Filmlab: Best Movies about Writing – Listen Up Philip
The craft of writing is a tricky one to convey on screen. Hammering away at a typewriter or laptop hardly makes for sexy cinema, while the occupational hazards of the job – isolating oneself for months on end, sweating over the creation of perfect prose that is unlikely to be read by most people – contravene the romantic ideal of novel-writing so thoroughly, films rarely explore the toll it takes to launch even a moderately successful literary career. But that is precisely what makes US indie filmmaker Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip such a blackly comic movie about writing.
Revolving around an up-and-coming New York novelist on the cusp of publishing his second book, the film eschews the need to make the titular Philip Lewis Friedman likeable in any way, other than trusting us to find his amusingly and tragically heightened self-regard as rewarding as it is repellent. A self-defining schmuck played with dyspeptic precision by Jason Schwartzman, Philip is like a yet-to-make-it Jonathan Franzen, bristling at the lack of awe his achievements inspire among his friends and disdaining the vagaries of self-promotion, particularly the quotation-marked air of self-deprecation his peers feign to please their publishers.
That he’s arrived on the scene at a time when the cultural prominence of novelists has diminished is a source of irritation that only further fuels his impulsive desire to behave like an entitled ingrate. Selected to profile a David Foster Wallace-esque contemporary, for instance, Philip swiftly blows the gig by gut-punching him, Norman Mailer-style. He repeatedly burns bridges with friends and loved ones, perhaps subconsciously realising that being bound up in what the film later refers to as an “infinitely replenishing prism of regret” may be the key to his success as a writer, though not as a human being.
The film gives him an enabler here in the form of Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), a Philip Roth-like literary lion who approves of Philip’s new novel – the pretentiously meaningless Obidant – and basks in the glow of having a younger writer hanging on his every word. Seeing something of himself in Philip – but careful not to equate Philip’s talent with his own – Ike dispenses plenty of advice, much of it designed to reinforce his own past success and continued significance, despite having failed to finish anything in six years.
Though Ike is clearly meant to be a portent of things to come should Philip continue down the emotionally destructive path he’s now on – “Having once known me will always be the most interesting thing about them,” Ike says at one point of the friends, colleagues and women he’s cut out of his life – Listen Up Philip doesn’t morph into a redemptive tale or an overtly punitive one. Unusually for a movie about maladjusted artists, it interrogates this cliché without judging it. I’ll wager that Alex Ross Perry – whose previous film, The Color Wheel, was loosely inspired by Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow – identifies more than a little with Philip’s fetishisation of an era in which writers didn’t have to worry about catering to impressionable younger audiences. From the use of Super 16mm film stock, to the retro titles design, to the vintage book covers Perry mocks up to evoke the era of Ike’s 1970s heyday, Listen Up Philip wears its stylistic choices the way Philip wears seasonally inappropriate tweed jackets: embracing the contrivance to make a statement about the need for grown-up art in an era of comic-book movies and young-adult adaptations.
The film is unusual too in that its literary ambitions perfectly complement its cinematic ones. Experimental in form, it’s not scared to abandon its protagonist for large chunks of the movie to examine the impact of his selfishness on his more successful girlfriend (Elizabeth Moss). Then there’s the brilliantly written omniscient narration (voiced by Eric Bogosian), which illuminates the characters’ interior lives without undercutting the actors’ performances, but also gives us a sense of the type of writer Philip might actually be: one who can transform the emotional calamity of his life into meaningful prose yet is doomed to forever remain a mystery to himself.
Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, 6 November 2015