A Supposedly Fun Film

August 23, 2015 § Leave a comment

I don’t know if I’ll get around to seeing The End of the Tour before it leaves theaters, but after reading Rebecca Mead’s article on the The New Yorker’s web site, “How ‘The End of the Tour’ Nails an Entire Profession,” I really want to.

The film is not a standard biopic, but a look at the evolving relationship between a journalist and his subject:

What “The End of the Tour” dramatizes—why it will be added to journalism professors’ curricula—is the seduction phase of the profile-writing process. It shows what a complicated encounter that can be, when the reporter’s effort to get inside the mind and heart of his subject is professionally motivated but also personally charged. We see the skill with which Lipsky engineers Wallace’s revelations: he waits until they are strapped into adjacent airplane seats before bringing up the fact that, as a graduate student at Harvard, Wallace was committed to McLean, the psychiatric hospital—a nice cinematic representation of journalistic cunning. But he is also seen singing along to the car radio in what is represented as a genuine sense of joy in Wallace’s company. Of course, you end up becoming yourself, even when you’re a journalist.

Wallace is not my favorite writer; he is witty and entertaining, but his outsized projects seem to fall just beyond my purview. That he was chosen for the subject of a movie (not based on David Lipsky’s biography, Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, but about the making of that book) shows how he is sadly lumped into the category of writers admired for their personas as much as if not more than their opera. I read Infinite Jest a number of years ago, and what I remember of its tripartite narrative is caring more about the tennis academy thread than the psychologist thread or the Quebecois separatist thread. His essays fascinate me more, particularly those in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, though in their quests to view Middle American traditions like state fairs and luxury cruises through the lens of irony, they feel like very old jokes.

In the Here and Now

August 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

At The Lit Hub, Alexander Chee offers praise for the present tense in fiction:

In the present tense, you aren’t stuck to the moment—you can go forward and backward in time. In fiction, the demands of the present tense are in some ways the opposite of that exploration of uncertainty—the tense places a demand for the elimination of all other possibilities in the writer’s imagination—this is what happened and is what is still happening whenever this memory returns to this character or whenever this moment matters.

The present tense encourages a sitting, an observing, a letting things come to us. How often do we use it when we relay things that are comfortably secured and locked in the past? Think of how we share stories among friends, the way we talk as though the audience member is present at the scene: Tommy sees the snake and comes bursting out the bathroom with his pants around his ankles and the rest of us are just sitting there, dying laughing. Or: I’m driving down Route 6 minding my own business when this cop comes up behind me, and I’m thinking oh shit, what the fuck does he want? We use the present tense to tell narrative jokes: A man walks into a bar…

Critics often use the present tense to summarize movies, as though the audience is following along in the moment: Sonny stops at the toll booth, and there’s a delay as the toll booth operator drops the change. Then the movie goes silent, and that’s the moment when he knows he’s doomed.

Sports color commentators use the present tense to rehash a play that just happened. Archer throws a changeup on the outer half of the plate and Ortiz does a nice job of keeping his hands back on the ball and lifting it to the opposite field.

I have used present tense a few times myself, including for my baseball stories, even though they are set in the 1990s. It should come as no surprise that some of my favorite fiction uses the present tense, including John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy.

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