Wednesday, August 12, 2015

MIFF: Uber to the rescue

So my third MIFF screening was another 6:30 screening, just like my second. But this time I wasn't popping over after work. My friend Don (who is visiting from Chicago) and I had been watching my younger son on Tuesday, one of his two days home from daycare each week. So in order to get to our screening of The End of the Tour, we had to hand off the baton to my wife, who needed to leave work early, or at least on time, for this to happen.

She, however, seemed to have forgotten this.

Because we had to take not one, but two trams to get to the cinema, we really needed to leave by 5:45 to ensure an on-time arrival. When she called me at around 5:30 on another matter -- the school had called her to tell her our older son was sick, when they were supposed to call me -- and she was only just leaving, I suspected our on-time arrival was in jeopardy. But I remained optimistic.

When it was after 6 and she wasn't home yet -- a fact that shouldn't have been surprising, given the time I know it takes -- I realized that we weren't going to make it on time. Not by tram, anyway.

Uber to the rescue.

I'd had the Uber app installed on my phone at a poker game some three months ago. It was around 1 in the morning and the last train was an hour in the past. I knew I'd have to get a cab home, and I knew it wouldn't be particularly cheap. But then the topic of Uber was broached. And before I knew it, in my drunken haze, someone had installed the app on my phone and a driver was coming to pick me up inside of ten minutes. Not only that, but the first ride was free as a first-time customer perk.

I hadn't used it again since then, largely because our lifestyle does not generally require it. But I knew it would be great to have in the case of an emergency, and such an emergency presented itself on Tuesday night. Within a matter of about a minute I had an eight-minute ETA for a diver to arrive at our house. During that eight-minute window, my wife came home, and by 6:11 we were on our way to the Comedy Theatre on Exhibition Street. We were outside the cinema by 6:27, and though we had to sit in the front row, this was not one of those shitty front rows that ruins your viewing. We probably even had five more minutes to play with.

And when I went today to look at how much we had been charged for the ride, my jaw dropped -- but not for the usual reason a person's jaw drops in the expensive city of Melbourne. I was expecting a charge that would easily be in the twenties, but over $30 wouldn't have surprised me either.

Nope. The ride that saved our screening of The End of the Tour cost a mere $13.17.

Uber to the rescue indeed.

Before we (finally) get into the particulars of the movie, I should tell you the other reason it was essential that we made it to this screening, beyond merely looking forward to the movie: We were meeting people for dinner afterward, and expected to discuss what we had just seen. See, this was also the occasion for a "meet-up" of Melbourne listeners to the Filmspotting podcast, one of whom I had connected with via email shortly after moving to Australia, but hadn't yet met in person. I decided MIFF was the occasion to finally make it happen, and he and another listener both went to the screening and met us afterward for food at a Pan-Asian cuisine restaurant right around the corner. I won't go into detail on that dinner. I'll just say that they were two interesting people with a shared love of our interest in film, and Don and I were glad we got a chance to meet and dine with them.

All four of us loved this movie. It's the (of course true) story of David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), a Rolling Stone writer and aspiring novelist, who pitches a story to his editor to profile David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), the most talked about writer in the country after the publication of his massive tome Infinite Jest. This is 1996. Wallace is finishing off his book tour, and Lipsky's going to join him in the snowy midwest for the last leg, meanwhile trying to figure out what makes the brilliant writer tick. They strike up an interesting rapport that falls somewhere between the friendship of naturally compatible individuals and the professional rivalry of guys trying to succeed in the same industry. The story is overshadowed by our knowledge that Wallace has committed suicide, as the story starts in 2008 with Lipsky providing a remembrance of him on NPR upon hearing the shocking news.

Other than Segel's masterful performance -- he disappears into this role like he never has before -- what makes the film so great is that the audience (at least this Audient) is content to just exist with them in conversation over the course of a couple days, barely with even the need for a plot. The plot is fairly minimal -- it involves traveling to the final tour stop in Minneapolis, meeting up with a couple of Wallace's female friends (and some complications that arrive from that) and then returning home, with Lipsky all the while prodding him in ways that range from gentle to more invasive. The movie is essentially one long conversation with pauses and changes of venue, as the two men suss each other out and assess the level of trust they are building with each other. We know that journalists are supposed to keep their professional distance from their subjects, but this is a different kind of interview, in part because Lipsky so clearly wants to achieve what Wallace has achieved, and Wallace so clearly needs a confidant. Their relationship slouches toward friendship, then toward frenemyship, then ultimately toward an intimate understanding of one another's foibles and innermost fears.

