Listen Up Philip is an unusually obsessive and elaborate exploration of the revenge that can be made of an artist’s unexpected breakthrough with the populace. Like many of Woody Allen’s films, Alex Ross Perry’s third feature pivots on a man’s inability to square himself with the opposite sex through success, and, like Allen, Perry is torn between satirizing the fantasy of the brilliantly unknowable male and indulging it outright. Perry, however, is freer than Allen, more capable of entertaining viewpoints that might contrast with his idea of his hero as a glorified embodiment of the perils of iconoclastic art-making. Perry buys into the myth of the writer as lone warrior, yet he’s honest in his exploration of this allegiance to a specifically male kind of posturing, which admittedly offers quite a lure for broke intellectual artists too embittered by their struggles to connect with their species.
Perry owes bits and pieces of his film’s aesthetic to a variety of self-consciously evoked reference points (also echoed, in addition to Allen’s oeuvre, are the films of John Cassavetes, Hal Ashby, and Paul Mazursky, as well as the novels of Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Norman Mailer, and many others), but Listen Up Philip is nevertheless a strikingly original creation. The film is an intense evocation of the millennial’s obsession with the objects of the past, as a refuge from the intangible modern world that’s governed by soft data transmitted by small devices that are increasingly difficult to tell apart from one another—a technological anonymity that insidiously reflects the personal anonymity that’s further nurtured by the niché-detonating democratization of the Internet. Characters in the world of Perry’s film don’t read Kindles, but paperbacks that resemble the editions issued by cultish publishers like Black Sparrow Press, and they don’t purchase things online, but at boutiques and stoop sales that offer testament to the socially direct mile-a-minute intoxication of city life. Cellphones and computers don’t exist in this world, and every character appears to live in an invitingly small brick-walled loft with books, records, and art work.
This tangibility fetish is complemented by the work of the prolific and virtuosic cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who lights the film in warm, earthy, grainy hues that deliberately refute the often inhuman perfection of conventional digital sheens, and by his shaky, close-up-dominated camera work (reminiscent of the cinematography of Husbands and Wives) and by Robert Greene’s editing, which favors detectable cuts that suggest jagged edges. Listen Up Philip is supposed to resemble a restoration of a 1970s classic, rather than a film released for the first time in 2014, and this obsession with timelessness resonantly connects with the “great New York writer” preoccupation that Perry’s borrowed from Allen, Mailer, Roth, and many others, as both longings spring from a daydream of a culture that’s comfortingly rarefied, uncluttered, and defined by a motivation of attempting to “matter” artistically. The simplicity of these fantasies depends, of course, on classist and sexist exclusion, and those qualities don’t elude Perry’s purview either; in fact, they complicate the untenable revenge fantasy that gradually evaporates over the course of the narrative.
Perry pulls off a marvelous bait and switch that might’ve eluded even directors of considerably vaster experience. The filmmaker settles the audience comfortably into the hermetic world of promising writer Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), allowing it to disreputably enjoy his denigration of a variety of lovers and friends, as well as the blossoming of his smug friendship with Roth-surrogate Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). The first act is sharp and brutally written, but it bears the familiar shape of a narrative concerned with an Angry Young Man; the remainder of the film, however, is blobby and provocatively disorienting. Perry unceremoniously drops Philip from the film for a while, as if suddenly understanding his lack of stature, following Philip’s estranged girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), as she adjusts to living without him. These scenes are so beautifully staged, and so directly performed by Moss, that Philip’s inevitable return to his own film feels like an intrusion, as we now recognize his hissy fits as the acts of emotional abuse they were all along while accepting him as a pitiful creature stuck in a fantasy that depends on his contriving to ostracize himself.
The film continues to indulge these drifts, occasionally following Ike to reveal the comparable man-child the exists under the trappings of a legendary author (it would appear that Perry has read the book Claire Bloom wrote about Roth, her ex), or to follow new female characters who drift into Philip and Ike’s lonely bacchanal only to discover what every other woman discovers about them. The narrative structure comes to resemble overlapping first-person circles that offer the cumulative effect of total authorial empathy—something that Allen hasn’t achieved in decades. Yet, a source of tension remains, an unshakable urge to embrace Philip and Ike’s assholery as a commitment to a higher truth about art as a great quest undertaken alone. Perry, an immensely talented artist, is wrestling with himself. Listen Up Philip is an “early film” desperate for the wisdom, or perhaps the closure, that comes at the expense of the regret felt in late life. The film is the work of an artist attempting to divine his own future.
The transfer honors the aesthetic of one of 2014’s more gorgeous American films. The image is appropriately soft and grainy, with colors that often bleed into one another to create a visual tapestry that operates as a subtle atmospheric mood ring. The colors themselves are vibrant (particularly reds, which are sparingly used for greater emotional effect), and skin and background textures are well-detailed. The two sound mixes are similarly beautiful in their intentional roughness, including squeaks and hisses, though pertinent non-diegetic mixing is also subtly immersive and nuanced (you can hear narrator Eric Bogosian clearing his throat, for instance, which writer-director Alex Ross Perry observes in his audio commentary).
Perry’s commentary offers a detailed discussion of the film’s deceptively casual visual scheme, which is actually the result of a highly achieved mixture of tight blocking and controlled chaos. With the regrettable exception of an unnecessary defense offered in favor of "unlikable characters" (an absurd complaint that’s irrelevant to significant art), Perry refreshingly sticks to elaborating on the film directly in front of him, navigating the thicket of homages to classics (including an undetectable call-out to Rosemary’s Baby) while examining the attention paid to set detail so as to stealthily establish character. It’s an informative listen. The rest of the supplements, with the exception of the amusing gallery of novel-cover art that plays a brief yet memorable role in the film, are negligible. Rounding out this package are deleted scenes, a pair of production featurettes, and a teaser trailer.
Listen Up Philip thrillingly reveals the narcissistic bridge that connects the fantasy of the great American writer with a contemporary generation’s panicky attachment to rapidly vanishing bric-a-brac. It receives a beautiful DVD transfer that has one foot rooted appropriately in the less varnished past.