Dir:- Miranda July
Starr:- Miranda July, Hamish Linklater, David Warshofsky, Joe Putterlik, Isabella Acres
Miranda July’s second full-length feature film cements her growing reputation as a quirky and infuriating talent to watch. Back in 2005 July completed her debut Me and You and Everyone we Know, which was generally received with highly positive critical reviews. The film managed to finally give the actor John Hawkes a vehicle worthy of his considerable talents and seemed to herald the arrival of an intriguing new voice in American independent cinema. With The Future July takes a similar narrative approach to her previous film, only this time it is more tightly focused on a smaller number of loosely related characters, whilst simultaneously appearing to have much more ambitious thematic aims. If anything this latest work comes good upon obsessions that were first crystallized in July’s 1998 short work The Amateurist. Uniquely amongst recent cinematic auteurs July seems all too aware of how the film lens, by its very presence, alters reality. Not only do her films have an obscure, elusive and indefinable quality about them, but they often address directly the way in which the process of filmmaking has insinuated itself covertly into everyday existence. As a performance artist July is an exhibitionist by nature, but rather than just dwelling upon the narcissism of this limited artistic dynamic, she seems to be more actively probing our internet-fed modern obsessions with the instant gratification of capturing an audience, as well as the difficulties that modern technologies pose to a sense of authentic human interaction.
In that early short, The Amateurist, July worked out a film within a film, that effectively saw a supposedly ‘professional woman’ (played by July) comment on the performance of an ‘amateur woman’ (also played by July) she was surveilling. An interaction occurs between the two women that is conducted in the most awkward and difficult of ways, and is almost wholly mediated through the use of abstruse technology and jargon. This latest work by July seems to dwell on a similar predicament, but embellishes it by adding the peculiarly crippling effect of time to the mix. Almost every single character in The Future is directly affected by the manner in which the very idea of ‘the future’ forestalls the taking of action in the present. The present is a particularly elusive concept to pin down, as by its very nature it is fleeting , utterly unknown and only definable only in retrospect. Furthermore there is a sense that computer technology serves as both an enabler and a handicapper within the present, offering a myriad of potential possibilities for creative and social fulfillment, whilst all the time increasing the likelihood that a person will be unable to decide what to do with their existence. July’s work is most adept at navigating the comedy that lies between this interplay of frustration and fantasy, anticipation and reality.
Central to the film are the thirtysomething couple of Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater). They are the kind of modern-day American definition of the term ‘hipster’, yet with none of the success that seems to hover around that unfairly applied and oft-derided term. Sophie is a dance teacher, who seems unable to do anything of particular merit with her supposed skills. Jason is a phone adviser for an IT firm, who works from home and pretends to write a novel. At the opening of the movie the couple have signed up to care for a rescued cat, referred to as ‘Paw-Paw’ and voiced by a vocally distorted July. It is the imminent arrival of the cat, a first serious attempt at responsibility, that forces the couple to take stock of their relationship and their existence. Faced with the prospect of having to look after another living being, the couple suddenly realise that they have achieved so little and want to do so much more. Yet despite this realisation, and the setting aside of a thirty-day window to achieve ‘something’, the future is an oppressive realm and weighs heavily on the couples’ ideas of what to do, as well as ultimately coming between them and tearing their relationship asunder.
With a background in the creative writing workshop short story, as well as performance art, July tends to break her narratives down into little units of ambiguous meaning, that intersect with one another at various different points, creating a vague symphony of nuance that grasps for the poetic but occasionally comes away empty-handed. The Future, although stylistically similar to Me and You and Everyone we Know, is a much more difficult movie to warm to. There is an unevenness to its narrative that isolates little moments of the movie as particularly powerful and effective, whilst failing to make the film work as a satisfying whole.
The movie begins with a visually sumptuous and delightfully framed opening credits sequence in which all of the little bits of bric-a-brac that make up a life spent together are shown, devoid of the human presences that would make these things more than simply generic. In one of the more obvious visual gags in the film Jason returns to the flat after one of his many interviews with a strange, sex-obsessed, old man called Joe (Joe Putterlik), only to find himself looking at the objects in his own flat that are almost identical to that of Joe’s. There is a very intense fear throughout the movie that a person may not be as authentic as they would like to think they are. Many times over the film focuses on replicas of other people’s realities, as if all human experience is really just a shared amalgam of consumer products and hackneyed ways of interacting and creating.
