Although Of Course You End Up Riffing Obliquely on How a David Foster Wallace Road Trip Movie Is a Terrible Idea
1. In 1992 I asked my grandmother to rent Steven Soderbergh’s film Kafka from Blockbuster so I could watch it. We watched it together. I was intrigued; she found it dull. I saw it again in college and then again a few years ago. It’s nothing special.
2. In my freshman year of college I lived right next to a big video rental place that rented most old films for a dollar. This is where I discovered Where the Buffalo Roam, a 1980 semi-biopic starring Bill Murray as Hunter S. Thompson with music from Neil Young. My metaphorical lid flipped. I returned to my apartment to screen this strange find. Disappointment.
3. Seeing and immediately being disappointed by Where the Buffalo Roam fits neatly into another memory: In 1991 a record store clerk dissuaded me from buying an expensive bootleg recording of Jimi Hendrix featuring Jim Morrison. The clerk went to great lengths to do this (short of opening the CD, of course), insisting that the record was awful, that it should never have been released. A few weeks later a friend loaned me a tape of the recording he’d somehow acquired. Total garbage. I didn’t even bother to dub it.
4. (Sometimes when I see that some new scrap and tittle of a dead author’s work is going to be posthumously published, I think of that Hendrix/Morrison recording).
5. In 1998 I saw Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Sloppy, cartoonish, vivid, and occasionally incoherent, Fear and Loathing is successful mostly because it isn’t a film about Hunter S. Thompson. It’s a film about the end of the illusion of the 1960s.
6. I don’t remember when I first saw Barfly. Sometime in college. Undoubtedly I tried to keep pace with old Hank on-screen. Hence the poor memory.
7. Factotum: I fell asleep at the end. But it wasn’t bad, I guess. A good attempt at interpreting Bukowski’s autobiographical novel.
8. (But obviously the documentaries that feature Bukowski himself are so much more alive than any interpretation).
9. Some interpretations of writer’s lives benefit from the distance—the distortion—of time: Quills, The Libertine, Marat/Sade, any riff on Shakespeare (although I can’t think of one that isn’t crap, actually, right this minute), etc.
10. In particular, Jane Campion’s film Bright Star is excellent, but it’s not really about John Keats: The film is really about Fanny Brawne. Again though, I think time’s distortion helps.
11. (And oh lord I would love to see Val Kilmer’s one-man Mark Twain show, but that’s a whole other thing, not a film thing, not even a writer thing, more of a Kilmer thing).
12. The Faulkner/Hemingway amalgamation in Barton Fink is something else.
13. I turned off Capote.
14. I turned off The Motorcycle Diaries.
15. A few weeks ago I turned off Walter Salles’s adaptation of On the Road.
16. The Guardian and other sources report that Jason Segel will play David Foster Wallace in a film adaptation of David Lipsky’s Rolling Stone interview-turned-full-length-book, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip With David Foster Wallace. Jesse Eisenberg will reportedly
take awkwardly stammer through Lipsky’s role.
17. Jason Segel, of the hit CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother, will play the late David Foster Wallace, who wrote “Good Old Neon.”
18. Jason Segel, a Judd Apatow stable staple, will play the late David Foster Wallace, who wrote an essay about misanthropy and a cruise ship.
19. Jason Segel, whose goofy charm and lovable good-nature belie a sensitive temperament, will play the late David Foster Wallace, who often wore a bandanna on his head.
20. Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself covers Wallace touring on his Infinite Jest book tour; his fame explodes and he’s not entirely sure what any of it means yet—whether to enjoy, how to enjoy it, is it even possible to enjoy it, etc. Lipsky inserts a heavy editorial hand—lots of bracketed thoughts in this one, as our interlocutor repeatedly registers, or attempts to register, his own verbal dexterity, his own writerliness. And who can blame him? What writer-critic can resist showing a little plumage to the writer under discussion (to steal James Wood’s phrase)?
21. Lipsky’s book features one of the most intriguing characters in late twentieth-century literature: David Foster Wallace performing David Foster Wallace attempting to not-perform David Foster Wallace by acknowledging that David Foster Wallace is self-consciously aware of performing himself.
