By Ron Merk
In the last 40 years I have never disliked a film as much as “Listen Up Phillip,” written and directed by Alex Ross Perry. Yes, that’s a pretty strong statement. This is why. It just made my angry at the filmmakers and the actors and the writers and especially the cameraman, at every turn. It was everything I hated about the “new aesthetics” of camera work, character development and total disregard for the audience. I know this film has gotten some good reviews elsewhere, and frankly, I don’t know what they saw in this film. I’ve been working in the film industry for nearly five decades, seen thousands of movies, including the great flourishing of foreign films in the 60s and American indie films in the 80s. For the life of me, I just don’t “get” this film.
I attended a screening of this film today in San Francisco, and could not wait to get out. I almost stood up on my chair and yelled, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more.” Whoever said that selfish, creepy characters like the one played by Jason Schwartzman are “interesting?” Rashes are “interesting” to dermatologists, but they don’t sit and watch them on the big screen for two hours, nor would they say that they’re satisfying in some emotional sense. This film was like a rash, something that itched and bothered me in every frame.
“Listen Up Phillip” annoyed me more than anything ever made by Jean-Luc Godard, whose films I really disliked because of Godard’s gigantic (undeserved) ego and the way he totally disregarded the emotional needs of the audience and bored the hell out of me.
Let’s start with the star of the piece, Jason Schwartzman. I don’t mean to make this a personal attack, but a heads-up to the professionals around him who are supposed to protect and support his efforts. Like most working actors, we can assume he’s got an agent, a manager, a stylist, and all the kinds of people he pays to maximize his career and earning potential. Has anyone ever told Jason that he needs to deal with some stuff on his face? Keep in mind I’m just trying to provide some disinterested perspective. Scruffy beard, nearly a mono-brow, bumps on his face, and hair that looked like it hadn’t been washed in a long time. Is that supposed to tell us that he’s someone whose uncomfortable in his skin, or is it supposed to just make our skin crawl? I found Jason and his character monumentally repulsive in this film. Jason could have been cleaned up a little and allowed to just use his formidable acting skills to get across the point of who the character is. An actor doesn’t need to look like a Neanderthal to play one. The Neanderthal came be something within them that they allow to come out.
The rest of the cast of characters (I’m not talking about the actors) were totally unsympathetic, annoying, selfish, self-destructive, all the things I particularly dislike in characters and which almost certainly insures that there will be no sympathy or empathy for them for the audience. Sure one or two such characters in a film gives balance with the person we’re supposed to be rooting for. But every character was just so damned negative and annoying, I had to work very hard to stay in my seat and not bolt from the theater.
Jonathan Pryce’s character of a cynical but successful writer with a great reputation in the literary world was the only thing that kept me in my seat. Despite his self- destructive behavior, he had charm. If there were an award from best actor in the worst movie of the year, I would hand that statuette to Pryce.
The film structure is a real mess. It starts focused on Jason’s character, then shifts to his girlfriend played by Elizabeth Moss, then goes to Pryce’s character. Interspersed between the episodes in some truly annoying and useless “literary” narration by Eric Bogosian, ostensibly inserted to tell us what we just saw or were about to see. This is like a comic explaining a joke. Just because the film was about a novelist, someone must have thought this might make the whole film seem like a novel. Unfortunately, it was like a bad novel, if that. It did not work, and felt like a very clumsy device to pull together this disarray of scenes, ideas and characters, that did not add up to a solid movie.
One cliché that really bothered me is the proverbial attraction by the “hero” to a disaffected French woman. She seems terminally unhappy and it’s a communicable disease, especially to those of us in the audience.
About three quarters of the way through the film there was a scene that made me lose any respect for the director. It’s right out of first-semester film school. It’s a scene where Elizabeth Moss, Jason’s doormat of a girlfriend, goes to visit a friend, and winds up in a part flying a kite, with music in the background. It went on so long, I almost started laughing and asking myself, did the director have some leftover footage from film school that he just threw into this film because he loved it so much? It’s where this film finally lost me.
Oh, lest we forget, the photography. Okay, okay. In every budget there should be a line item for a tripod. This new grunge aesthetic of a whole film being hand-held, often badly operated and framed, just ticks me off. Some of the scenes in this film look like raw footage of a rehearsal. Maybe life is like that, unstructured. But making a film is not the same as real life. Making it realistic comes from “reaching” the audience on some level that they understand and can connect with. “Available light” photography also makes me crazy.
I’ve heard so many DPs say they’re trying to make things look the way we see them in real life. But we don’t see the way the camera sees. Our eyes adjust to light and dark, and unless there’s a blazing light or total darkness, we can see everything in our sight lines in a very normal way. In other words, if we sit at a candlelit table, our eyes quickly adjust to the light and we see the person across from us (yes, both sides of their face) in a way that our brains can see them without the darkness of this so-called “modern look.” Oh, yes, DPs, all of you need to put the key light back in front of characters, instead of at the side. You’re making all your actors look like crap. That is not your job. It’s the actor’s job to show us their flaws and ugliness through acting, not your terrible amateur photography. Sorry. But Sean Price Williams’ photography was some of the worst camera work I’ve since I was in film school at NYU. I will commend the filmmakers for bucking the current trends and for shooting this film on Super 16mm film instead of digital media, but they did find a way to make film look like really bad digital photography. Too bad, since so few films are shot on film these days. I hope people don’t blame the bad photography on the origination medium of film.
I must be honest and tell you that ten minutes before the ending of the film, I was so angry at this film that I finally did leave my seat, and went out in the unseasonable summer sun of the Mission district, and finally felt as if I was re-connecting with the human race.
If you asked me my opinion about this film, and to express it in two words, they would be “beyond inept.” Run, do not walk, to the nearest exit!