In some ways, Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up, Philip played as two antithetical films. In the first half, we were treated to Alex Schwartzman’s performance of Philip, a nauseatingly narcissistic writer in the vein of Philip Roth, John Updike. Norman Mailer and the other purveyors of liberal machismo that became so popular throughout the 1960s and the 1970s. The difference with Philip, however, was that he was trying to import this same milieu and ambience to the present, resulting in a 70s naturalism within Perry’s mise-en-scenes that initially felt somewhat parodic, or like a dark riff on the 70s fetishism that was (and still is) so popular amongst American cinema, both Hollywood and indie, at that point in time. Over the second half of the film, however, this parodic element started to dissipate, almost presenting Philip as a figure of pathos by the film’s end. At moments, it actually felt as if the screenplay was finally paying homage to the victim mentality – the plight of being white, straight and misunderstood – that had been so savagely satirised in the opening act, if only by generating a certain gravitas from the spectacle of Philip cast adrift against a series of 70s tableaux that felt alienated from, but also somehow nobler than, those of the indie present.
That same rhythm and alternation is intensified in Perry’s subsequent and latest film, Golden Exits, which is so obnoxious in its characterization, ambience and insularity that I initially assumed that it was being played entirely for laughs, only to gradually sense – both from the final trajectory and devolution of the film, and from the comments made about it by Perry and his largely appreciative critic base – that it’s actually meant to generate the same kinds of pathos and even gravitas that made the ending of Listen Up, Philip feel so dissonant, and in some ways so unremarkable alongside the biting satire that had made its opening acts so memorable. Once again, Perry presents us with a misunderstood main character, except that in this case it’s not an aspiring actor but an ageing archivist, played by the Beastie Boys’ Ad-Rock. In the spirit of full disclosure, I have to acknowledge that I was put off, immediately, by Ad-Rock’s presence in this kind of film, especially since the Beastie Boys’ modus operandi – a pretty bland and entitled adolescent “attitude” laid over with a veneer of liberalism and bolstered by an (undeniable) technical brilliance – resonates so eerily and creepily with the way in which Ad-Rock’s character is elaborated by Perry here.
Given that the film is so character-driven, it makes most sense to simply start by situating Ad-Rock’s archivist Nick within the rest of the characters in the film, the most critical of whom is Naomi, played by Emily Browning, a young Australian woman who comes over to New York to visit her cousin Buddy, played by Jason Schwartzman, and ends up working for Nick to pay her way and retain her visa. Meanwhile, Nick is having issues with his wife Alyssa, played by Chloe Sevigny, and Alyssa’s sister, Gwendolyn, played by Mary-Louise Parker, since he apparently has something of a history when it comes to affairs with younger interns, as implausible as it might seem that Sevigny would be the insecure one in this relationship. Outside that central circle of characters is another subplot involving Buddy’s wife Jess, played by Analeigh Tipton, and Jess’ sister Sam, played by Lily Rabe, who works for Gwendolyn, and frequently complains about her high-handedness and officiousness as an employer. Finally, tying it all together, is the presence of Alyssa and Gwendolyn’s father, who has recently passed away, but who has left an enormous body of work behind, and whose archive Nick and Naomi are in the process of parsing and curating.
As that might suggest, much of the film plays out in small, cramped, self-consciously literary spaces, periodically interspersed with the sunkissed visions of New York that made Listen Up Philip so visually striking, except that now this homage to New Hollywood naturalism is focused more emphatically on what appears to be the wealthier areas of Brooklyn around Park Slope. As with mumblecore cinema, Perry tends to gravitate towards transitory spaces and situations – doorways, corridors, windows – and yet Golden Exits also exemplifies much of what positions his work at an oblique relation to mumblecore cinema (whatever we mean by that now) as well. Whereas directors like Andrew Bujalski and Joe Swanberg evoke a kind of amorphous slacker flux that can’t quite settle into or inhabit anything but the fringes of domestic space, Perry’s characters have a kind of assurance and casual domestic comfort in clearly upmarket residential spaces that in and of itself feels quite dated in the context of New York’s current real estate market. Evoking a bedsitter vibe at a time when the bedsitters of yore have been thoroughly refurbished as retail investment opportunities, there’s a defiantly anachronistic determination to present Brooklynite domesticity as divested of the privilege that typically attends it, with even the most extravagant of brownstones forming provocatively plausible backdrops for the film’s downbeat naturalism.
