What You Think I Am, by Tyler Smith
Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip is an exploration of social expectations that is both fascinating and entertaining. In it, we have characters that are almost hyper-aware of what the world seems to want from them, and they act accordingly. These expectations may run completely counter to what the characters themselves want, but that is quickly pushed aside. These people inhabit the art world, after all, and being true to oneself isn’t nearly as important as appearing to be true to oneself; this would at first appear to be a very slight distinction, but it is the difference between contentedness and utterly misery, as our characters soon discover.
Philip is an up-and-coming author whose second book is about to be released. His low level success has started to get to him and he is already starting to consider not so much what he wants in this life, but how people at his level are expected to want. As such, he starts to become selfish and arrogant. He chooses his needs over those of other people, including his girlfriend, Ashley. There are moments in which the true Philip comes through, and he starts to regret not being more giving of himself, but those don’t last very long.
This behavior is only exacerbated by the encouragement of legendary writer Ike Zimmerman, whose own selfishness has long since taken its toll on his family and friends. Ike is old and alone, a position that held a certain romanticism in the past, but has become tiresome over the years. He attempts to bring Philip under his wing, offering him tutelage in the ways of fame and artistic integrity. What it really comes down to, though, is a series of lessons on serving oneself above all else, even when fully aware of the social consequences.
Even Ashley, Philip’s long-suffering girlfriend, herself a budding photographer, has moments of sympathy and tenderness that she ignores in favor of what she feels is expected of her. As her relationship with Philip starts to unravel, Ashley hurries it along, even when she doesn’t really want to. She has flashes of what used to be, and what could very well be again were she and Philip to try harder. Like Philip and Ike, though, she knows that a modern woman- especially in the art world- is supposed to be independent, not tied to some man. So, in what at first appears to be a positive step, she breaks up with Philip and begins life anew as a strong, untethered artist. Whether she actually wants to be this is irrelevant; if she is to be taken seriously as an photographer, this is what she needs to be.
You may start to wonder exactly whom these characters are considering when defining what their behavior will be? They want to be taken seriously, but we never quite know by whom. When we see other authors, or agents, or critics, they all seem to be pretty accepting; maybe even encouraging. But, of course, it’s not about what other people genuinely see or how they act, it’s about how Philip, Ike, and Ashley perceive themselves through other people. I remember taking a Sociology class in which I was exposed to a very interesting principle. “I’m not what I think I am, nor am I what you think I am. I am what I think you think I am.”
Listen Up Philip is that idea fully expressed. If these characters allowed themselves to be what they actually wanted to be, they might be happy. Not only that, but the other people around them might be happy, too. But, it’s not about what they want, nor is it about what other people want. It’s about what they think other people want. And, as such, they are the creators of their own unhappiness and misery. All because they somehow got into their heads that this is what it looks like to be an artist.
This all sounds very tragic, and it is, at its core. But this film is also remarkably funny. There’s something about oblivious characters acting like children that is both infuriating and hilarious. The cast certainly helps elevate the material from standard independent fare to something much more impactful through its embracing of the absurd. These characters- though relatable- are also remarkably silly. Sometimes they realize it, sometimes they don’t. Special praise should be extended to Jason Schwartzman, whose ability to declare horrible things while still somehow remaining impish and likable is virtually unparalleled. Ever since Rushmore, Schwartzman has specialized in playing characters that are both infuriating and pathetic, like a child breaking his own toys. You can’t help but get angry at him, but deep down you’re still rooting for him to turn out okay. Listen Up Philip is a wonderful showcase for his talent, as if he has somehow been building to this character his whole life.
So much of Listen Up Philip seems like your standard independent quirkfest, but writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s confident handling of tone elevates it beyond that. Though it may seem a bit shaggy, this is a very deliberate film. When the story takes a break from Philip to follow Ashley for a while, it could seem like an half-hearted decision in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. But Perry lets us know that this is happening for a reason and we’d better start paying attention, lest that reason go unnoticed. From the spot-on casting to the fluid jazz score to the beautifully straightforward third person narration (a device I tend not to enjoy), every decision in this film is thoughtful and effective.
This is a movie about art and artists, things that are inexorably linked together, but perhaps shouldn’t be. A piece of art is certainly an expression of an artist’s feelings and philosophies, but it is only that; an expression. A piece of art can afford to be selfish at all times, insisting that we take it as it is. And while an artist should allow himself certain indulgences in how he creates his art, he still requires the same things we all do. Love, companionship, accountability. Philip is an artist who needs these things, but has gotten mixed up with the art itself. And while a piece of art can demand that its audience sit up and pay attention, Philip- just like everybody else- shouldn’t expect that kind of blind acceptance from those around him. Sometimes, we need to stop being so focused on ourselves- or even what we feel others think of us- and actually start paying attention to those that we love. Sometimes, we need to stop talking and just listen up.