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Listen Up Philip

Listen Up Philip follows Philip Roth’s Zuckerman persona and writings such as The Ghost Writer and Exit Ghost to some extent, with a voice-over reminiscent of a Woody Allen film. But the wistful regret of Alvie Singer in Annie Hall is replaced by tragic futility, regarding the course of author Philip Louis Friedman’s life and whatever was left of his mentor’s, Ike Zimmerman. Their monument is not love of girl friend, wife, or daughter, but the grudging respect of their talent by critics, agents publishers, and people who might have been loved ones but whose frailties and self-respect has been rubbed raw by Philip’s and Ike’s intense and intensely perceptive awareness of everyone’s vulnerabilities. As for their own, they can’t see them. That is implied by the display of the two writers’ dust jackets as the closing credits roll. Those alone are their legacy.
Who said a schlemiel, a piss ant, and an asshole are near-synonyms? This film is an extended definition of all three, with Philip and Ike as the exemplars. You’ll never hear the epithet “vomit-job” without thinking of either one. That makes the movie something like going to a dentist. You don't regret it but you are glad to get out.

That’s a cruel assessment, but it shows how the film got under my skin. It is a perceptive, intensely detailed study of Roth’s work, with filaments of the later “nemesis” short novels intruding themselves in the twilight gloom of New York’s streets as Philip, years after the story begins, walks them, still hurrying, still trying to get somewhere before anyone else, even in Manhattan. There’s an appearance by the Saul Bellow look-alike, whose lack of ego and sense of fun are not enough to bring to climax a night of the “old men young again” that he had planned. He has a spirit of friendship and affection that Ike was incapable of recognizing. And he, unlike Ike and Philip, is balanced, humble.

There are many similarities’ between Samuel Roth and both Ike and Philip. Principally, Roth’s stubbornness in seeing what he wants to see, and getting away with outsized risks. Because Roth needed the prestige of Joyce’s name so badly, or the notoriety of a scandal book on a sitting President and another on the most famous American columnist, he played the putz, publicized himself as making heroic sacrifices. So did Philip, sitting alone and writing in his small apartment while ignoring the needs of his students to whom he was teaching creative writing.

Actually there was indeed something admirable there. One could insult Philip, make him miserable and lonely, but one could not stop him. One student asked him what his credentials were for being a teacher. He replies, "Well, I do not teach, I instruct." Then, with a wink at the student, he said, "Nice try."

The same imperviousness to opposition was true for Ike. After what looked like a final break with his daughter, whose mother he has constantly insulted, as he did her, he bitches to Philip about abandonment (who is just as delusional about that as his mentor). There is no grief, just indignation. Then he turns back to his latest novel.

Finally, both Roth and Philip will never give up. They have identified their destiny and will follow it forever. “There is my star,” wrote Roth to conclude one of his best poems. Some aspects of their characters are degenerate. And some are sublime. As Gerald Kersh put it, in such dedication, however venal and self-destructive, “There is the spirit of man.” And also something Jewish—one is not required to finish a quest for fulfillment, but must begin it. And maybe create wisdom, however making a mess of oneself.
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