The Fictions of Anxiety in 'The Last of Philip Banter'

by Imran Khan

15 July 2015

An examination of internalized fears, The Last of Philip Banter explores the social culture of the working-class through a careful dissection of mental illness.
 
cover art

The Last of Philip Banter

John Franklin Bardin

(Diversion)
US: Jun 2014

cover art

The Last of Philip Banter

Director: Hervé Hachuel
Cast: Lola Bayo, Tony Curtis, José Luis Gómez

1986

When Philip Banter sits down at his office desk early one morning, he’s still shaking off the effects from his late night binge drinking. Hungover, tired and fractious, Philip then notices a mysterious manuscript labelled “Confession” staring up at him from his desktop. Intrigued, the young man cautiously flips through the pages, reading its contents in a daze of alcohol and near-slumber. At first, Philip can hardly take in what he’s read; surely it’s a tasteless joke? But after a second, more careful read, panic settles in.

The 15 pages before him detail the events of an upcoming dinner party, telling of a night of infidelity in which Philip will leave his wealthy wife for an attractive young woman he meets. The manuscript also seems to underline the marital problems that have been plaguing him for quite some time. What, exactly, is going on? And just who is responsible for depositing the poisonous document?

Philip tries to dismiss the manuscript as a sad and spiteful prank – until what has been predicted at the dinner party comes true. Alarmed and yet fascinated by the coincidences, he is still prepared to dismiss the events of that night as pure happenstance.  That is, until, he receives another manuscript on his desk, this time predicting events even more distressing and sinister. The future is looking increasingly grim for Philip when, again, what has been foretold comes true…

John Franklin Bardin had a rather inauspicious start in life. Bardin undertook a number of low-income jobs as a ticket-taker, a bouncer and a bookstore clerk before finding his niche as a writer and authoring a cluster of novels throughout the ‘40s and the ‘50s, including his best-known, The Last of Philip Banter. Bardin may have had a more promising start in life if it were not for the shambles of a deteriorating family life, which left him fatherless and in care of a mother who suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. An increasing and deepening interest in his mother’s condition prompted tireless research into clinical psychology and what we read in much of Bardin’s work is the result of his studies reframed by the writerly hand of a man trying to come to terms with his inner demons. Amnesia is often a central theme in the author’s stories and in The Last of Philip Banter, Bardin’s fears are recreated as a literary nightmare of family dissolution.

The Last of Philip Banter is the second volume in a trilogy of novels linked by the theme of amnesia. In it, Bardin offers up a mirror to an oppressively work-oriented American society in which keeping up appearances involves a series of deadly frustrations and psychological fall-outs. Philip Banter’s bouts of amnesia are alcohol-induced and perhaps not at all the result of a poorly-wired brain. But those blackouts, the gaps in memory in which personal troubles are momentarily lost, prove as much a relief as they do a cause for panic, which lays bare the fears of young men reaching the tipping point in their working lives. If Bardin’s own life history is any clue into the dysfunctional programming in Philip’s life, then it points to a kind of separation anxiety which fell heavy upon the male working-class during Bardin’s authoring years.

Published in 1947 and set in and around Madison Avenue, New York, The Last of Philip Banter chronicles a life of disruptive anxiety for its protagonist who has wormed his way into an upscale family by means of a suspect marriage. Dorothy, Philip’s less-than-impressed wife who has grown weary of her husband’s raging alcoholism, is the concerned and somewhat remote daughter of the man Philip works for, Steven Foster. Arrogant and proud, Steven cannot stand to see his daughter with a drunkard like Philip, whom he views as a leech sucking on the Foster family fortune. Nevertheless, he has begrudgingly hired his son-in-law, if only for the sake of his troubled daughter.

Philip’s job is by no means trivial; a copywriter in his father-in-law’s successful firm, he is ensured a steady income and respectable rank amongst his working peers. But Philip’s position in both his work and married life is based on an entirely selfish concern for material well-being. By his own admission, the young man had his eye on the well-to-do Dorothy for some time, asking for her hand in the hope of insinuating himself into a life of privilege and thus away from threat of destitution. Marked by this fear of financial and emotional poverty, Bardin’s novel essentially recasts its author as a participant in New York’s social-climbing rat-race, assuming the literary face of a male collective, excised and displaced from the nuclear family unit.

Bardin, who was saddled with the health issues of his ailing mother and the responsibilities of his absentee father, imbues Philip with the restless fears of maternal separation, the anxieties reaching fever-pitch when his issues of abandonment manifest themselves in a series of sexual infidelities. Bardin is even less oblique in his portrait of Steven, a projection of Philip’s worst qualities; Steven, unlike Bardin’s own absentee father, holds dear to his child in an insidious and, perhaps, incestuous manner. Not so much a satire on the miserable upbringing of its author’s life as it is on the externalization of his fears, The Last of Philip Banter works to explore the social culture of the working-class through a careful dissection of mental illness.

