Maybe I have seen Listen Up Philip too many times. It’s not my favorite Alex Ross Perry film. In fact when I first saw it I didn’t even really like it. I saw the characters in its ensemble as unlikable and too disagreeable (excluding Ashley played by Elisabeth Moss and Melanie played by Krysten Ritter) to spend any more than an hour and one half with. But I found myself re-watching Listen Up Philip, drawn first to its effortless craftsmanship, and struggling with my feelings toward it, its characters, and principally its lead and titular character Philip, played handsomely by comedic, self-deprecating, and American deadpan specialist Jason Schwartzman.
I knew I didn’t like Philip, but there was plenty to admire about the character, his talent for writing, his drive and commitment to his craft, his intelligence, his knack for teaching (even though he may feel nothing for his students). With time, I came from feeling hostility for Philip to pitying him. This pitying opened up a sadness for me that, before, was insensible in the film, and so I found myself shifting perspective, and noticing how much this changing of viewpoint reflected the very narrative structure of Listen Up Philip and also the emotional strategies (and structures) of disclosure apparent in virtually all of Perry’s work.
Listen Up Philip tells the story of Philip Lewis Friedman (Schwartzman), a newly successful novelist, riding a wave of discomforting euphoria following the publication of his second book. Philip selfishly and incorrigibly wrecks the relationships in his life, a trend of ruin as a sort of defining characteristic. Dejected and rejected by his live-in girlfriend Ashley (Moss), Philip leaves for the country with an open invitation from his mentor, older writer Ike (Jonathan Pryce), to stay at his summer home and focus on writing. Philip’s presence and absence mark pseudo-chapters as the film tracks the way Philip refuses to change and how those around him, or those finding themselves separated from him, come to terms, or not, with his intractable disagreeableness.
Critics have commented on the likability of Perry’s characters, in Listen Up Philip and across Perry’s filmography. Michael Pattison, writing for Fandor, said of Listen Up Philip, “by the film’s end, Philip’s own destructive pretentiousness ought to repel anyone sensitive to other people’s happiness.” Amy Taubin, for Film Comment, wrote that the characters had “rubbed [her] the wrong way,” so much so that she could not give the film “the benefit of the doubt.” In a revealing comment of incredulity, Michael Atkinson, writing for Sight & Sound, wondered “if [Philip’s] work is any good, it has to harbour at least a few molecules of generosity and empathic insight.” Positioning “good work” as incongruous with what Girish Shambu called “unadulterated pricks” and Adam Cook named “ruthless assholes,” Atkinson asks, “Where’s that guy?” Where is that “generous” and “emphatic” person who could write such celebrated novels?
Listen Up Philip, perhaps presciently, insists that person is not there. And unlike most traditionally structured narratives, Philip is not given some final act repentance, nor does he ever see the errors of his ways. While the characters around Philip may change, he, importantly, stays the same. While this vision is not a pleasant one, nor is it always an easy character study to stomach, it is not without its value or emotional peaks, especially considering the ways in which Perry extends his narrative world beyond the perspective of Philip, harnessing the power of an omniscient narrator (the commanding voice of Eric Bogosian) and breaking his film up into segments that follow other characters, with at least one, probably the most revelatory and moving in the film, centralizing Ashley, significantly excluding Philip for nearly thirty minutes of screen time.
While Philip is never given redemption, he is afforded some understanding, or at least his behavior is offered an explanation. Nearing the last scenes of the film, before the narrator confirms Philip’s lonely fate, Philip confesses to his then-girlfriend, that his parents died in a car accident when he was a child, that he was orphaned and later raised by his uncle, and that this tragedy is something he makes a strong effort not to dwell on nor discuss. The confession is, admittedly, selfishly motivated, summoned as a bludgeon so as to win a fight. Philip cannot stand feeling guilty for his misdeeds and so belittles the pain of his girlfriend against the heavier pains of his past. The disclosure is cut with such calculating acrimony, so much so that audiences have found the confession unconvincing. On the DVD’s commentary track, Perry recounts that audiences have, as a pattern, questioned the truthfulness of Philip’s confession. (Perry clarifies: Philip is being honest).
Philip’s confession helps us to, even if just a little, understand his behavior. However, understanding, from an audience, is not necessarily what comes natural in this moment. Nor does this understanding easily reassert itself as the credits roll by. After all, we feel, by this moment, that we do understand Philip. He’s a prick. When the narrator intones Philip’s life sentence of unhappiness at the film’s closing image, the first time I saw it, maybe it felt like a justice of sorts. He gets what he deserves. But, these are just comforting myths, or at least over-simplifications. Anyways, should we wish unhappiness and misery on anyone? Is Philip a prick precisely because he is miserable? If Philip were not unhappy, would he be so bad, and would he be so destructive to those close to him? Would he be any good as a writer? You feel your perspective shifting. It’s not an endorsement but it’s also not an admonishment. Perry presents an understanding, and he offers it through shifting perspectives.
In Listen Up Philip, Perry shifts perspectives in two primary ways. In the first way he actually changes his protagonist. When Philip leaves New York City, the film begins following Ashley and her life without Philip. Then we see Ike’s life, without and with Philip. We see Melanie’s life, the daughter of Ike; through her we see Ike’s hateful selfishness, after just witnessing his bitter isolation. Then we come back to Philip and we come back to Perry’s second way of shifting perspective: disclosure. Some hidden part, some truth, some detail overlooked; the camera sits still and a character reveals themselves, never their whole self but something else, something that changes whatever we thought we knew about a person (and in so doing maybe changes something about ourselves, at least a perspective, but maybe it shifts something even deeper). Philip tells the truth and we still see a self-absorbed, miserable, and mean man. But maybe now we feel a sadness for his self-imposed loneliness.
Although Listen Up Philip has already played earlier this semester (January 20th), on Feburary 15th and 16th, three other Perry films will screen, including his latest film Golden Exits, and two older works, The Color Wheel and Queen of Earth. The series, entitled Alex Ross Perry: Willing to Risk Everything, will be a nearly complete retrospective of Perry’s directorial credits, excluding only his first film, Impolex, from 2009.
Nathaniel Sexton enjoys the films of Andrzej Żuławski, Alex Ross Perry, and Jerry Lewis. He reads comic books, plays pinball, prefers his movies sad or slow, and volunteers at a video rental store. He likes to travel west by car but always misses movies when living out of a tent.