LISTEN UP PHILIP (2014, Alex Ross Perry)
The deep baritone, devoid of emotion, accent-less voice of Eric Bogosian narrates with an icicle’s sharp sting, indifferent and cold, bare bones and almost hostile in its callousness. The prose he reads is literary — as novelistic as anything we might expect in the pages of its lead character’s books, adding a layer of remove from the story, and providing yet another meta element in Perry’s not-exactly-winking-but-still-wholly-referential exercise in existential self-loathing.
Shot on 16mm, the grainy texture — coupled with jagged editing — serves up a visual experience not unlike watching a home movie; snippets of a life gone by, filmed by a third-person narrator as omniscient as Bogosian’s blank voice. And with this sense of filmstrip nostalgia comes a parallel character study, as Philip befriends an elderly writer named Ike Zimmerman (a pretty good Jonathan Pryce, albeit in a can’t-miss role) who sees a lot of his younger self in Philip (Jason Schwartzman, playing Max Fischer plus fifteen years and minus the idealism). And Philip, I think we’re meant to observe, can see that Ike is how he’s going to end up.
But the layers are thicker than that. When Philip casts a colleague named Yvette as the French woman with whom he will fall in love, whether she wants it or not, their first date begins in a scene straight out of a French film — cascading rain, man standing in shadows dripping wet, woman puffing a cigarette, smoke silhouetted. It reminds us that all of Philip’s life experiences are scenes he could have written in a book or seen in a film, and perhaps he’s too good an author to bother being a decent human being with real connections. His last scene with girlfriend Elisabeth Moss is straight out of CITY LIGHTS via MANHATTAN, a New York intellectual standing outside a pane of glass from a brownstone, staring into the face of the woman he yearns for. But Perry adds his cynical twist to it all (not just in the narrative result, but by using Bogosian to step on all of Moss’s dialogue), just to make it yet another piece of this bitter tapestry. Sure, Philip will be forever alone, begging to follow in the footsteps of great literary heroes past (he even tells his agents and editors that he will refuse all media publicity, just because famous authors have done the same), but this isn’t a tragedy. Philip can’t be happy any other way, and he doesn’t want to be. I’ve seen better portraits of narcissists, and better films about writers, but for a film that has so much knowledge about the cruelty humankind can do to one another without any interest in being humanistic itself, it’s very funny, and worth seeing even if it cuts its own heart out with its lacerating, caustic wit.