The Mindful Bard – Listen Up Philip

The Splendid Isolation of the Ivory Tower
(and its Hapless Victims)

Film: Listen Up Philip

Director: Alex Ross Perry

“The need to feel superior, though common to all neuroses, must be stressed here because of its intrinsic association with detachment. The expressions ?ivory tower? and ?splendid isolation? are evidence that even in common parlance, detachment and superiority are almost invariably linked.”
– Karen Horney in Our Inner Conflicts

“Look, It’s nothing personal, but I’m really trying to do my best up here, and part of that means not getting involved with anybody?in a, say, a human way.”
– Jason Schartzman as Philip Friedman in Listen Up Philip

You may have known someone like this. They send messages that suggest: “You must put up with my dastardly ways because I’m so great and you are somehow less than me.” When you refuse to go along with this, the message then becomes: “You must put up with me because I’ve suffered so much.”

Still not buying into it? The message then switches to: “If you won’t put up with my evil ways I will reject and abandon you. If this hurts you and compels you to confront me angrily, I’ll know that I was right to reject you.”

If this person is a writer, what kind of literature can he or she possibly produce? How can people like this filter their observations accurately through this distorted view of reality? And if we’ve been reading and absorbing the work of such writers, what influence do they have on culture at large?

We need to put that question aside for minute and talk about the film, because despite the ponderous subject matter and the unpleasantness of the main characters, Listen Up Philip is a pleasant escape, specially designed to help you forget your own burdens for a couple of hours. The handhelds give it an intimate feel, it uses a tweedy autumnal palette, many of the props are from bygone technology, and the DVD cover is yummily retro?the font, design, and photo reminiscent of an early paperback edition of Portnoy’s Complaint (you won’t be surprised to learn that director Alex Ross Perry is a huge fan of Philip Roth).

A narrator gives us interesting takes on what’s happening in the story, but what he says sounds like Philip (now waiting for his second “noteworthy” novel to be published) is living within his own novel, his thoughts, voiced in literary prose, revolving around himself like pigs around a trough. It’s as if Philip’s neurosis has poisoned the story from within.

Several characters let us know that Philip’s novels are good, but judging from what he says in conversation we can’t possibly want to read one. Jason Schwartzman as Philip Friedman delivers lines that sound badly written until we realise that he’s actually doing a masterful job of portraying a poseur, perhaps one of the most admirable poseur performances I’ve ever seen in a movie.

How does Schwartzman manage such a superlative performance in the role of a self-centred creative intellectual? Richard Brody opines in The New Yorker: “What’s special about him is that he’s perfect at playing intellectual artists because (may he forgive me for the label) he is one.”

Right off the bat, Philip is not likable, and we know this unequivocally when we watch him proudly tell off a former college buddy who’s now in a wheelchair, accusing his old friend of destroying the dreams of literary triumph they’d woven together. Philip is arrogant, egotistical, shallow, entitled, choking on his own bitterness and disappointment, and only concerned with himself and his career. (When a rival writer commits suicide, all he can think of his how he’d lost an opportunity to interview him: “I mean I’m glad he’s dead and all, but doing that interview would have been a great opportunity.”)

Older and more distinguished author, Ike Zimmerman, seems just the mentor Philip thinks he deserves. But we see in Ike just another Philip, older but no wiser, in love with the sound of his own voice, and acting as if every moment of his life were a Nobel acceptance speech. It’s as if Philip dreamed Ike up in order to enable his own arseholery, and it looks like Ike was drawn to Philip because Philip’s writing revealed a mind just as egotistical as his own, a mind with which his own mind could achieve an affirming symbiosis.

Ashly, Philip’s girlfriend, is very similar to Philip in her devotion to her career, but when we see her trying to get the ground back under her feet after he sort-of-but-not-quite abandons her, we see ourselves?at least if we’ve ever had any kind of relationship with a narcissist. We see the same dynamic between Ike and his disagreeable but ultimately vulnerable daughter, Melanie, and can’t help but channel all our sympathy to these two strong women who’ve had the misfortune of being involved in the lives of neurotic men. In relationships with narcissists, even other narcissists suffer.

The film employs an interesting technique in that the narrator offers an explanation that is so close to the viewpoint of the neurotic Philip, who can’t see life objectively, that at times we can’t buy it; it just doesn’t jibe with what we’re seeing on the screen.

The writer really must have hated or been hurt by a narcissist to devote a whole film to showing the relational dynamics engaged in by this personality type. But the value of the film has a greater scope. Yes, we need to ask ourselves if we are benefitting from giving room in our lives to narcissistic people. In the bigger picture, we need to scrutinise the contributions of narcissistic artists and ask what impact they might have on culture at large. Perhaps a bit broad for a masters thesis, but worth a bit of research.

Listen Up Philip manifests four of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing.

– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
– It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.
– It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.