Why artist and writer Miranda July is the most extraordinary filmmaker of our time
- Anna Rogers
- 19 October 2011
Director of The Future and Me and You and Everyone We Know
The work of American artist and filmmaker Miranda July is divisive; indeed, whether you find her latest film The Future twee and wilfully obscure or challenging and moving will almost certainly depend on how willing you are to empathise wholly with a talking cat named Paw-Paw (the film’s narrator no less). If you are ready to cross that threshold and to suspend your disbelief ever-so-slightly more, I can promise you that a profoundly affecting, and possibly even life-altering, experience awaits you. In what follows, I hope to explain why I believe Miranda July is an extraordinary filmmaker who is both of and for our time.
An unfortunate tendency of scholars and critics alike has always been to recommend or evaluate any given film on its similarity to or congruity with an existing body of popular work to the detriment of all specificity. July and her very particular oeuvre is a case in point: erroneously thrown into the ghastly melting pot that is ‘quirky’ ersatz indie cinema (that most contentious and dubious of terms), the highly unique nature of July’s vision is all but lost to us in this context.
Idiosyncratic is too pedestrian a term for an artist like July. As a writer, the all-too familiar, yet alternate and surreal universe she evokes is so much more than the sum of the words on the page, it would seem that she possesses some strange or, dare I say it, even magical power. Indeed, in my view, nobody is better than making us see our seemingly mundane environment anew better than July. As an artist, her performances and communal art projects (see the online interactive art forum ‘Learning To Love You More’, her installation piece ‘The Hallway’ from 2008 and her project for 2009’s Venice Biennale ‘Eleven Heavy Things’) could be likened to ritualistic events that not only lay bare July’s psyche to the audience, but gift that same audience with a new found self-awareness as well. The cycle of death and re-birth is played out on both micro and macro scales in all of her artwork.
Most importantly, as an independent filmmaker she is like nobody else in the industry: which is to say that she is not a filmmaker’s filmmaker. For example, in July’s films you will encounter neither a seemingly endless stream of tedious cinematic in-jokes nor a series of jump-cuts designed to prompt you into reflecting on the cinematic medium itself. July is far too busy plumbing the unspeakable and unfathomable depths of an emotional landscape to be bothered with trendy self-reflexivity or artifice for its own sake. In fact, her work is representative of another form of reflection entirely; some questions you might find yourself pondering during, what I like to refer to as, ‘a Miranda July experience’ are: how is it possible to overcome the massive impasse and disconnect left in the wake of the perpetual connectivity enabled by the internet and social networking sites? What is the importance and purpose of creativity in our lives? Is it possible to become a completely different person in an instant? What role does the gaze of another person play in validating our own existence?
This philosophical territory might lead one to think that Miranda July’s films are devoid of any humour: they are not. The full force of her rather subversive and scatological variety of comedy is brought to bear on, in particular, sexuality to excruciating and hilarious effect (and anyone who has seen and loved her debut feature ‘Me and You and Everyone We Know’ (2005) will testify to this); unlike the work of Todd Solondz, for example, who palpates similar territory, July does this with her heart wide open. Comedy exists alongside a deep need to bear witness not only to the world’s arcane and beautiful facets, but also to its indifference and to document the myriad of rituals we construct to get through it all, to keep on going on. As a result, she is a filmmaker of rare emotional intelligence who allows contradictions and dichotomies to exist without resolution.
Both of July’s films and her short stories (collected into the volume ‘Nobody Belongs Here More Than You’) are populated with figures who impose increasingly aggressive forms of self-effacement on themselves in order to break through to the other side of awareness and selfhood. In other words, July’s characters are all caught up in the process of becoming ‘a person’. It is perhaps the vision of a man setting fire to his own hand in front of his children in an attempt to ‘save his life’, or that of a small girl burying herself in her father’s back yard that haunts you well after you have left the cinema. Bold and powerful, these images testify, in a very cinematic manner, to our collective need to break free, to metamorphose or even to be re-born. With this in mind, the soliloquy on death that July puts into the mouth of a talking cat towards the end of ‘The Future’ crystallises this central theme at the heart of her work. It is, without a doubt, a most bizarre and brave moment in an already surreal and inventive film, but it is also a moment that just might break your heart.
The Future is on selected release from Fri 4 Nov.