Early on July explores the idea of time being brought to a standstill. Whilst Jason and Sophie are working upon their separate laptops at the movie’s opening – inhabiting the same space but utterly divorced from contact – they briefly discuss what secret powers they possess. Jason suggests he has the ability to stop time, which he then proceeds to playfully simulate. Later in the film Jason actually does stop time, at the moment where Sophie is about to break up with him. As befits the all-encompassing inertia of the film, Jason doesn’t actually magically transform the world in this infinity of stalled time, but rather simply fails to make any suitable decision that would help him ‘progress’. July is daring enough, or reckless enough, to allow the film’s slight narrative to almost entirely collapse in on itself at this point, as if she is taking umbrage with the very idea of ‘progress’ itself. In an intriguing structural decision July actually demonstrates that time is relentlessly mono-directional, by allowing Jason to freeze the reality around him and yet time itself remains unfrozen, so that when Jason brings reality back to motion, time has moved on and the couple have missed their appointment to collect Paw-Paw the cat.
The side-plot of the cat is overly twee and yet quietly affecting, as it demonstrates another facet of this waiting around for the future to come, namely the power that anticipation gives to hope. Paw-paw sees a future with Jason and Sophie and looks forward to the days when he will be outside of the rescue cage and living in the comfort of the couples flat. Like Sophie and Jason, Paw-paw projects forward, imagining a time of comfort and happiness as part of a family with them both. Yet this projection is simply a means of making the unbearable nature of the cats confined existence palatable, until that point when hope turns to disappointment, disillusion and death.
Another element of the movie revolves around the distinct ways in which Sophie and Jason deal with the disintegration of their relationship, alongside their possible hopes and dreams. Sophie flings herself into an internet-mediated reality, but cannot bring herself to complete the dance film tasks she sets herself. Instead she makes contact with an older man, called Marshall (David Warshofsky) who is a single father of a daughter, Gabriella (Isabella Acres). Sophie gradually enters into the curiously cold and remote world of Marshall and Gabriella (the girl spends hours inexplicably digging a hole, in which she then buries herself up to the neck, one of the more powerful visual metaphors from the movie) and attempts to make a new and very different life for herself. Meanwhile, Jason divorces himself from the internet and embraces the first cause he comes upon, in this case replanting forests. In his door-to-door advocacy of this conservation project, Jason comes into direct contact with an assortment of different people through whom he experiences a sense of ‘authentic’, unmediated reality, which forces him to question what he is doing and what he actually believes in and cares about.
Throughout these various vagaries of the plot July somehow manages to prevent the film from falling into the alienating preciousness of unsatisfying fare like 3 Backyards. This is partly achieved by the carefully cultivated ironic humour of many sequences, of which July herself is the prime purveyor. More importantly however the film has individual sequences that are so powerful that they make it possible to forgive the film’s more self-indulgent moments. Perhaps the most impressive of these comes during Sophie’s visit to Marshall in the movie’s final third. Taking up residence in his bedroom she comes across the mysterious yellow shirt creature that has absurdly followed her around the film. Pulling the outsized yellow shirt on, she becomes enmeshed in its amorphous form and performs an achingly emotional solo dance, that resembles nothing less than the complete destruction and reformation of a human being. It’s a moment of inspired and arresting wonder and beauty, which absolutely justifies the film’s various eccentricities and infuriating narrative elisions. It also brings July’s concerns with that moment of audience capture full circle, as it bewitches and seduces the viewer into going along with her arch-whimsy. An ice-cold movie, with little eruptions of comic warmth, The Future suggests that humanity finds it impossible to live in the here and now and that the fleeting moment has been devalued and eroded by the proliferation of depictions of self via modern internet media. July, at her strongest, restores some of the profoundly enchanting quality of dream to an otherwise jaded reality.