22. I can easily envision the shape, the tone, the contours, the set-pieces of this proposed film adaptation. A road trip film, a buddy film, but a film about antagonists, bullshitters, waxing hard, some high laughs, some intense moments (gaining so much easy shallow depth from Wallace’s suicide), maybe a few reading scenes. Etc.
23. And that’s what most bothers me about this film adaptation: How easily I can imagine what it will likely look and sound and feel like. How comfortable it all is.
24. There’s just not enough of that magical temporal distortion I referenced in point nine. The film is likely to piss off real fans of Wallace’s work and give anyone else interested a facile notion of who the writer was and what he thought and how he thought and how he represented and shared what he thought. How is such a film not a crass cash grab? Even if the film were artistically successful (leave aside what that nebulous term could mean for a moment, please)—again, how is such a film not a crass cash grab?
25. I could be wrong though. I’m fine with being wrong.
Sean Hartter’s fantabulous collection of movie poster designs from an alternate dimension relay such a precise aesthetic that they almost make me sad that these movies don’t exist. Still, I find some consolation by imagining scenes from, say, a Jodorowsky-helmed Star Wars or Vincent D’Onofrio in an x-rated version of Avatar. (Thanks to Tilford for the tip).
As studios increasingly rely on franchises—and rebooting those franchises every decade—it makes sense that franchise titles will continue to evolve like comic books have, with new artists (directors, producers, writers, etc.) doing their “take” on the property.
A few of Hartter’s images, but I suggest getting lost in his site:
Eleven Excellent Films About Films and Film-making
1. Hearts of Darkness, Eleanor Coppola, et al
2. Lost in La Mancha, Keith Fulton et al
3. Burden of Dreams, Les Blank
4. Adaptation, Spike Jonze
5. Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry
6. The Player, Robert Altman
7. Ed Wood, Tim Burton
8. Stardust Memories, Woody Allen
9. Sullivan’s Travels, Preston Sturges
10. American Movie, Chris Smith
11. Barton Fink, Coen Brothers
Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” is one of our all-time favorite scary stories. Poe’s story explores the troubled mind of a murderer suffering from manic bipolar depression. Or maybe it’s all about the suppression of dark secrets. Is the Evil Eye an “evil I”? I think so! Dig this great animation from 1953, featuring the vocal talents of James Mason:
“Having your book turned into a movie is like seeing your oxen turned into bouillon cubes” — John LeCarre
Movies rarely compare favorably to the books from which they are adapted and almost never surpass them. Still, film adaptations of books can be fantastic if handled by the right director–take Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón for example, whose brilliant films Children of Men and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (adaptations of books by P.D James and J.K. Rowling, respectively) convey richly imagined, engrossing worlds. Cuarón’s films join a small stable of adaptations that live up to–if not surpass–the books on which they are based. Most great film adaptations turn good genre fiction into great art. However, great literature doesn’t usually fare so well. Geniuses like Kubrick and Coppola have reconfigured airport reading like Stephen King’s The Shining and Mario Puzo’s The Godfather into cinematic masterpieces, but has anyone ever done justice to Melville or Hemingway or Hawthorne or Fitzgerald (of the four attempts at translating Gatsby to the screen, the 1974 Coppola-produced effort is arguably the best, but consider how short it falls of capturing Fitzgerald’s vision)? Which brings up the question: just how good, bad, or indifferent will the upcoming movie adaptation of Cormac McCarhy’s Pulitzer Prize winner The Road be? We thought we’d navigate the pros and cons here.
What The Road film adaptation has going for it:
The director: Australian director John Hillcoat’s 2005 feature film debut The Proposition captured the bloody violence and moral ambiguity of a world alienated from civilization. We loved the movie, and not enough people have seen it. The tone Hillcoat achieved in The Proposition seems well matched to McCarthy’s grim vision.
The producer: Nick Wechsler’s list of films includes Sex, Lies, and Videotape, The Player, Requiem for a Dream, 25th Hour, and Drugstore Cowboy–so it seems like he knows how to sit back and let a filmmaker create art without trying to, you know, have a massive Hollywood hit.
