After a week of working one’s way through a challenging novel, the last thing a person wants to do is watch a challenging film, let alone 13 challenging films. What we really want to do is kick back in a chair and unwind with a few hours of Netflix. That’s practically our default setting.
But a person doesn’t have to get too deep into IJ before he or she starts to view switching on Netflix as a complicated moral choice. “What am I doing?” he or she thinks as the red logo appears. “What does this behavior reveal about me as an American, as a human? What should I choose? Will I ever be able to be entertained again?”
Fear not, dear readers: here’s a list of cartridges to watch that will take you deeper into the themes and style of Infinite Jest. Although they are roughly arranged to pair with a particular week’s reading, feel free to skip around based on what you have access to via cartridge or spontaneous dissemination.
Week 1: Slacker (Richard Linklater, 1991)
The Boyhood director’s multiple appearances on this list may seem like an odd choice: Linklater’s style—long, dialogue-driven scenes, understated cinematography, ordinary subject matter—may seem to be the antithesis of Wallace’s pomo pyrotechnics; however, he shares important thematic terrain with Wallace, namely a dedication to authenticity in an increasingly commercial and inauthentic world. This film, his first, makes as good an introduction as any to the world of Infinite Jest.
Like IJ, Slacker is a Gen-X work featuring a large cast of strange characters whose connection to each other is not always easy to decipher. Watch this film when you’re feeling overwhelmed and starting to regret what you’ve gotten yourself into with this doorstop of a novel. Like most of Linklater’s films, Slacker will remind you that feeling lost not only can be amusing: being lost can show you things you don’t see when you know where you’re going.
Week 2: David Holzman’s Diary (Jim McBride, 1967)
During week 2, you’ll encounter the delightful (and infamous) endnote containing the detailed filmography of James O. Incandenza. There are many avant-garde films from the 1960s and 1970s that give one a sense of what Himself’s films might be like, but Jim McBride’s masterpiece has the added bonus of capturing Himself’s motivation to make films and the tragic fallacy behind it. (And it’s on Netflix!)
Week 3: A Clockwork Orange (Stanley Kubrick, 1971)
If Wallace and Kubrick have something in common, it seems to be that no droogie can, in fact, viddy well. Like IJ, A Clockwork Orange interrogates our relation to what we see, but what’s even better is how they both include themselves and their styles in their critique. Although there’s a good chance you’re already familiar with Kubrick’s dystopian classic, reading IJ makes it even more horrorshow than it was before.
Week 4: The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach, 2005)
Noah Baumbach’s divorce dramedy illuminates the absurd sadness of highly educated families like the Incandenzas. Plus, it’s the only film on the list with any tennis in it.
Week 5: Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927)
At one point, Wallace wanted this photo of Lang directing a crowd scene from Metropolis to serve as the cover to Infinite Jest, and this classic silent film’s warning about the dehumanizing effects of technology amply demonstrates how IJ is one of its inheritors. (IYI, this image of Lang also adorns the cover of The Cinema Book, one of Wallace’s major sources for the film-related information in IJ.)
Week 6: Nashville (Robert Altman, 1975)
As you’re approaching Interdependence Day and the halfway mark in the novel, you may be wondering how this kaleidoscopic narrative is ever going to come together. Robert Altman’s sprawling multicharacter epic, made during the buildup to America’s bicentennial, should go a long way toward assuaging your fears while simultaneously opening your eyes to the novel’s critique of American politics.
Week 7: A Scanner Darkly (Richard Linklater, 2006)
If every plot thread in Infinite Jest were magically collapsed into one story, the result would probably be a lot like Philip K. Dick’s paranoid nightmare of an addiction novel. Linklater’s rotoscope-animation adaptation ups the pomo dystopian ante to create one of the most vivid and haunting stories of Hitting Bottom cinema has to offer.
Week 8: Ordinary People (Robert Redford, 1980)
Although it may appear to be the most conventional film on the list, its more traditional style should help illuminate the familial drama at the heart of IJ that can easily get lost amidst the novel’s more exaggerated elements. Troubled teens, choosy Moms, and therapy, therapy, therapy — this pressure cooker of a family drama may be dated, but Wallace’s families would be very different without works like this one to light the way.
Week 9: Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
What if The Entertainment were a snuff film? You could watch this gem every week while reading IJ. It takes on the same concerns about media and the self as Wallace does and just gets way twisted with them.
Week 10: Waking Life (Richard Linklater, 2001)
Slacker‘s animated cousin helps introduce us to Wallace’s interest in modern philosophy, and while Linklater’s film may be more focused on questions of reality vs. fantasy than Wallace is, the way it resolves that debate resonates well with Wallace: we have to choose.
Week 11: Requiem for a Dream (Darren Aronofsky, 2000)
Drugs, television, desperation, hallucination—Requiem has everything IJ has… except jokes. Wallace claimed that he wanted to write a sad book in IJ, and Aronofksy’s X-rated AA testimony shows us what IJ might look like with all the humor amputated.
Week 12: Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater, 1995)
As the novel begins to slow down, take a look at the first film in Linklater’s celebrated trilogy. Not only does it capture the Gen-X quest for sincerity, its focus on time and the “holy moment” of the present helps show how the recovery speak of IJ doesn’t just help addicts kick Substances: it helps people connect to each other in real time.
Week 13: Magnolia (Paul Thomas Anderson, 1999)
Including Magnolia and David Foster Wallace in the same discussion may at first appear misguided, as Wallace famously encouraged Don DeLillo to “run the opposite way for several blocks if you see the word ‘Magnolia’ on a marquee” because he saw it as “100% gradschoolish in a bad way, and hideously overrated.” With all due respect, he’s totally wrong.
Anderson, who was Wallace’s student for a semester at Emerson, is the cinematic analogue to David Foster Wallace. Like Wallace, Anderson produces unusually long works full of self-aware stylistic indulgence, and, as Christina Lane states in her book-length study of Magnolia, “shows deep-hearted concern toward his characters, his films, and his audience [and] refuses to take up the skepticism, cynicism, and nihilism that define” his contemporaries. Doesn’t that sound a lot like Wallace’s claim in IJ that the “queerly persistent U.S. myth [is] that cynicism and naivete are mutually exclusive”? It is important to recall that Wallace was quite well known for dismissing work that bore any resemblance to his own, like his disavowals of Thomas Pynchon and John Barth. Perhaps Magnolia‘s overbearing style, sincerity, and focus on damaged, substance-addicted families and their hideous men too closely resembled Wallace’s own work at the time.
And but so this has been a long way of saying that Anderson’s film is the perfect cinematic experience to go along with finishing Infinite Jest.
Happy reading, happy viewing!
Mike Miley teaches literature at Metairie Park Country Day School and film studies at Loyola University New Orleans. His writing on David Foster Wallace has appeared in Critique, Just Words, The Smart Set, and the forthcoming Approaches to Teaching David Foster Wallace.