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Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and David Foster Wallace

The Stop Smiling Film Review

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Thursday, September 24, 2009


Brief Interviews with Hideous Men
Directed by John Krasinski
(IFC Films)

Reviewed by Mark Asch
 

In John Krasinski’s film of Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, many of the Interviews are conducted at a desk, in front of a bare wall, with a microphone and pitcher of water — like a table read, really, which makes sense given that Krasinski’s first exposure to David Foster Wallace’s stories came as an undergrad taking part in a staged reading of the monologue-length pieces. Making the material less like an evening of student black-box theater and more like a "normal movie," Krasinski contrives a grad student, played by Julianne Nicholson, to have her ear chewed off by the variously self-justifying, wormy and pitiable Men, including her own ex. In the press notes, Krasinski tells of a simpatico phone call with Wallace, in which the author gave his blessing to a stronger, more relatable narrative link to the stories’ divergent threads. He does this without adding much, though some sound bridges, juxtapository montages, and a professor played by Timothy Hutton all point in the direction Krasinski wants you to look: most broadly, at the question of how we get from seeing another person as just a “thing” (as one interviewee has it), to the kind of profound interpersonal connection Krasinski himself recounts second- or third-hand in his role as the last of the Men (the ex Man, in fact).

This question is largely Wallace’s, as are the answers the movie offers: stop, look, listen. And, but for a few fibers of dialogue to connect the monologues, the words are Wallace’s too. The acting’s the thing, with Krasinski assigning the monologues and then giving his actors space — whether at a desk or in a bathroom line or coffee shop or hallway — to feel the words around in their mouths until the Hideous Men start to make sense to them. As an approach to acting, this feels rightly analogous to Wallace’s approach to prose.

When Zadie Smith suggested, in an essay about Obama published earlier this year in the New York Review of Books, that “flexibility of voice leads to a flexibility in all things,” she might have been talking about Wallace’s writing, which seemed always predicated on the faith (sometimes even rewarded) that precisely the right words arranged in precisely the right order can help us — and I do mean “us,” the reader, the author, maybe even the subject — to understand anything unto infinity (the subject of Wallace’s book Everything and More).

Wallace himself wondered whether his writing might have been motivated by a “basically vapid urge to be avant-garde and post structural and linguistically calisthenic,” a self-assessment sure to set skeptical heads nodding. So, okay, let's talk about whether this is true — especially as applied to the footnotes, because there's no DFW without the footnotes. Charge: The footnotes are self-impressed synaptic pyrotechnics; extravagant digression as form of authorial arrogance, and so on. Counter: Sure, Wallace’s signature device, in its minute adjustments, associative walkabouts and rambunctious refusal to stay on-topic, playfully exults in its own potential for infinite recursion — some of us find this joyful for its own sake, but reasonable minds may differ — but it’s also an honest representation of the way people think. There are horizontal and vertical axes of thought in Wallace’s stories, as the main narrative progression is intersected by thoughts, memories, observations. Tangents.

Now, actual neurology can get pretty heavily non-Euclidian in a way that eludes the printed word. ("What goes on inside is just too fast and huge and all interconnected for words to do more than barely sketch the outlines of at most one tiny little part of it at any given instant," Wallace once wrote.) But Wallace's Brief Interviews with Hideous Men — from the paced, table read-ready speech patterns of the Interviews, to the page-long fragments honing in on moments generally considered too small for even a short story — is, within the limits of the medium, a rigorous record of the process of thought. (Rigorous even about the way thought can run on undisciplined.) In particular, “The Depressed Person,” with its torturous, excruciatingly diagnostic sentences and snag-filled footnote tributaries flowing ever deeper into the minutiae of a single clenched psyche, describes the process of introspection; while the fourth wall-breaking metafiction “Octet,” in which the author, with increasing desperation, explains the conceit of a story cycle he fears isn’t working, describes the process of artistic creation.

Both processes are intensely inward-looking, but Wallace's project is essentially reportorial — the responsibility to communicate acts as a counterweight against the navel-gazing tendencies perhaps implicit in the subject matter. The titular figure of "The Depressed Person" is waging an agonizing struggle for self-knowledge — a process often indistinguishable from selfishness: "this terrifying set of realizations, instead of awakening in her any feelings of compassion, empathy, or other-directed grief ... these realizations seemed merely to have brought up in the depressed person still more feelings about herself."

Wallace utilizes the language of therapy — writing about everything from math to tennis, he loved technical language, and unlike most writers was unafraid of repeating words. There’s almost a giddiness in his many applications of "trauma" and "Support System" — like, here is this single word that signifies this discrete concept with no loss of meaning in the transfer from signified to signifier and isn’t that Platonic and furthermore just neat — as he gets at The Depressed Person's circling self-awareness, realization of narcissism, intense shameful fixation on said narcissism, realization that shameful fixation on narcissism is itself a further degree of narcissism, et cetera et cetera.

In "Octet," Wallace — or, rather, the character of the author — explains himself because he’s worried he’s not making himself clear. Then he worries that his explanation will be received as yet another po-mo curtain-yank, the writer showing off his cleverness and obscuring content with self-impressed formal trickery. Then he worries that in stating his previous worry aloud it will be received as yet another po-mo curtain-yank, et cetera et cetera.

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