The leading man: Viggo Mortensen as the father seems like a great choice. Mortensen brought depth to the role he’s most famous for–Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings trilogy–something of a feat when you consider most of his screen time was devoted to scowling, brooding, or chopping up orcs. He was fantastic in the films he did with David Cronenberg, A History of Violence and Eastern Promises (his bathhouse fight scene is unbelievable). Mortensen’s a published author who started his own publishing house, Perceval Press, so he probably understands the literary gravity of The Road.
The story: Anyone who’s read The Road knows that it’s a sad and moving and strangely beautiful take on one of the most hackneyed devices of science fiction: the post-apocalyptic wasteland.
No Country for Old Men: The Coen brothers did a great job with No Country for Old Men.
Potential problem spots for The Road film adaptation:
The cast: We don’t know much about twelve year old Kodi Smit-McPhee who plays the son, but we do know that that is a major role. Let’s hope Kodi is more Jodie, less Jake Lloyd or (shiver) Dakota Fanning. However, Viggo’s had pretty positive things to say about him. Ringers Robert Duvall and Guy Pearce are also in there, but there aren’t too many other speaking parts in the book besides the father and the son, so it’s hard to predict what they’ll be doing–hopefully Hillcoat hasn’t fiddled with the story too much. Charlize Theron is also in the movie. The wife character showed up in a few dreamy flashbacks, but was more of a shadow than a fleshed out character; again, hopefully Hillcoat hasn’t chosen to expand the role to appease a wider demographic.
The story: Some of the best moments of The Road consist of the father’s inner monologues on memory and loss and very few directors can pull off a voice-over successfully (Terrence Malick is the only one who comes to mind right now). Of course, this problem of language is always the problem of movie adaptation.
All the Pretty Horses: Billy Bob Thornton’s leaden 2000 adaptation of the first of McCarthy’s “border trilogy” is pretty boring. I’ll admit that I’ve never finished the book, despite three attempts [ed. note: I finished the "border trilogy" in spring of '09. Books are far, far, far superior to the film].
No Country for Old Men: Even though the Coens did a great job with No Country for Old Men, the book was still better than the movie–and No Country is, in some ways, McCarthy’s take on a genre novel, the crime procedural. In this sense, the Coens made a smart move, but they still couldn’t convey the depth and meaning of the book–again, much of it delivered via Sheriff Ed Tom Bell’s inner monologues. Although The Road may appear to have genre fiction elements–namely, the tropes of post-apocalyptic sci-fi–to describe it as such would be a severe limitation, as would be to film it in such a manner.
The advance stills: Sure, they’re grim and bleak, but are they grim and bleak enough?
Also, why the stylized cart? If you’ve read the novel, you know what I mean–the cart needs to be a grocery store cart, homeless style! Hang on–
–that’s better! (NB: images link to a gallery of advance images)
Does it seem worth seeing in the theater?
Yes. We’ll be carrying the fire on or around November 26th (and just in time for Thanksgiving!)
Criterion has finally given Lindsay Anderson‘s 1968 classic if…. a proper DVD release. if…. is one of my all time favorite films. Mick Travis (played with savage aplomb by a very young Malcolm McDowell) leads “The Crusaders,” a band of rebels who defy “The Whips,” the cruel upperclassmen who mete out harsh punishments at their stringent English boarding school. “What I want to know is when do we live?” asks restless Mick. However, the life of individual freedom that he wants to live is so suppressed by the cruel and dominating hierarchy of his school (a microcosm of British society) that he must take liberty by force. In one scene, the Crusaders playfully fence with each other, declaring “Death to all tyrants!” The playfulness quickly slips into violence, as the repressed urges of these would-be revolutionaries flare up. When Mick is cut, he shows his wounded hand and declares with pride “Blood! Real blood!”
Anderson loads if…. with myriad revolutionary images that foreshadow the film’s shocking ending, at the same time tempering if…. with a surrealist sense of humor that satirizes the inherent dangers in institutionalized education and groupthink in general. if…. is bitingly funny, oddly sexy, and unlike any other film I’ve ever seen. The new edition looks great (much better than my VHS dub) and sounds great, and the commentary track provided by Malcolm McDowell and film critic David Robinson is insightful and surely a must for fans of the film. But who am I kidding, if you’re a fan of this film you’ve already seen the release and listened to the commentary–right?