Miranda July's New Film The Future and MOCA Exhibit "Eleven Heavy Things" 

With her talking cat, T-shirt dance, interactive pink thought balloons and unicorn fans, the filmmaker-artist just wants us all to connect

Thursday, Aug 4 2011

Miranda July clutters her speech with a surplus of "likes" and "you knows," conspicuous even for a 37-year-old living in a quasi-bohemian enclave of L.A. These tics are so omnipresent in modern language that they tend to fall into a kind of conversational white noise, but spending time with the artist-author-filmmaker got me thinking about what they actually mean. Coming from July's mouth, it's impossible to ignore that the rhetorical "You know?" is a fundamental signal of insecurity, a sign of a constant quest for connection, recognition, approval. And every sentence fragmented with a "like" — "It's, like" instead of "It is," "She was, like," instead of "She said" — takes an implicit stance against definitive declaration.

But this tendency toward heavily qualified conversation seems appropriate: July may be contemporary art and film's most committed chronicler of neediness and suspended development. Throughout her 15-year career as a working artist, July has explored the mysteries of human communication and connection with a disarming sincerity, all through a persona that's as savvily crafted as they come.

July's name has come to serve as a kind of shorthand for what constitutes "hipster" as much as, say, Zooey Deschanel or Dave Eggers — and like the indie film actress and the author-publisher, there's something about July that inspires the use of words like precious and precocious as pejoratives. Her work — in its faux-oblivious dodging of sarcasm and cynicism, its use of childlike affectation to explore the invisible, mutable line between juvenile and adult, and its often proudly literal stating of anxieties that usually go unspoken — inspires eye-rolling and even bullylike behavior from a cool-kid crowd more comfortable with snark and ironic appreciation. The push against such disaffection is part of July's wider project.

click to flip through (6) PHOTO BY KEVIN SCANLON

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"To me, it's like, otherwise, how do you know if it's good, you know? Unless it's true," July says. We've met for lunch on a Friday in Silver Lake, near the home she shares with graphic artist–turned-filmmaker Mike Mills (Beginners), her husband of two years. It's her last quiet afternoon before a flurry of activity surrounding her new movie, The Future, and "Eleven Heavy Things," a sculpture show she would later install on the lawn in front of MOCA's Pacific Design Center. "I write plenty of stuff that isn't totally sincere, and that's the part I cut out."

The Future, which opens tomorrow in L.A., is July's second feature film as writer, director and star (after 2005's Me and You and Everyone We Know, which won prizes at Sundance and Cannes). It concerns the interwoven dramas of a precocious little girl, a randy single father, an eccentric (yet wise!) old man, a talking cat named Paw Paw and a Los Angeles couple who, faced with the prospect of a small dose of responsibility entering their lives in one month's time, quit their menial jobs in order to live life to the fullest for their last 30 days of true freedom.

As much as these elements might skirt saccharine, indie-film stereotypes, July transcends the familiar, largely by taking an undeclared turn, in the film's second half, into the realm of sci-fi–tinged surrealism. July also has incorporated the visual language of performance and video art seamlessly into the story, exploring highly specific, minutely observed emotions with deep resonance, while at the same time playing with the possibilities of what American indie narrative cinema can be and do.

The Future begins with a black screen, forcing focus on timorous narration from Paw Paw, a wounded stray cat (voiced by July) who explains that his life was saved by a young couple who promised to come back to the "cagetorium" to adopt her when her injuries healed. That couple is Sophie (July), a 30-something teacher at a dance school for kids, and her long-term live-in boyfriend, Jason (Hamish Linklater).

When we first meet Sophie and Jason, they're sharing a couch in their ramshackle railroad apartment, each focused on a Mac laptop, the computers pinning them into their seats. They argue over who should get up and get a glass of water, and fantasize about a combination of gadgets and magical powers that would allow them to turn the tap on and fill a glass without actually having to move.

"You can't really do anything special with your mind," she scoffs. His comeback: "Except stop time."

While this banter is happening, its "spontaneity" scans as unnatural —  the kind of precision cuteness that attracts July's detractors like dogs to raw meat. But as with much of what may seem like affectation in The Future's setup — the very existence of a talking-cat narrator named Paw Paw; Sophie's habit of greeting a waking Jason as "Hi, Person"; the "character" of a yellow T-shirt/security blanket Sophie calls "Shirtie" —  the film's second-half veer into deadpan metaphysical fantasy casts this exchange in a different light. And ultimately, Sophie and Jason's desperate attempts to delay the inevitable will lead them to carelessly cause senseless, far-from-cute tragedy.

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