To his credit, Perry knows just how to exude that naturalism, while the unexpectedness of seeing it against the backdrop of this property market prevents it ever feeling like slavish pastiche either. Taking the syntax that New Hollywood associated so prevalently with urban decay and bedsitter melancholy – fades, deep focus, ambient noise – and then applying it to the very antithesis of those spaces, the film’s aesthetic is a poetic meditation on what remains of that 70s cinematic impulse, as well as what it means to long for it through film. In the process, Golden Exits exudes a laboriousness that has to be deliberate; a kind of defiant cumbersomeness that goes beyond the slightly mannered, precious dialogue so typical of this kind of indie bedsitter drama to emphasise the sheer stolidity of the camera itself – its size and materiality, and its inevitable presence and plasticity in the mise-en-scenes it is describing. While the décor of the film may be quite bare, then, it nevertheless abounds in enormous and anachronistic pieces of technology, from the old copying and recording devices that litter Nick’s office, to the massive old cameras on display in the foyer of Anthology Film Archives, where he takes Naomi on one of their first informal dates together. In many ways, the bareness of the film – and the total absence of digital recording devices – works as a way of making the presence of these analog devices, and the presence of Perry’s camera, all the more emphatic, jarring and irrefutable in their sheer physicality.
That focus on the heaviness of the camera produces a similar heaviness when it comes to language, especially language exchanged between men and women. While this may not be writerly in quite the same way as Listen Up Philip, the screenplay as a whole still revolves around language as a physical and plastic presence, from the endless printed documents that make up Nick’s archival life – and Nick’s continuous mansplaining of archival practice to Emily – to Buddy’s work in a recording studio, which gives him a taste for voices that makes Emily’s Australian accent – an uncanny presence in such an inextricably New York drama – especially appealing and fascinating to him. Like Nick, he attempts a romantic conquest, and just as Nick’s flirtation takes place by discursing about archival methodology, so Buddy continuously talks around Emily’s vocabulary and lexicon as a way of brokering some communion with her, and momentarily repressing the fact that he, too, has a wife at home. The result is a kind of stylized awkwardness around gender relations that often reminded me of the sound stages and stilted dialogue of Louis CK’s Horace and Pete. Here, as there, it feels as if the point is to recover an inherent awkwardness to male-female relations that a more streamlined film might occlude, and a kind of return of the repressed in which it becomes apparent that, for all our supposed liberation and indie wokeness, men still act largely like men, and women still act largely like women, especially in relation to each other.
Praising Louis CK at this particular moment in time poses challenges, and praising Horace and Pete – which pre-empts so much of what we’ve found out in the last twelve months – is more challenging still. Suffice to say, however, that Horace and Pete beautifully presents this very project – a will to return to patriarchal simplicity even or especially against our best wishes – as a kind of pathology in itself, and as the most pathological element of an increasingly post-patriarchal present. That willingness to embrace a certain monstrosity at the heart of masculine nostalgia (I’m thinking especially of the Alan Alda character here) was what made Horace and Pete so brave, so original and so unremitting in its aesthetic vision. By contrast, Golden Exits often feels revanchist in a more sentimental and sententious way, asking us to take a world seriously in which all male figures are bosses and mentors (or aspire to be) and in which any women who aims for the same is immediately and brutally pathologised. With everything contained under the aegis of Gwendolyn and Alyssa’s father’s estate, Golden Exits often plays as an effort to archive and commemorate the male voice as a tool of archival commemoration in itself, yearning for a time when the classificatory systems that ran our lives were embedded in a white masculine framework.
