The Counterlife: Listen Up Philip

by |
10/08/2014 4:00 AM |

Listen Up Philip
Directed by Alex Ross Perry

As set dressing, inserts, and over the end-credits sequence, Listen Up Philip, like The Royal Tenenbaums, presents us with covers of the books associated with all the film’s major characters, in styles from vintage Penguin paperback templates to the minimalist typefaces and negative space of oversized 70s dust jackets. (The books were mocked up by the local musician and graphic designer Teddy Blanks.) This sets the film in a particular, nostalgic version of New York, one whose cultural and social life is expressed through the production of literature.

This is also an idealized perspective on the city—one whose backwards glance overlooks the private trauma of writer’s block, the huddled masses of creative strivers from which only a select few fully arrive, and the drying-up of media and academic sinecures. Listen Up Philip, the third feature from 30­-year-­old Park Slope resident Alex Ross Perry, opens on Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) around the publication of his second novel. The book was not easy to complete, nor has its completion changed Philip’s life, and this may be the source of his considerable anger, beginning with his pre-credits strafing of the bridges connecting him to an ex-lover and an ex-friend, and continuing throughout the film. (Schwartzman retains the catalogue-adjunct wardrobe and occasional precocious flourish or plaintive appeal of his work in Bored to Death, so all the more blood is drawn from barbs like, “If you were a groupie, you likely would have read both my books.”)

Much of the film traces Philip’s declining relationship with his photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss, getting introspection across without overplaying), and his deepening friendship with “difficult” novelist Ike Zimmerman (played by Jonathan Pryce; strange that Perry, having named Schwartzman’s character “Philip,” didn’t pull the trigger on “Zuckerman”), who educates Philip by example in the myth of the novelist as relationship saboteur for art’s sake. Since Listen Up Philip debuted at Sundance this January, writing on the film has frequently sought some sort of equilibrium with characters who, I’m reliably informed, are quite “unlikable.” This is probably necessary given Perry’s prickly sensibility, carried over from his first two no-budget features (and assorted interviews) to a film with a name cast and national release. But what’s jarring about the behavior of the characters in Listen Up Philip is maybe less the attitudes they express—competitiveness with one’s intimates is surely a “relatable” feeling—than the spectacle of self-conscious, literate people producing textual details which are shocking in their transparency. When Ike pours glasses of 25-year-old Laphroaig for himself and a friend, and a glass of the 10-year batch for Philip, it’s the kind of gesture that would get laughed out of a creative writing workshop as “too obvious,” but the difference between the elegance of finished work and the blind, reflexive atavism of everyday life is very much the point here. (It can also be quite funny, if you welcome laughs that emerge from a single short, sharp, shocked contraction of the diaphragm.) This difference is perhaps why Philip refuses to acknowledge his idol’s frequently toxic exploitation and one-upsmanship, privileging his admiration of Ike’s work over his experience of the man. It’s perhaps also why the voiceover in the film’s closing scenes juxtaposes Philip’s subsequent professional success with his personal nadir.

Throughout, in fact, the narration (delivered by Eric Bogosian) is cruelly omniscient about the characters’ motivations, and far more eloquent in a pinch than they’re able to be, widening the gulf between art and life. But beyond the sharp script and lit-world milieu, it’s worth lauding the other ways in which the film is eloquent. Cinematographer Sean Price Williams shoots handheld on Super 16mm, like Robert Yeoman in The Squid and the Whale (Noah Baumbach’s filterless writer-types are an antecedent here, with Ike’s unfatherly advising of Philip a specific echo), and the autumnal palette and grain of the image, as if already slightly faded, makes the film seem an artifact from an earlier era of NYC moviemaking. So does Keegan DeWitt’s meandering score, like isolated instrumental tracks from a falsely upbeat 70s singer-songwriter record. Structurally, the film is also mature: in a move similar to Kate Lyn Sheil and Carlen Altman’s late, gender-balancing monologues in Perry’s Impolex and The Color Wheel, the film abandons Philip for an extended midsection, to observe Ashley as she spends summer in the city without him, and adopts a cat.

The presence of Fluffy—Alex Ross Perry’s own pet, as his Twitter followers know—is maybe a good joke within the insular world of Brooklyn film culture, and similarly it’s a personal pleasure for me to see that Philip and Ashley live on Washington Avenue between Myrtle and Willoughby, and to recognize so many local artists and personalities whose careers I’ve been following. But beyond any smile of recognition, it’s striking to see this stuff of real life transformed into a work of art that exists fully apart from it, and will in time stand in for it.

Opens October 17