Miranda July's New Film The Future and MOCA Exhibit "Eleven Heavy Things"
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.
"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."
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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.
Sophie may be nearing the end of her natural fertility, but she and Jason essentially live like college students, working thankless, low-commitment day jobs. So the impending arrival of Paw Paw is a big deal; it gets the couple thinking about time. They'll soon be 40 and, as Jason puts it, "After 40, you're basically 50, and after 50, it's basically loose change ... like, not enough to get what you really want."
In a queasy limbo between childhood and adulthood, Sophie and Jason are ostensibly free of parental minders but far from ready to do their own minding. As July puts it over lunch, "One friend of ours became a mom. We still think of ourselves, the rest of us, as daughters, but our friend is a mom — you know, like, she graduated. I know people whose parents are dead, and on some level they're still doing things to impress their parents, you know? It's like you don't ever have to stop that."
Sophie and Jason's campaign to make the most of "our last month ever" leads to Jason bonding with a dirty limerick–writing, happily married elderly man whom he meets through the classified rag Penny-saver, played by an actual elderly man whom July met through the Pennysaver while working on a project documented in the book It Chooses You, to be released in November by McSweeney's.
Meanwhile, left a month to pursue her heart's desires, Sophie first attempts to launch a bid for YouTube stardom. When that proves to be a nonstarter, she falls into an irrational affair with older, single dad Marshall (David Warshofsky).
The affair is one element of The Future that went through several iterations via previous July creations. In a short story in July's 2007 collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, "Mon Plaisir," a wife compiles a list of topics that she and her husband do not broach: "Important Things We Don't Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About." That story foreshadowed July's live performance piece, Things We Don't Understand and Are Definitely Not Going to Talk About, which she mounted at the Kitchen in New York in 2007. Every night, July would "cast" a real couple and a single guy in the audience to play the troubled couple and the wife's lover. It gave her an opportunity to workshop some of her less conventional ideas (like the T-shirt and the anthropomorphized cat) before writing The Future's screenplay.
July's scenes with Warshofsky can be painful to watch. The characters have little chemistry, and physically they look as odd together as July and Linklater are an obviously matched pair. But it was important to July that this not be an evenly balanced love triangle.
"I really wanted him to seem so wrong," she says. "In the performance it was often, like, a really cute guy. At that point I was still interested in it as an affair. I think I was just committing to this big relationship [with Mills], and still kind of freaked out, whereas by the time I got to the movie I was, like, whatever."
Though Sophie and Marshall do have sex, physical attraction is clearly not the key motivator for her — in fact, she seems fairly repulsed by his "sleazy" style. One of their dialogue exchanges cuts right to the heart of the affair's appeal:
Marshall: "It would make me very happy to watch you all the time."
Sophie: "If it was really 'all the time,' I wouldn't even have to try!"
Marshall [shaking his head]: "I had you totally wrong. I thought you were more ... independent."
When I ask July what Sophie gets from the affair, she describes Marshall's gaze as "like fame."
"Ten years ago, wanting attention was still shameful and getting it was hard for most of us," July writes in her director's statement for The Future.
Despite her seemingly naive persona, July has always treated her career as serious business. She was born Miranda Jennifer Grossinger and adopted her stage name in high school. She was raised in Berkeley by publisher parents who taught her to be comfortable with intimate expression. "My dad expects, when we talk on the phone, that I'm going to tell him about my internal world," July says. "And if I don't, I've kind of, like, failed a little bit in the conversation. It's a little superficial."
She dropped out of UC Santa Cruz at age 20, in part, she says, to force herself to make art without a net. "That was exciting because whatever I made would be real. It wouldn't be a student thing, it wouldn't be like an internship."
She moved to Portland, Ore., put on plays in punk clubs and hooked up with the K Records scene in Olympia, Wash., performing in the mid-'90s with a band called The Need and recording two experimental solo records. She became a big fish in these proudly countercultural ponds, but she always wanted more.
"The first play that I did, I was probably just as into making the poster and putting the ad in the paper as writing the play. Those activities were part of the reason to make this stuff," she recalls. "Maybe it seems sort of self-promoting, but to me it was like, well, on the other hand, isn't it kind of silly to just expect people to show up to this?"
Ten years ago, July was best known as a video artist. Her 2001 short Getting Stronger Every Day, starring Sleater-Kinney's Carrie Brownstein, plays today as a vague aesthetic precursor to The Future. July also was renowned as a small-batch film distributer, having launched a project called Joanie4Jackie, which compiled short films made by women and created an infrastructure through which they could be sent around the country, chain-letter style.
