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On meeting your idols and realizing they’re only human

Never meet your idols. There’s an imperative I’ve always hoped to one day defy, having pursued a career in journalism to maybe do exactly that. Among other things, of course. It’s something that can’t be avoided in this profession. Inevitably, you will have to interview someone you’ve always liked, looked up to, headbanged to in the solitary confinement of your teenage, poster-plastered room. And during that interview you will arrive at certain difficult truths, about your interviewee, about yourself.

In The End of the Tour, a film about the five days in 2008 that young Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky spent with the late David Foster Wallace as he made his rounds promoting Infinite Jest, Jesse Eisenberg, who plays Lipsky, discovers that he is at once in awe of his subject, and jealous of his accomplishments. He himself has written a book, The Art Fair, a less successful one that nevertheless received approval for a British edition. As the film annotates its final minutes, Wallace (Jason Segel) expresses dismay over the fact that Lipsky got approval and his book did not. They are genuinely nice to each other one minute, then cautious and closed off the next, holding back on what the other really, really wants.

 Jesse Eisenberg as Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in “The End of the Tour.”
Jesse Eisenberg as Rolling Stone reporter David Lipsky and Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace in “The End of the Tour.”

Lipsky narrates, “He wants more than he has. I want precisely what he already has.” In between dialogues, when the characters fall silent, this dynamic between the two writers surface — a love-hate thing that happens when you meet a person you really like and want to become. Even when you develop a relationship that resembles friendship, the fact will remain: you are the journalist and he is the rockstar. You are interviewing him because you, for some reason, lacked the capacity, or the avenue, or the will, or the fortune, or the time to become him.

An unfair and many times untrue phrase that alludes to a individuals to a different profession comes to mind. To paraphrase it: Those who can’t do, interview. Thinking it paves a clear path towards self-destruction and it usually crosses my mind, like a nasty green fog, right before I interview someone I remotely idolize. If you are a journalist and have felt this way, then you know that it makes you competitive, makes you want to ask questions that would make you seem smart, if not smarter, all in a subconscious effort to make them remember you, even like you.

In 2000 I saw the film Almost Famous and it officially made me want to be a journalist. I was a bit late in the game. I had been reading and writing since I was a kid, but I flip-flopped along the way. By that time, I no longer had the innocence of William Miller. My intentions were no longer so pure that I could say “I’m a writer” and not find the statement loaded with all my insecurites, my guilt, my bullshit. I wanted the experience of tagging along with interesting people, observing them, getting inside their heads, and making friends with the cool ones along the way. It’s the dream — to get a taste of the life without its trappings, and it’s really all we get even when we want more. Which is why as a journalist I’ve always felt like I am half something and half something else. I could understand Lipsky from this perspective. He was drawn to the story of David Foster Wallace, convinced he was worth the trip, because he identified with him and their lives were parallel path albeit a few years apart. Part of him wanted to be him, another part of thought he was better him, and the rest of him liked him.

Some addictions are sexier than others. — David Foster Wallace, The End of the Tour

Jesse Eisenberg plays him phenomenally. While he is usually an uncharming, mumbling bundle of nerves, often evil or blissfully clueless, in The End of the Tour, he displays a naiveté in spite of his character’s own ambition. When he’s being a cold-blooded reporter asking about addiction, loneliness and suicide, subtle movements in his face and body language expose how uncomfortable he is. His questioning straddles curiosity and fixation. (When Wallace notices, he tells Lipsky, that “some addictions are sexier than others.”) Even the way he hesitates to press the record button but presses it anyway is accurate.

Clicking that red button is always weird.
Clicking that red button is always weird.

While watching the film I wondered how his character would have fared if, instead of Miller, Rolling Stone sent him to tour with Stillwater. Would Penny Lane have asked him to move to Morocco? Would Russel Hammond have opened up to him? Would he even know the words to Tiny Dancer (he probably would, I bet it’s part of the job interview). Would he have gotten a better story because he was tougher, or would he have lived up to the otherwise loving nickname, The Enemy? There is that question of making friends with your subjects: do you do it because you have to, because you want to, or not do it at all?

One set in rock ‘n’ roll heaven and one set in a cold, sad purgatory, these two films are journalists’ films that are both romantic and painfully accurate. (The Devil Wears Prada covers the “hell” part, but that’s another story.) Still, The End of the Tour is a film that connects with all viewers with the clarity of its truths, via Wallace’s introspective ramblings. Everytime I watch them, they reduce me to a puddle of tears but immediately — without fail — inspire me to write the story of my career right after. I can’t say I’ve written that story already, which I seriously hope is not out of incompetence on my part. Maybe I just haven’t met any of my idols yet.

It’s terrifying how our careers are so dependent on the people we meet. If we never get that chance, would all this have been for nothing? If I do get the chance, would I have the strength to not make it about me? That was Lipsky’s struggle. I guess it will always be about us in the end. That kind of power is seductive and dangerous and paralyzing and not even real. On his breakdown, Wallace says, “It may be what in the old days was called a spiritual crisis or whatever. It’s just the feeling as though the entire… every axiom of your life turned out to be false, and there was actually nothing, and you were nothing, and it was all a delusion. And you were better than everyone else because you saw that it was a delusion, and yet you were worse because you couldn’t function.” Self-awareness is a bitch.

Almost Famous tells us to “Experience it. Enjoy it. Just don’t fall for it.” Easier said than done when you’re throwing back beers with rockstars and they’re telling you, in drunken stupor, all their dirty little rockstar secrets. But I wouldn’t know anything about that. If the universe ever sends me to Patti Smith, I’ll be sure to find out.

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