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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, November 10, 2014

entry arrow8:41 PM | Writers Are Assholes

Alex Ross Perry's Listen Up, Philip (2014) is strange charmer. I laughed with this film, found many things about it quite truthful -- although I have yet to meet a writer as insufferably assholic as Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) or Jonathan Pryce's Ike Zimmerman (which is said to be modelled on Philip Roth). Maybe the literary circles I orbit around are too small, or maybe I don't know enough writers. Sure, I know one or two writers who are complete assholes, but none with the dramatic heft Schwartzman's invention has. And the attempt seems so deliciously contrived (the first two sequences in the film -- where Philip berates an ex-girlfriend, and then a fellow writer in a wheelchair -- underline what we are supposed to have from the get-go: Philip is an asshole. Now just settle down and enjoy where his assholeness will take him) that the effect is one of likability. We like this asshole.

I enjoy movies about writers. And there are many of them, which FlavorWire has ranked with some gusto. What is fascinating to me is how writers in cinema are often depicted the way Philip and Ike are caricatured as. Sure, there are the crusading ones like Sean Connery's William Forrester in Gus Van Sant's well-meaning Finding Forrester (2000) -- but mostly, they are assholes. Let's take a quick tour through some of the more popular depictions. Jack Nicholson's Jack Torrance in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980). Leonardo DiCaprio's Arthur Rimbaud in Agnieszka Holland's Total Eclipse (1995). Charlize Theron's Mavis Gary in Jason Reitman's Young Adult (2011). Michael Caine's Sidney Bruhl in Sidney Lumet's Deathtrap (1982). John Gielgud's Clive Langham in Alain Resnais' Providence (1977). Glenn Close's Jenny Fields in George Roy Hill's The World According to Garp (1982). Charlotte Rampling's Sarah Morton in François Ozon's Swimming Pool (2003). Emma Roberts' Amy in Scott Coffey's Adult World (2013). Jeff Bridges' Ted Cole in Tod Williams' The Door in the Floor (2004). Woody Allen's Harry Block in his own Deconstructing Harry (1997). Many of them are the acidic types I'd understandably stay clear of. Some are crazy, some are murderous, some are glorious psychopaths that manipulate you to feed their craft. I know writers who are like that.

Of course, there are also movies that feature writers as dreamers, loveable losers, or afflicted souls needing understanding (especially the biographical ones). But the trope that seems to be enduring is the writer as a mean soul, often calculating, always debased. I wonder why this is so? Maybe it is the darkness that's twin to this talent we unconsciously think of when we explore the writer's soul? I am reminded of Robert De Niro's quip in the 2014 Oscars: “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination, consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing, and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.”

The one film that I love that seems to go beyond cardboard cutouts is Curtis Hanson's Wonder Boys (2000), based on the novel by Michael Chabon. While Michael Douglas' Grady Tripp is the novelist we follow in this story, the film is chockfull of writerly types -- Tobey Maguire's tortured soul, Robert Downey Jr.'s loveable predator, Katie Holmes' vixen, Rip Torn's popular hack, and Richard Thomas' hapless nerd -- but Chabon and Hanson invests in all of them a complexity that humanises them beyond the labels, and makes them all true (or truthful). But Douglas' journey is the story that centres all of the drama, and his character is such a rich cipher I see all of a writer's common strengths and weaknesses in him. He is a human mirror to the writer as cinematic character. I wish there were more films about writers exactly like this movie.

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