When July talks about "attention" being "shameful," in one sense she's referring to the '90s indie-punk ethos that shunned "selling out," putting the nebulous notion of "cred" ahead of "mainstream" success.
"I always felt a little bit outside of that," July says. "Just the fact that even my short movies always seemed, in a way, less experimental than they could have been. I always had a feeling like, 'Well, there is weird stuff I'm trying to get across here, but it would be so pretentious to do that in, like, an extra weird way. That was my idea of, like, good politics — anyone should be able to watch this and feel like it's relevant to them. I never didn't want to make it be sort of grand, you know?"
But she's also talking about another kind of "shame." As a former counterculture feminist, July is fascinated by the way the Internet has created new venues for young women to express themselves — and a little dispirited by the fact that so much of that "expression" seems to amount to exhibitionism cheerfully geared toward a predatory male gaze. She's particularly curious about the wave of YouTube videos featuring young women dancing alone in their bedrooms.
"The whole thing of dancing on the Internet — I don't know what I would think of it if I was a young person now, but back then we would have all been, like, 'Oh, that's degrading,' or, 'Is this going to be empowering enough?' " July contemplated reaching out to these video-making girls, to see if she could connect their less-than socially conscious use of YouTube to "the Joanie4Jackie fantasy that I had. [I was] trying to figure out how to directly be, like, 'You're so close to making movies, you're obviously using cameras, you're doing it alone. I get wanting to be in it.' Yes, we [are] all making movies in our bedrooms and sharing them. It's just not quite what I pictured."
July's complicated feelings about this YouTube trend led to the subplot of The Future, in which Sophie, to compete with a younger colleague, attempts to create her own series of dancing videos. July also started the process of making the old Joanie4Jackie movies available online.
But when given the opportunity, July's sense of feminist responsibility did not compel her to conquer Hollywood just because that door was open. "My worst nightmare was being yet another woman who just makes one movie, you know?" she says. But after the success of Me and You, though she took what she refers to as the "obligatory" meetings with studios and production companies, "It was just so clear to me, like, 'Oh, that would be the route of total ruin.' "
Her ambitions were still vast — maybe too vast for the mainstream film industry. Rather than capitalize on the buzz for her first film to swiftly make another, she was determined to use her sudden higher profile to get projects in other media off the ground.
"I was actually as calculating as the next person, just not in that path," July admits. "I was, like, 'OK, now I'm going to get a good literary agent, and get a good book deal that I never would have gotten before this movie.' And you know, like, make [my audience] wider, which is what I always wanted."
July acknowledges that her undisguised hunger for attention, funneled into multiple, different types of art about a hunger for attention, can be "very embarrassing. One thing about being so self-generating and having not been discovered at, like, 25 by somebody else — there's no way to hide that I wanted this."
I ask her if she feels famous. "Well, I guess not like a real famous person, you know?"
Does anyone ever feel that way, I wonder? Even if Angelina Jolie understands that she's the most famous person ...
July interrupts. "But to her she's, like, 'Weird Angie.' She still feels really bisexual and freaky."
July acknowledges that, to some degree, her current life offers that attention that she's always desired — and she's had to actually interrogate that desire. "There was a period of time when I was doing press for the first movie, where it seemed like, 'Maybe the momentum of this will just get to a certain, like, speed and I just won't even have to be a person anymore.' Is that what happens? Is that what being famous is? You don't have to have, like, that Sunday where you're depressed and, like, not knowing what to do? And of course that so wasn't true that it seemed, like, newsworthy to me."
July says she's 5"5', but with her rail-thin frame she seems smaller, even fragile. It's a midsummer Monday morning, and she directs a cadre of burly men assigned to install her show "Eleven Heavy Things" on the lawn outside MOCA's Pacific Design Center on Melrose. When our photographer starts snapping photos of the artist in action, she pauses to fuss with her hair while checking her reflection in the window of my freshly washed Honda. Later I notice that her pants — slate gray slacks with elastic at the ankles — are being held up by a large safety pin, gathering excess fabric at her right hip.
July's fine art credentials pre-date and outweigh her indie film stardom. The MOCA show is not just a way to capitalize on buzz surrounding her new movie but also an honor backed up by a body of multimedia work going back to the 1990s. She first attracted the attention of the international art world via her full-length performance works, Love Diamond (which premiered in 1998) and The Swan Tool (2002), combinations of theater, live music and video projection, which she referred to as "live movies." In 2002, she had two works in the Whitney Biennial; she was invited back in 2004 with her interactive web project learningtoloveyoumore.com, through which July and collaborator Harrell Fletcher gave visitors "assignments" to make their own art. By that point July also was developing Me and You and Everyone We Know.