That might sound like a crude criticism to make, but the film often does feel that crude, which is why I assumed that it was playing as parody for such long stretches (and why I still, at some level, assume that it must be playing as parody in ways I haven’t yet discerned). Nowhere is that clearer than in the figure of Ad-Rock’s Nick, one of the most repulsive, precious and narcissistic characters I have seen on the big screen in years – a man-child who needs to be a mentor, and who obsessively monitors any young woman in his purview, and any young men who come near her – but who also seems to be presented as a figure of pathos and even gravitas in a fairly unironised way. Promising to introduce Emily to films about “ordinary people who do nothing” and speaking to women in the most “playfully” condescending way possible, he often recalls Woody Allen in the evident pleasure he takes in being the self-deprecating, befuddled put-upon “loser,” which appears to be his stock in trade when it comes to flirtation. Adopting the role of the sensitive type who can only get with interns after his friends talk him into it, he ogles Naomi from every angle but then tells his “buddies” that “this is a human being you’re talking about” when they suggest he pursue her – a logical enough suggestion, from their perspective – as it becomes clear that the only way he can flirt with young women is if they are utterly dependent upon him, which in Naomi’s case doesn’t just encompass employment but the terms of her work visa as well.
What ensues is the most banal and bathetic of mid-life crises rendered – somehow – as an object of sympathy, with Perry taking us through one forlorn, hangdog expression and experience from Nick after another. In a strange way, the fact that he doesn’t get with Naomi, or even completely commit to pursuing her, makes his presence all the more pathetic and obnoxious as well, as he continually makes her discomforted without ever propositioning her directly enough to allow her the catharsis of a categorical refusal either. That’s not to say, either, that Naomi completely rejects his advances, but that her semi-interest in him – implausible, to say the least – forms part of a wider characterization of women that, once again, was so absurd that I could only assume there was a parody I was missing. Generalising the virgin/whore dichotomy (sorry if that sounds crude, but, again, the film is that crude) into a series of undergraduate antitheses, women are here presented as impregnably steely or “vulnerable to infatuation,” just as female faciality is presented as blankly inexpressive or brimming with an abjective, affective messiness that calls out for a father figure to shake it out of them and make them whole. In both cases, however, the women of the film are almost uniformly limp and pathetic, while in both faces we’re presented with little other than raw surfaces of emotional need, demanding a mentor and boss to structure their enjoyment for them. Alternately sullen or fetching, jaded or clueless, “remote” or “intimate,” the woman in the film are annoying above anything else, continually and implausibly putting themselves in stupid situations in which they require rescuing, and exuding a vapidity that seems as if it designed to render the banality of Nick’s mid-life crisis, and his own po-faced, quizzical neediness, more compelling by comparison.
For all the undoubted elegance of Perry’s command of place and space, then, I found this part of the film hard to fathom except as parody or satire. I suppose that there is something provocative, at this particular moment, about presenting an indie drama in which the main character and object of sympathy spends the entire film agonizing about whether or not to take advantage of an assistant. Similarly, there is something to be said for the way in which Nick himself is initially naturalized in the film, only for his apparent harmlessness – his cultivated “harmlessness” – to gradually throw the women around him into disarray, in tandem with the swelling musical theme that gradually takes over Perry’s mise-en-scenes. Yet if it is parody, the parody feels so lazy in its provocativeness that it might as well not exist, even if Perry’s remediated 70s also starts to feel quite compelling in its uncanny and estranging qualities as the drama proceeds. At the very least, the dialogue during the wordier scenes describe the film too perfectly for it not to be parodic (“a never-ending barrage of introspective blather”) and yet the indeterminacy of its parody is perhaps the most conservative and blandishing part of Golden Exits, which inchoately falls back upon an older and more privileged optic, but without seeming to ever quite know why it is doing so, except for the fact – the ultimate index of privilege and cinematic entitlement – that it can.