If I had any more coherent thoughts on this, I’d probably post it on TC or wherever, but for now, this will have to do.
First off, for those who don’t know, DFW’s “This is Water” speech was actually a commencement speech given at Kenyon College back in ‘05. I found a transcript of the speech online in ‘06, read it about 25,000 times, and ended up getting the words “this is water” tattooed on my left arm.
Now, here in 2013, the speech is getting traction again. To be honest, for the most part I’m delighted. I like that a larger audience of people is hearing the message. I love the idea that maybe I won’t have to explain the tattoo to every single person who sees the inside of my bicep.
Still, some things about the whole shebang made me feel a little icky. I’m probably overthinking, but that’s sort of my thing, y’know?
For one, I don’t love the whole decision by the makers of the viral video to just pick and choose what elements of the speech they liked the best. One huge point of the speech is all the tangled thoughts, the audience’s bizarre reaction when DFW discusses the yuppies in the SUVs (they cheer to make fun of these people, when DFW is specifically asking the audience to find it in their humanity to empathize with these people, and there is a magical, awkward moment when he CHASTISES the crowd for their reaction), the messy things that make a speech a speech. That’s not what the makers of the video want. They want slick visuals and a smooth message that fits neatly into a virable-video length.
(Speaking of which, their decision to shoot the grocery store segment in what is clearly a NYC-frou-frou Whole Foods sort of destroys the very point he was trying to make with the grocery store part of his speech, no?)
Secondly, the fact that this video got its most traction on Gawker is spectacularly ironic, in that Gawker is our generation’s leading peddler of the hip, ironic detachment and sniping negativity that DFW spent pretty much the entire second half of his life waging a war against.
(I won’t even get into Gawker’s decision to call the video “inspirational,” which is a bizarre word in and of itself, especially since the speech, when you boil it down, is really a depressed man’s best attempt at advice on how to not kill yourself. And then a few years later he killed himself. Alas.)
Mostly, I guess I feel ickiness at the further deification and smoothing over a brilliant but fucked up guy who was sort of an asshole and slept with a ton of women and broke up a marriage and then killed himself. (And I fucking love DFW and I’m saying that. I’m a fanboy. I’m all in.) But he wasn’t smooth. And the idea of this slick film capturing his speech, shot on its DSLRs and edited down for timeliness, just gives me the willies.