"Eleven Heavy Things" was created originally for inclusion in the Venice Biennale in 2009. Because Venice is, as July put it, "one of the more poor biennales," once they extended an invitation, July needed a backer. She turned to Jeffrey Deitch — then a powerful New York gallerist, now the director of MOCA in L.A. — who referred July to Rob McPherson, the L.A.-based fabrication artist whose La Paloma Studio has created pieces for Ed Ruscha, Richard Serra and many others.
The Venice Biennale, July says, is "the biggest show in the world, and yet, in my world, no one is ever going to see it. So I tried to think of a way that people would take pictures of it. And I thought, well, if they're in it, they'll be, like, 'Take a picture of me with this thing.' So [the pieces] are all interactive, and the people end up having, like, captions under them."
The final public work under the Deitch Projects banner, "Things" was installed in New York's Union Square last year. With both artist and benefactor now based on the West Coast, they plotted to bring the show to L.A.
"Our first idea, once we realized there was nowhere at MOCA that it could go, was the Americana [in Glendale], because that's where there's people gathered," July recalls. "It's like, "OK, you think you're a fake little city? Here's the public art in the city square.' They were game with it, but then we found out the grass there is only 1 foot deep. It doesn't actually connect to the Earth."
When Deitch suggested the Pacific Design Center, "Initially I was, like, 'What'? That place is so weird, and not beautiful," July told me over lunch. "But I don't want all the real things to happen in New York." By the day of installation, July had fully embraced the rolling lawn in front of the museum. "I'm into it now — there's kind of a Last Year at Marienbad feel to it."
Five of the 11 objects are podiums inscribed with what seem like intimate confessions turned slogans. Three of these are lined up, in ascending order of height, recalling the furniture of a medal ceremony — except, instead of winners, the words inscribed on them suggest they're meant to display "the guilty one," "the guiltier one," "the guiltiest one." Bolted to the ground, begging to be stood on, the podiums realize July's goal of affixing captions to her spectators; the artwork is only finished when the viewer interacts with it.
The remaining six pieces invite both interaction and photography in a different way. Flat constructions, with holes or openings suggesting a place to put one's head or limbs, they recall carnival facades — the pre-Photoshop headless standups that allowed one to be photographed trying on the persona of a strongman or bikini babe — but they ask the participant to try on ideas instead of personalities.
Some of the flat works are meant to be stood under, functioning in photographs as textless cartoon thought bubbles. In contrast to the declarative statements made by the show's other pieces, these are much more open-ended and evocative, with each mining a different type of romantic desire.
As much as the sentiment of the pieces employing language recalls July's various written works, it's these vague, indescribable shapes that most clearly bear her aesthetic signature. Brightly colored, amorphous and/or morphing shapes have been the most constant visual idea of July's work, from the shorts Getting Stronger Every Day and Nest of Tens to the scene in The Future that July calls "the T-shirt dance," in which Sophie is merged with the symbol of her desire for protection, creating an undulating yellow blob that allows July to physically become a shape herself.
"To me those shapes were always spiritual, kind of, in a very mundane, unspeakable sort of way," July says. "They were abstract in those [video] pieces in a way that could just be like that, but in the movie, when you're watching that scene, it's satisfying to me aesthetically, but you also have the whole story of how you got there."
The largest such piece in "Things" is Double Pink Shape, a bubble gum–colored cloud with space for two heads — a feminine fantasy of beauty and comfort and intimacy, engineered to be shared.
Another, Lace Shape, resembles a wedding veil that July copied out of a book given to her by her friends Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, who designed the dress and veil in which July was married. The bride-to-be, fighting a flu at the time, painstakingly hand-painted the piece on the eve of her wedding.
July met Mills at Sundance in 2005. She was there supporting Me and You; he was there with his first film, Thumbsucker. "RES magazine had a party that we were both, like, honored at, or whatever," July remembers. "And we both knew a little bit about each other. I remember walking up to him and going, 'Hi, I'm Miranda July,' which I never do."
In her director's statement for The Future, July describes talking cat Paw Paw as a device through which she could "describe the bittersweet vertigo of true love. Which is the thing that got me thinking about mortality in the first place."
When she met Mills, she was for the first time confronted with the notion of being with someone "for the rest of our lives," and the terrifying reality of what that meant.
"I remember saying to him one day, 'We're doing all these [creative] things, but in the end, we're going to end up having been the main experience of each other's lives.' And feeling for the first time that that was true. I wasn't saying that romantically — it was kind of, like, sobering. Like, try as I might there's going to be no single experience that's as big as that one. That's daily, and for so long.