However, none of it is didactic and all of it is interesting to listen to. The movie is extremely well written (by Donald Margulies) without being overtly clever, which I'm sure has partly to do with the fact that audio tapes of their interview are available and that much of the dialogue is either very close to what actually happened, or perhaps the actual things that were said. James Ponsoldt directed The Spectacular Now, which I did not particularly care for, but the improvisational looseness of his directing in that film really works with this material. Segel and Eisenberg are so comfortable in their characters -- even when the characters themselves are highly uncomfortable -- that the performances have that "two guys just talking" quality of the best improvised movies. Yet the dialogue is also precise in a way that gets you completely inside both writers' heads. Wallace's is, for sure, the more interesting head to be in -- even if you haven't read Infinite Jest (and I only made it through the first 100 pages before it beat me), his dialogue here gives you a sense of how Wallace thinks and exists in our world, how he is both fully a product of it and highly skeptical of its pitfalls. However, Lipsky's psychological reality is also extremely fascinating, as he's a bit of a dick (isn't Eisenberg always these days?) but also eminently relatable. He wants what Wallace has -- even if Wallace is quick to assure him that maybe he shouldn't.

The fact that we know Wallace killed himself -- but not until 12 years later -- makes the experience of observing him interesting as well. We are of course looking for seeds of suicidal tendencies, and they are more than just seeds as the topic of suicide is actually broached. But we also realize that this guy is not about to kill himself immediately, which makes his behavior all the more fascinating as a preview of what's to come. He's struggling with something, but the struggle is not nearly over, and in the ensuing dozen years we have to hope that there were wonderful times along with the fact that there were obviously bad ones. Segel has made us care about him enough to hope for that desperately. If there's any justice, he'll earn his first Oscar nomination for this performance, though there's some doubt as to whether the film will rise to the level of prominence necessary for him to be so recognized.

Perhaps the biggest indication of just how much I liked it is that I never had a sense of how close it was to being over, and I didn't care. Usually I'm big on structure, trying to determine where I am within a story and whether it feels like it's progressing along a satisfying arc. In The End of the Tour, I just could have listened to these guys swap philosophies on life, culture and the quest for personal greatness until the cows came home.

As far as MIFF is concerned, the cows are coming home this Friday night, when my 2015 MIFF concludes with The Witch. There's been a lot of deja vu from 2014 to 2015 -- I saw a Jesse Eisenberg movie on August 11th both years -- and if that continues, it might mean that The Witch is my favorite on the schedule (just as last year's final film, The Skeleton Twins, was my favorite).

Check back here on Saturday to see how it all wraps up.


Don Handsome said...

What I am finding so interesting in retrospect about the whole uber situation - as I am just now catching up on The Audient AFTER having returned from visiting you (and regretting not staying current while I was there) - playing into our End of the Tour screening and your dead-on assessment of the rabbit hole of that conversation is that its possible that the novelty of Uber (for both of us) and the surprise at the low cost and the ease of access and the over-friendly driver (though you didn't mention him in your piece) primed us for the idiosyncratic and addictive film. We went from panic to comfort in mere moments thanks to modern convenience and innovation - and leading into that screening we just couldn't stop talking about it. I think this is something that the Davids might have talked about as well if this movie took place in the present. And I think David Foster Wallace would have had a field day with it.
I just like it when all the pieces come together, but I bet some deeper meaning could be assigned to it by someone more talented than I. And I kind of liked the way the quirk, happenstance, and nuance of conversation was the through line for the night. A great time. Thanks for writing it up so nicely.

Derek Armstrong said...

Very astute observation. What I liked was their willingness -- specifically, Wallace's willingness -- to pick at a social construct of some kind and go with it exactly where I feel like I would go if I were picking at it. (The "do I wear a bandana/do I not wear a bandana" dilemma felt particularly interesting to me, as I have had occasion to ponder the same thing about myself regarding whether to have a beard, though probably not with the same sense of it relating to people's expectations of me and perceived judgments of it as a potential affectation.) This is not, of course, to suggest that I have a similar brain to David Foster Wallace's, nor that I would be able to write (or even read) Infinite Jest. Instead, I think it perfectly encapsulates his essential relatability, which caused him to feel accessible to so many people despite an obviously daunting intellect.

Yeah, Uber. Wallace would love it. And probably also hate it for some unforeseen reason that would be completely understandable once he gave voice to it.