A hilarious and formally rigorous portrait of literary narcissism and its effects.
As a culture, we have a habit of collectively fetishizing egotistical, self-destructive artists whose difficultness is inextricably tied to their brilliance. In such cases, creative brilliance both excuses and enables their abrasiveness, leaving the impression that their intense drive to create great art consumed their life to the extent that they were more or less unable to function outside of their work. Such a process, these legends suggest, depends on an ambition, discipline and willingness to reach into depths of the imagination that is fundamentally unnatural, and thus requires from the artist a monk-like devotion to the lifestyle; the very qualities that allow them to produce masterworks also stunt their ability to simply be tolerable people.
Not long into Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, we’re told that the title character will eventually come to gain a similar reputation, but for the moment he’s stuck in the purgatory of semi-fame. He’s received enthusiastic reviews for his second novel and even been touted as one of the country’s most promising young authors by The New York Literary Review, but he’s still strapped for cash and expected to write fluff magazine pieces to supplement his income. He’s witty, verbose, and exceptionally talented, yet he also suffers from a toxic combination of gargantuan entitlement and social ineptitude. He’s convinced that the world owes him for the many small frustrations he’s had to endure in life, a mind-set that motivates him to enter every situation with the intention of asserting his superiority over everybody there. He begins the film by vigorously reprimanding a series of acquaintances for their inability to recognize his brilliance in the past and, a little later, uses his elevated status in the Brooklyn literary community to pick up a woman who rejected him several years ago, only to now turn the tables on her.
Though Perry clearly takes pleasure in crafting scathing neo-screwball dialogue and detailing the rush of such a misanthropic lifestyle, he’s more interested in exploring the searing emotional pain Philip’s worldview stems from and the self-imposed disconnection it sustains. Philip justifies his cruelty towards everybody around him by envisioning himself as a great-American-author-in-the-making, and believes that stoicism, prickliness and isolation come with the territory. What he specializes in is that branch of piercing, self-examining literary fiction devoted to mapping out its author’s own internal life in as much painful detail as possible. Philip treats these monuments acts of intellectual self-flagellation as heroic in their masochism, but Perry portrays his writing a fruitless narcissistic cycle that apathetically enables his most destructive tendencies and holds him back from achieving anything like a healthy or fulfilling life. Throughout, we hear snippets of deliberately hermetic and grandiloquent narration commenting on events as they unfold which feel like portions of a future novel that Philip is constantly constructing in his own head; this habit of treating his life as raw material for great art is, of course, just another way of further detaching himself from his experiences.
In Ike Zimmerman, a holdover from the post-war generation of male authors on the Roth-Updike axis, Philip finds a role model where he instead should recognise a cautionary tale. Reclusive, chronically angry, and estranged from his family, Ike is the embodiment of Philip’s worst tendencies and represents the worst-case-scenario future that likely awaits him if he continues along this path, yet Philip is so thrilled to find someone who shares all of his own delusional misconceptions about life that he chooses to become his protégé. Philip first agrees to spend the summer at his country retreat, then to takes on a job as a creative writing instructor at a nearby college, where his self-centredness and unconventional teaching practices soon cause him to be scorned by both the faculty and his students.
As a consequence, he increasingly distances himself from his previous life in the city, including his long-term girlfriend Ashley. In an ambitious structural gambit, Perry surveys the extent of the damage Philip wreaks on others by removing him from a substantial portion of the narrative, during which time the role of protagonist switches, in quick succession, between Ashley, Ike, Ike’s estranged daughter Melanie, and Yvette, one of Philip’s disgruntled co-workers. This perspective-hopping approach doesn’t just undercut Philip’s solipsism, it reveals his inability to achieve true self-realisation by obsessively directing his attention inwardly. Because everyone he knows holds a different, subjectively determined image of him, solipsism constitutes
Perry’s style transforms everyday situations into a caricatured hyper-reality deeply rooted in the character’s emotions; shot on super-grainy 16mm film stock with a handheld camera that jolts and squirrels tumultuously, most of the images are infused with a sense of anxiety and agitation that mirrors Philip’s own, aside from a few joyous, dance-like interludes that occur when he’s off-screen, as if the camera itself is relieved to be free of his presence.
Listen Up Philip (2014), directed by Alex Ross Perry, is distributed in UK cinemas by Eureka Entertainment, Certificate 15.