel’s brilliant and touchingly honest portrayal of David Foster Wallace following his national book tour after the release of Infinite Jest. David Lipsky is a journalist starting out his career at Rolling Stone after publishing his first book The Art Fair. He doesn’t have the celebrity or fame that Wallace acquired nearly overnight or his assured canonized success. David Foster Wallace wants to make it clear to Lipsky that he’s grateful his book is reaching people, but his personal conflicts that Lipsky sees as sensational are not the life lessons Wallace wants to pass on. He wants to come off as humble and self-aware. He’s intelligent, but he doesn’t want to isolate the public who celebrate him. He’s self-effacing and struggles to live up to a version of himself that isn’t nearly as romantic or overbearing as his readers would like to believe.
It was controversial that this film was made at all after being criticized by Wallace’s estate, which according to his wishes refused to endorse any representations of him in the media. It’s hard, though, to imagine someone feeling like they were personally being done a disservice by being depicted in a film with such care. Segel’s portrayal is entirely subjective as he plays on Wallace’s deprecating mannerisms which hide his true persona: a man who knows himself almost too well with little opportunity to effectively communicate his being to others. His depression is viewed as a pathway towards his creative genius, but his despondency is personal and sad. There’s the lingering worry that the caricature of the alcoholic writer, lonely and astute like a modern Fitzgerald, will lead others towards the wrong analysis. How much power do you have over your image? What if you and your thoughts are only great because you can articulate them better than most? Does that make you part of the elite or are you just gifted with a skill everyone wants but very few possess?
Wallace wants the control over his creative process that Lipsky takes for granted. David Foster Wallace’s suicide attempt and his depression become part of a mystique he doesn’t want to become remembered for. In the midst of Jordan Belfort’s drug and sex addiction, coupled along with Chris Kyle’s penchant for guns long after he returned home from the military, we forget that these are serious issues, instead of byproducts of being a man in the 21st century. Wallace’s struggles did not lead him to success; they only were a chapter in the life of someone who was able to put something great into the world while keeping his demons at bay. A theme that comes up consistently throughout the dialogue is what it means to be a 21st century American. Wallace talks about his greatest addiction being tied to the television and what that says about our culture in the U.S. today, where we can be surrounded with opportunity and advancements, yet still choose to watch programming that only damages our intellectual capabilities. He criticizes the attachments we make as we dissociate ourselves from reality and form bonds with fictional worlds. On the final night they spend together, Wallace confides in Lipsky what he believes led him to the state of his own mental health. Lipsky wants to explore it in a positive light, “It wasn’t a chemical imbalance, and it wasn’t drugs and alcohol. It was much more that I had lived an incredibly American life. That, ‘If I could just achieve X and Y and Z, everything would be OK.’”
This is another year where there is a prominent lack of diversity in the Oscar contenders. We’re almost not surprised at all to see pictures like Beasts of No Nation, Dope, or Suffragette absent from the ballots, while there is no limit to the cis-straight white male dominating the box office. The Big Short apparently features two Academy Award winning actresses (Melissa Leo and Marisa Tomei), but refuses to put their names on a billboard or promote advertisements that hint to their roles. Some of our nominees stand out, with Brooklyn, Room, Mad Max: Fury Road, and The Martian all featuring white women in leadership roles. Part of me wonders on a different level if the lack of men we see celebrated on-screen who are vulnerable, emotional, and sensitive is an adjacent part of the problem. The Revenant, I hear, is basically Leonardo DiCaprio exacting revenge and wrestling with a bear for nearly three hours. Tom Hanks is taking down Communists in Bridge of Spies and Michael Keaton listens for days about sexual assault in the Catholic Church without breaking a sweat in Spotlight. There might be the contrived scene of one climactic moment where the main character screams about change, but then the plot moves forward. If meninists want to change our minds, that it’s really #notallmen, they should be encouraging a diverse portrayal of how they handle their anxieties or are pressured by society.
The End of the Tour doesn’t need all the Oscars. I would have liked to see it nominated for Best Screenplay or Best Actor for Jason Segel, who really demonstrates that his ability to do justice to a character’s memory is not taken for granted. True and tried, David Foster Wallace fans will probably stray from watching to respect the wishes of their idol. I’m trying to show it to everyone who is willing to watch two men talk candidly about their own impression of their lives for two hours. It may not be as riveting as George Miller showcasing his vision of apocalyptic mayhem or Matt Damon growing potatoes on Mars, but there is a lot more to be found in the modern man than action and sarcastic wit. Hopefully The End of the Tour will provide you with a more humanistic perspective of the male sex during your cinematic experience.