"I think for a little while, I thought I was at the end of my life because of that," July admits. "And then, that the only thing that was proof that that wasn't true was that we hadn't had kids yet. You know? And that was apparently going to be a whole chapter. But we weren't trying to have kids, we were actually trying to make these movies."
Beginners and The Future, the couple's nearly simultaneously birthed "children," are, unavoidably, companion pieces — and not just because both have talking animals.
On the most basic level, they're both about the passing of time, the realization that the clock is always running out and life is happening right now. More specifically, they're both about a similar type of arrested development and contemporary, late-30-something fear of commitment, with a key difference. Where Mills contrasts his young lovers and their inward-gazing anxiety with a previous generation whose relationships were constricted by external forces, July creates a fantasy world in which the narcissism of her characters burns through the barrier between their inner lives and the external world in ways that actually alter space and time.
It doesn't seem like much of a stretch to say that both of these directly, unabashedly sentimental films are about the July/Mills marriage. When I interviewed Mills about Beginners, he was open about many autobiographic elements but downplayed the notion that the relationship between Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent's characters portrayed his own marriage. "The love part is much more normal fiction," he said in May. "It's not me and my wife, Miranda, it's not anything that I've actually done, really."
July tells a slightly different story.
"I remember reading Beginners a few times before I was really in my own [screenwriting phase], and then being, like, 'Oh, whoa, I don't think I should keep reading this because I gotta be in my own world.' And we both kind of agreed on that, that, like, to pull this off, we'd have to be more private."
When I say it seems that nonetheless there are some similarities between the two films, July nods. "Yeah, for sure. I mean, I'm amazed there's not more. I hadn't read [his] script in years when we were both kind of 'go,' you know? And I remember, because we have the same agent, I emailed my agent, saying, 'You know what, you're the only one who's read both our scripts. Can you tell me right now if there's anything that's going to be really bad that we both did?' And there was actually one scene — his stayed in, and mine I cut out after I shot it — that I thought was a little, like, similar, and revealing about us, because it was like something from our life. I won't say what it is."
But she maintains that it's not the relationship that colors the work so much as that their individual interests, aesthetics and instincts led to the relationship. "Occasionally we get into, like, 'Well, where did this come from, this thing?' We both have evidence from before we met that we were into that thing. And that's why we came together. That's why we like each other."
When "Eleven Heavy Things" opens to the public on a Saturday evening in late July, Mills, wearing a beard and a Western hat like the Jesse James of Silver Lake, laughs with friends as his wife runs around, gamely posing with her pieces for rabid fans with cameras, most of them youngish women. She seems bubbly and hyper "on." It is the only art opening I've ever been to where there's no booze. Instead, there's an ice cream truck.
But wait, it gets twee-er: I can't resist chatting to a tall, lanky young man wearing a handmade unicorn suit. He hands me a business card with the name "Lemonade 'Unicorn' Steiny." (He swears "Lemonade" is his given name.) I ask him why he's here, wearing a unicorn suit, and he answers only the first half of the question. "I think Miranda's work is awesome, just across the board," he gushes. "It's about human experience. It forces people to get together and share things and be, like, 'This is awkward!' "
I ask him if having a horn on his head is an impediment to "sharing."
"It can be. People die. But it's part of my job."
What else is part of your "job"?
"Demystifying my culture."
I'm there with someone I've just started dating. He and I stand underneath the pink cloud and are suddenly swarmed by onlookers armed with cameras. Miranda joins the crowd, beaming at us, and jokes, "You know that this means you're legally married." The forced intimacy of the scene reveals Lemonade's, uh, critique, to be spot-on, and at the same time, it's a powerful practical demonstration of July's key preoccupations — the piece that isn't complete until it pushes the spectator to perform, the rush of fame that confuses attention and love. It's also the kind of heightened moment that The Future is full of: contrived, hyperreal and unshakably, emotionally true.
And this, I realize, is the sly miracle of Miranda July and her work: She begs to be written off as a pretentiously precocious, delusional woman-child whose work is chiefly interested in what the Twitterati would brand as #firstworldproblems, whose prototypical uber-fan wears a unicorn suit. And yet everything she does is so guileless and direct, her affectations so often giving way to an ability to find the vulnerabilities in the average armor of cynicism. She sees your jaded defense mechanisms and renders them mundane. She dares you to roll your eyes. She knows the tougher you want to pretend you are, the harder you'll be hit when that fucking talking cat breaks your heart.
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