Miranda July: Jill of All Trades

Not many teenagers produce a play about being pen pals with a prisoner, but then, not many teenagers are party to such a correspondence in the first place. Miranda July was, and she produced her play at 16. It was “the first thing that I ever experienced that went beyond what I could communicate just in conversation,” says the 31-year-old American director of
Me And You And Everyone We Know, this year’s Camera D’Ór winner at Cannes. “[Afterwards] I felt like I really had to do something more.”

She’s done so much since that we can only offer the abridged version of her epic CV. She’s one of those hyper-hyphenated types, a performance artist-filmmaker-writer-actor-journalist-recording artist whose credits include launching a video chain-letter that became an underground movie distribution network for female filmmakers, featuring at the Whitney Biennale, being feted at Cannes and other film festivals, shooting a video for jangly femme rockers Sleater-Kinney, and being nominated for a National Magazine Award for profiling the inventor of the self-cleaning house.

Of course, no amount of talent or energy could shelter her from the usual sentence of bad jobs that befall anyone with serious artistic intent – she’s dressed as a cow for Halloween functions and popped locks for drivers shut out of their cars. “I consider myself pretty lucky in that I only really worked terrible jobs until I was about 23,”July says. “That has a lot to do with [the fact] I didn’t live in New York. I lived in Portland Oregon, which was pretty inexpensive at the time.”

The Pop-A-Lock posting did at least inspire one aspect of her debut feature, namely, the day job endured by her protagonist. Played by July herself, Christine is a frustrated performance artist who shuttles senior citizens around in a taxi. The best thing about her job is the pick-up line she delivers when flashing her business card: “If you ever feel too old to drive, just call this number.”

Me And You And Everyone We Know is a confectionary-hued collage of loosely linked characters. “I felt like I always wanted the movie to be delicious, to not feel hard or difficult,” says July, explaining the palette of light pinks and pastels. Yet the film has its shadows, so while we have Sylvie, the wide-eyed girl who buys household appliances and linens for her hope chest, we also meet two clueless teenage girls who want to demonstrate their sexual prowess with a creepy neighbour, and a young kid who talks dirty on the Internet. July resolves these darker journeys in a gentle way, never delving into the sinister suburban hell that Todd Solondz gleefully created in Happiness.

“There were plenty of reviews that just [described my film as] ‘a child molester’s dream’ or something really horrible,” says the director. Such off-target claims overlook the film’s sweet, sharp charms, such as the affectionate depiction of a goldfish forgotten on the roof of a moving car. In Japan, where goldfish are a “subject of profound beauty”, the response to this life-or-death predicament surprised the writer/director. “People were really crying at that and it was very powerful.”

Fewer tears will fall over July’s wonderfully prickly depiction of Nancy (Tracy Wright), the curator who rhapsodises over a replica hamburger wrapper, until she realises it’s just authentic litter, at which point she suspects the coffee mug in the same installation is probably pilfered from the staff kitchen.

The filmmaker is particularly interested in power relationships, like the one between aspiring artist Christine and gatekeeper Nancy, who mostly shuts her out. “As much as I’m always called an artist in interviews, the art world is a pretty remote place,” July says. “It’s not like I’m a commercial artist. I’ve never felt really easy access to that, and like most of these worlds, no one feels like they’re a member. So I think anyone could relate to that.”

At the film’s heart is the connection between Christine and Richard (John Hawkes), an awkward, recently divorced shoe salesman. Their courting begins in word-perfect fashion. “It’s very, very fun, I have to say, not only getting to write my ideal [pick-up] conversation but cast a man to be in it and direct him on how to say his part,” says July. Reality intrudes, however, when Richard berates Christine for acting like someone from a storybook. After all, July laughs, “that’s really not how relationships work”.

Following the film’s release (it’s been sold everywhere from Greece to Japan), the filmmaker plans to write a book of short stories, plus more screenwriting and directing. With such divergent disciplines, does she ever find a subject unsuited to any of them? “There’s so many things that I don’t feel like I can express,” she admits. “That frustration is part of what propels me forward.”

Lee Tran Lam

State of the Arts, October-December 2005