Last week, in the midst of commencement season, small L.A. video production company The Glossary released a five-minute cinematic interpretation of David Foster Wallace’s philosophically resonant 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College.
Although the original speech, called “This is Water,” made its rounds online via transcripts and audio recordings, only now — 8 years after its delivery and 5 years after Wallace’s death — is it going viral.
Excerpting half of the 22-minute speech, the film remains loyal to the author’s central message: While we cannot necessarily control how adult life unfurls, we can chose how we process our experiences.
The filmmakers take few creative liberties. Basically, they edited Wallace’s audio and had actors play out the scenes the writer describes much the same way Ken Burns might do a video reenactment. Hand-drawn graphics highlight the text’s most salient phrases.
In just over a week, the video has 4.2 million hits on YouTube and counting. The original unedited versions – posted at random by various Wallace enthusiasts – have never broken 30,000.
So why the sudden interest?
Do people really need an easy-to-digest, heavily abbreviated visual demonstration of a somewhat ruminative thesis in order to appreciate its message?
Given the video’s precipitous popularity, the answer is an unambiguous “yes”. And the film’s producers seem to have known that.
The bare bones of the audio recording didn’t take off, and thus the film’s director Matt Freidell told Adweek that “a short film seemed the perfect way [for it to reach] a wider audience”.
The fact that the film uses attractive, young actors and funky MTV-style graphic elements to animate the speech’s most depressing moments is bound to have added to the film’s virality. The graduation season release didn’t hurt YouTube numbers, either.
It is as if the filmmakers heeded Wallace’s warning that “large parts of adult American life…[involve] boredom, routine and petty frustration.” Their effort tries to minimize this reality by making the writer’s speech as compelling as conceivably possible.
Compare the commencement speech video (below) to DFW’s uncut original address and decide which one you like better.
This is the reinterpretation that has gone viral:
And here’s the original:
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