So, this movie: I saw it with a few friends. I was afraid I would cry, but I didn’t cry.
Here’s why I thought I would cry: I have read some of DFW’s work. Mostly his nonfiction. Some of his fiction. His fiction, for me, is much more difficult to read, because it’s harder and more emotionally draining. I can see his depression in his fiction much more clearly than I see it in his non-fiction, which I find to be more like hyper maniacal analysis—maybe it’s that the non-fiction is focused outward and the fiction focused inward.
Before we saw the movie, I read all sorts of THINGS about it, about people who thought it was great and people who thought it shouldn’t have been made, etcetera. One thing that made me anxious/excited to see the movie was that it was based, at least partly, on recorded interviews with DFW himself. Of course, a movie is always a fiction, but a fiction containing some of the true words of the real person being portrayed—unless the whole thing is treated disingenuously, some truth is going to be found there.
I thought both actors did a great job conveying subtlety in the relationship. It didn’t seem like this David portrayed in the movie was a very different David from the one I’d seen and read in interviews—always extremely careful with his words, as if parsing all the parts of each question and sentence for alternate meanings, often second guessing himself and becoming insecure with his ability to answer questions fully, or well, or not to wander from the given subject. In the movie, he is so concerned about the way that he’ll come across in this interview—not wanting to seem pretentious, or overthinking, or hungry for fame or attention—that he’s unable to simply answer questions without agonizing over every potential consequence of his words/actions. And he’s suspicious of Lipsky’s intentions (which he should be, but it’s complicated), so much so that he reveals that his own mental anguish is much more damaging to him than any harm Lipsky could do to him.
One of the arguments against the making/release of this movie has been that His Estate thinks the movie portrays him in a way that he wouldn’t have approved of. This could be, but I think that argument is pretty bullshitty, considering that David gave Lipsky permission to print the interview way back in 96. Add to that the dicey-ness of Estate actions like publishing David’s unfinished novel, plus the very public way his widow grieved by publishing a book of poetry explicitly about her grief after David’s death. I mean, 1. we can’t ever know what someone dead wants after they’re dead, but also 2. it seems pretty ridiculous to say that The Estate is allowed to say things about him but other people aren’t.
Then there’s the way that depression is depicted in the movie, which, to me, feels well done, sensitive, and authentic. So many of David’s ways of being in the movie were familiar; things I recognized in myself as a depressed person and in friends who also suffer from depression. Depression, combined with David’s crazy mathematical/philosophical intellect—man, it must have been really hard to be him. You could see that and feel it in Segel’s performance, just like you could see it in interviews with David, and read it in his prose. He did things, found strategies to stave away worse depression--things like baptist church dancing in the movie. He actively looked for ways to feel better. You see him looking in his writing too:
--he is endlessly trying to work out the right moral thing
--he is trying to get at the basic truth of something that is often too complicated to be basic
--he seems to be trying to figure out a way to JUST LIVE despite the complications that plague him
--he seems to try to find the small thing/connection that could lead to small, or big moments of happiness.
That moment in the movie when he's mad about being asked about heroin and goes off on Lipsky, and then Lipsky goes to bed and David wakes him up hours later to tell him that it's not chemical imbalances or drinking that are his problem, but American postmodern consumption etc—that moment to me is so clearly about the torture of his depression fighting with his intellect and David not being able to let anything go. That’s the moment when it’s clearest that he cannot be fully in control of his brain, because his depression is a fucking bastard with a stranglehold on his vision. He can’t see anything without it.
Besides feeling immensely sad that this big, smart guy isn’t around anymore, I wonder how a writer who had the reputation of being super-intellectual, linguistically difficult, and mathematically analytical could also be exceedingly vulnerable—so vulnerable that he couldn’t endure being alive. I think I was afraid that watching the movie would be too much like reading David’s fiction, but it was more of a comfort than I thought it would be. Maybe because I saw the movie primarily as non-fiction, and maybe because it wasn’t just David’s words, but also Lipsky’s observation of David, which I could watch and experience vicariously.