Fear and longing

Pub date August 9, 2011
SectionFilm Review


Dreams and drawings, cats and fantasies, ambition and aimlessness, and the mild-mannered yet mortifying games people play, all wind their way into Miranda July’s The Future. The future’s a scary place, as many of us fully realize, even if you hide from it well into your 30s, losing yourself in the everyday. But you can’t duck July’s collection of moments, objects, and small gestures transformed into something strangely slanted and enchanted, both weird and terrifying, when viewed through July’s looking glass.

With The Future, which evolved out of a performance titled Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About, July explains, “I think there was a lot of stuff that I didn’t want to talk about — that I found really embarrassing. Why talk about [making art]? Isn’t it a lot cooler just to make a movie that doesn’t have that in it? Since obviously the great fear of someone in my position would be that you wouldn’t be able to make something — and what would happen then? But it’s also really interesting to me that you devote your life to doing this and it doesn’t stop being interesting, like, how ideas come and when they don’t.”

At the moment July (2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know) seems perfectly imperfectly in step with the world she’s in: an opulently beige meeting room at the Four Seasons. I can’t stop studying her shocking pink lips and matching glittery collar, happily clashing with her camel sweater, as she averts those star-child, sky-blue peepers to stare intently at the pen in her hands. Despite seeming as dazzled by life as a child, she chooses her words scrupulously, as if her existence depended on it, and punctuates the end of almost every sentence with a gently-hurled exclamation point of a “yeah.” The careful consideration coloring her words and appearance obviously finds its way, stumbling and fumbling gracefully, into her films, performances, and short stories, as well as the assignments she assembled with Harrell Fletcher for the online art project Learning to Love You More.

Care and commitment — to oneself and others — are two vivid threads running through The Future. Cute couple Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) — unsettling look-alikes with their curly crops — appear at first to be sailing contently, aimlessly toward an undemanding unknown: Jason works from home as a customer-service operator, and Sophie attempts to herd kiddies as a children’s dance instructor. But enormous, frightening demands beckon — namely the oncoming adoption of a special-needs feline named Paw-Paw (voiced by July as if it’s a traumatized, innocent child). Lickety-splitsville, they must be all they can be before Paw-Paw’s arrival, so the pair quit their jobs as Sophie tries to set up a Julie and Julia-style online stunt designed to make her a YouTube dance hit and Jason drifts into environmental activist work that sends him into the orbits of anyone who answers the door. In the meantime, Sophie gets pulled into the suburban vortex of a random man (David Warshofsky) that Jason meets at Paw-Paw’s shelter. The weirdness of the familiar, and the kindness of strangers, become ways into fantasy and escape when the couple bumps up against the limits of their imagination.

This ultra-low-key horror movie of the banal is obviously remote territory for July. The Future is her best film to date and finds her tumbling into a kind of magical realism or plastic fantastic, embodied by a talking cat that becomes the conscience of the movie. “Sometimes I’d see the cat as Sophie and Jason’s unborn child and sometimes I would see it as one’s own relationship to one’s parents — the part of oneself that’s always waiting for their parent, long past where that makes any sense at all, even for people whose parents are dead,” she explains. “You still, on some level, are waiting for them to come get you, and the death of that hope in a way is both really sad and also maybe the beginning of kind of growing up.”

Certain events in Berkeley-bred July’s life pointed toward the major turning points of The Future. “I got married at that time, and I think that makes me think a lot about the future — and maybe the end of your life more?” she recalls. “You’re committing to someone till the end, so it suddenly seems, at least on paper, that you’ll know one person who will be there at the end — or you’ll be there at the end of their life. That brought time into focus. Also being a woman in my mid-30s, y’know, you have a special relationship to time suddenly, as far as the question of having children — so all those things were swirling.” Yet she claims she never fully realized she’d be grappling with something as potentially horrifying as the future on film: “If I thought I was making a movie about the future, I probably would have not made it —yeah! I don’t really attack subjects like that. It has to be more mysterious than that to me. I’m not that conscious when I’m writing.”

If we could all see into the future, with an oracle’s specs in place, what would we dare to make it out? Peering into the future, as a riot grrrl follower in the late ’90s, I would never have imagined sitting across from July, telling her about my pilgrimage up to Yo-Yo a Go-Go in Olympia, Wash., to see her first full-fledged multimedia performance, Love Diamond. The past and future are still intertwined, much as the riot grrrl years continue to resonate with July: she plans to launch the Web archive of her Joanie4Jackie project, which collected women’s short films via video chain letter and birthed a community of DIY female filmmakers.

“I still have a lot of friends from that time, so we’re all kind of old riot grrrls now!” she says with a little laugh. “It’s still great to see that there are things about it that did matter and were really formative, and we’re all much better for having had each other and this sense of — call it revolution or call it self-importance. Nonetheless, they weren’t easy things we were trying to do, creating a space to feel free and safe to make things in.”

THE FUTURE opens Fri/19 in Bay Area theaters.