Crit Lit: Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip (2014) – in cinemas
A new voice? Perry borrows the affectations of literate, highbrow indie filmmaking in order to condemn their certainties, and warn against slavish hero-worship.
Listen Up Philip
(Alex Ross Perry, 2014)
Writing must be one of the least visual of professions, which makes it ironic that cinema has always been obsessed with it. Perhaps it’s the inevitable kinship between artists, or the yearning/jealousy of film folk for the literary world, but directors can’t get enough of writers.
In Listen Up Philip, Alex Ross Perry is acutely aware of the pitfalls of this sub-genre; indeed, he’s thriving on them. This is a film about the very subject of the solipsism and narcissism of writers. No writing is seen on screen – the narrative focuses on the point in between novels when ‘notable’ author Philip (Jason Schwartzman) has to contend with real life – but Perry’s style resembles a parody of the type of work such a writer produces.
This is no mean feat, and relies on the slippage between mediums. As a book, Perry’s screenplay would be nigh-on insufferable in its smugness, but the filter of image, and Eric Bogosian’s very knowing narration, lets us in on the joke. Perry has nailed the epigrammatic tone of dialogue, and the faux-authority of the supposedly omniscient narrator. Indeed, the film’s ‘wow’ moment is its self-conscious refusal to toe a three-act structure, abandoning Philip for a while (let’s call it a chapter or two) to follow other characters.
It’s a necessary corrective. Even as Perry is taking the piss, he’s presenting an alternative perspective to the one presented by Philip, with Elizabeth Moss given plenty of scope as Philip’s on/off girlfriend to create a three-dimensional person beyond the confines of an auteur’s jaundiced imagination. It’s almost a manifesto for film’s superiority over literature, or at least this particular breed of it.
Similarly, the visual style, a rough ‘n’ ready, handheld 16mm, feels ironically calibrated to the story’s themes. Alongside the loving pastiche of 1970s/80s book covers, Perry offers a ‘post-Wes’ hipster sensibility: a pointed reminder that even literature has its Instagram filters, in the form of authors’ affected language. At the same time, the sheer aggression of the filming, its unsentimental presentation of the characters’ flaws, warns against taking Philip at face value.
True, the story itself is nothing new: the pretentious milieu of disillusioned New York sophisticates can’t help but recall Woody Allen, mixed with the millennial angst of Lena Dunham. And then there’s Schwartzman, one of those actors whose concentration on a certain type evokes its own genre; the film is virtually a sequel to Rushmore. Yet even in its stylistic borrowings, Perry provides an intriguingly double-edged approach to imitation.
Arguably, the biggest echo comes from Dylan Kidd’s Roger Dodger, another tale of predator and protégé, in which a poisonous, misogynistic pessimism is passed down from one generation to the next. Jonathan Pryce gives a superb performance of the ‘wrong’ hero, and Perry spends so long debunking the idea of emulating heroes that it’s possible to read the faint subtext that Woody Allen, or even Wes Anderson, might be false idols, too. In which case: it’ll be interesting to see where Perry goes next.