Separation anxieties are further revealed in the pivotal relationships Philip has with both his wife and his love interest, Brent, whom he meets at the dinner party. Each woman is representative of two conflicting goals within Philip (a comment which Bardin makes on men in general). By satisfying Philip’s most licentious desires, Brent provides him a temporary respite from his adult responsibilities. Through Brent, Philip can revert to the most basic and selfish desires rooted in his youth. His wife Dorothy, however, bonds him maternally to his familial obligations, duties which instil Philip with dread. Meanwhile, the mysterious manuscript, which provides him an alternative (and very tangible) reality, comments on his future actions in an at once profoundly observant and unsympathetic manner; the themes of schizophrenia (a reference to Bardin’s mother) and those selfish acts of pleasure which hypothetically free humans from the bonds of such illnesses, merge Bardin’s personal facts with his fiction.

The New York City backdrop is a silent conspirator in the author’s narrative – the labyrinthine city of streets, avenues, skyscrapers and apartments mirrors the dizzying paranoia from which many characters in the novel suffer. In New York, a single turn on a city street may lead Philip to the redemptive womb of home and stability, a maternal bond re-established in Dorothy’s arms; yet another turn leads to the alcoholic destruction that negates the adult responsibilities plaguing him in his marriage.

Bardin sketches his New York with a studied eye that sensitively underlines one of the city’s most disturbing and fascinating aspects: the seemingly endless numbers of quietly lost souls who exist in the office buildings, apartments and street bars that Philip frequents, each of them possessing a psyche demolished by traumas both worldly and spiritual. No matter how and where Bardin’s characters are positioned in his story, a personal history of family illness and ruin is never far from the fictional lives. Unnerving, slick and despairingly dark, Bardin’s novel of psychological destruction is an indictment of smoothly fabricated truths.

The novel’s rather unsuccessful 1986 film adaptation of the same name does the disservice of swapping the bustling, frenetic setting of New York for the glacial calm of Madrid. Given a decidedly European slant of measured cool and elegance, the original narrative is defanged and rendered limp; New York City provides its title character with a restless milieu of personalized fears and anxieties, manifested in Bardin’s observing of the “New York minute” in an American city-dweller’s life. Philip, in his cinematic construction, flounders hopelessly in a scenic and foreign city, divorced from the self-reflexivity that the novel’s text provides, with the New York City backdrop serving as a projection of human angst.

Featuring an odd assortment of actors, including Tony Curtis, Irene Miracle (known mostly for Midnight Express) and Scott Paulin (an actor of mainly TV series), the film straggles and meanders around its complicated plot. Its updating of the story’s original timeframe, from the ‘40’s to an ‘80s yuppie world of power suits and starched preppy shirts, inhibits any sympathy the viewer might feel for these characters mired in their woes; watching them lounge miserably in their finery and the generous helpings of riches on display, it’s difficult to feel compassion for anyone onscreen.

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Philip Banter (Scott Paulin) in the film adaptation of The Last of Philip Banter fights to keep his sanity.

Filmmaker Hervé Hachuel, (who had previously worked as an executive producer for a Pedro Almodóvar film), displays a hyperbolic touch by casting an overworked and exasperated Tony Curtis as Steven Foster (renamed Charles here); Curtis’ unapologetically American manner is at odds with the very European ambience of the film. It is this and other similar clashes of culture which present the crux of the problem with the film.

Bardin’s novel of working-class anxieties and the resultant fractured psyches is an examination of a social breakdown that is particularly American. Bardin’s novel discusses the division between maternal influence and the status-obsessed man, outlining the consequential addictions (in this case, sex and alcohol) that rise to take the place of emotional stability. Not without reason does the author implement the studied mess of a modern, industrious city to explore the demons working within young men. In Hachuel’s dissertation on young male life, these notions of mental anguish, power and matriarchal security are somewhat displaced in the comparatively innocuous surroundings of a European culture principally divorced from such psychologies.

Struggling against the static of the story’s resituated setting of Madrid, Hachuel finds nothing here to recreate the inner and external strife established in the source material; in the jewelled sequences of action and drama, all participants are rendered cold and aloof (while ornamental, Miracle’s detached and icy beauty, in particular, precipitates a strange and ineffective distance in character dynamics). Trading in the grime and rust of Bardin’s original source for exotic flair may not have been a suspect choice if some effort had been applied to making decisive changes that would gut the source material and provide room for more elaborate creative amendments. Instead, the filmmaker opts for an unusual fusion of American noir and European malaise, never committing fully to either. Stranded hopelessly in between, Hachuel’s film remains a provocatively dressed phantom of Bardin’s clearly-defined objectives.

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