Listen Up Philip (2014)
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
Alex Ross Perry’s film, shown at the Indie Lisboa (12th edition, April 2015), is a film about a writer, Philip, and his relationships – with his agent, his girlfriend, some exes, his literary idol, and, later on, with the faculty members of the literature department where he gets an adjunct position.
The film’s problems start at the outset, with the narrator that informs the audience of Philip’s thoughts and ideas, feelings, his past, his present and everything in-between. It’s not that I have a problem with the deadpan delivery of Eric Bogosian, which mirrors the equally emotionless Jason Schwartzman as the main character. I am just one of those annoying people for whom cinema is predominantly a visual medium. Lengthy expositions are counter-productive, and a sign of weakness for a director (who is here the writer as well). An additional problem is the nature of the text that fares badly on screen, although it might make an interesting read. No one talks like that. Even if Perry was aiming for an alienating effect on the audience, to parallel the experience of his hero, the result comes off as grating and pretentious. What’s more, the film is tonally deaf. Is it a comedy of petty cruelty and absurdity? Is it a drama of human relationships? Does it even care?
Then there is the problem of structure and content. Philip is unlovable, but the film might have been able to make a point if it had concentrated on him. Halfway through the film though, an abrupt and inexplicable turn occurs (that Manohla Dargis characterized as a “bold formal move”), focusing instead on Philip’s ditched girlfriend, Ashley. Even the superb Elisabeth Moss, always a joy to watch on screen, cannot make this segment work. Her suffering feels misplaced after the bonfire of narcissism that has preceded it. Worse still, the film makes a not-so concealed statement about women – and creativity. While Philip seems wholly unconcerned with his recent breakup, apparently incapable of evincing or experiencing human emotion, all the audience sees of Ashley is a lonely woman, who misses her (jerk of a) boyfriend, has difficulty concentrating on her work, and eventually gets a cat to fill the void that the admirable, talented and creative man has left in her life. I found the assumption truly insulting. Despite her much-commented upon professional and financial success, Ashley’s creativity isn’t worth anything in Perry’s filmic universe. Her work is implicitly dismissed as ‘commercial’ – clearly opposed to the kind of creation men are capable of, and that involves suffering. Usually, that of others.
The film perpetuates gender stereotypes throughout. Philip remains a jerk, but women keep falling for him, such as the lovely and ethereal Joséphine de La Baume, playing Yvette – why she would remains a mystery. The life of his literary idol, Ike (a terrific Jonathan Pryce) is evidence of the same worldview. Ike’s arrogance and insults might appear democratic (that is, equally directed to all), but it is women that are truly the target of his contempt, whether he attacks his daughter with accusations about her mother or callously comments on the desires of young female students on campus. Women exist in two capacities: as sexual objects (Ike brags repeatedly about his conquests) or as sources of misery for male writers. Unsurprisingly, not a single female writer appears in the film, not even marginally, as a title on a book, or as an extra in the publishing house.
The film commits one final egregious offense. When Philip’s relationship with Yvette deteriorates, Philip springs on to her, and to the audience, the necessary tragic backstory: his father and mother died in a car crash when he was young, his mother being seven months pregnant with another child. The story is a lamentable attempt to both explain and justify Philip’s abominable behavior up to that point, as if Perry suddenly felt insecure of the extremes to which he had drawn his unlikable character, or simply unable to dramatically sustain plausibility. Needless to say that it rings of insincerity, and fails miserably. The film’s ending seemed to confirm the director’s lack of interest in establishing the character’s psychological traits and his desire to crown his narrative with the requisite cliches of male creativity. After a final confrontation with Ashley, the impersonal narrator informs the audience that Philip went on to publish more books, to become rich, and to continue teaching, although he turned into a specter of hollow existence. Does another story of a tormented male writer, rewarded with professional success and literary fame, matter at all? Should his unhappiness concern me? Instead of “listen up”, I felt like prompting him to do something else. It involved a four-letter verb and an entirely different preposition.