Become a Connecticut Forum member today!

Miranda July is Totally Not Kidding - New York Times Magazine article

Miranda July was featured on the front page of the New  York Times Magazine in July of 2011.

 

Read the entire article on the NYT website

 

Miranda July Is Totally Not Kidding


Sam Taylor-Wood for The New York Times

 


Miranda July stood in her living room in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, apologizing for the sunflowers. It really was a copious amount of sunflowers.

They sprouted from Mason jars and vases, punctuating the austere, Shaker-like furniture in the sunny home that July, who is 37, shares with her husband, the filmmaker Mike Mills, who’s 45. Noticing me noticing the sunflowers, she interjected: “We just had a party. We don’t usually have sunflowers everywhere.”

In person, July was very still, with ringlets of curly hair falling over her wide blue eyes like a protective visor, and she seemed perceptively aware of the “precious” label that is often attached both to her and to her work. At a different point in our time together, I followed her into a hotel room in San Francisco, where Mills had left her a knitted octopus wearing a scarf and hat on the couch. She laughed when she saw it but also appeared a bit mortified: “Oh, God,” she said. “It’s kind of a joke. . . . It’s not. . . . Really, this isn’t us at all.”

At their house, Mills emerged from his office; in contrast to July’s measured composure, Mills seemed in constant motion, often running his hands through his Beethoven hair. Both he and July have directed new films being released this summer. His film, “Beginners,” is loosely based on the true story of his father’s coming out at age 75. July’s film, “The Future,” is her second feature as a director, and it’s a funny, sad portrait of a couple at a crossroads. Sophie, played by July, works at a children’s dance school, and Jason, played by Hamish Linklater, provides tech-support by telephone from their sofa. The couple is weeks away from adopting Paw-Paw, an injured cat and a symbol of impending adulthood who is also the film’s narrator. A talking cat is exactly the kind of detail that might endear people who are endeared by Miranda July and infuriate people who are infuriated by her. There are plenty of both.

“You’ve met us at a weird time,” Mills said. “We’re usually just two workaholics in our separate corners.” July and Mills first crossed paths in 2005, when July’s debut feature, “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” made its premiere at Sundance at the same time as Mills’s film “Thumbsucker.” They met at a party — “She wore a yellow dress,” he recalls — and he watched her do a Q. and A. the next day. “She was so strong and declarative. I fell in love instantly.” They married in the summer of 2009 at Mills’s house in the Nevada hills.

In one sense, July has been enjoying the Platonic ideal of creative success in the age of the hyphenate artist. She publishes short stories in The New Yorker. The seven-year Web project, “Learning to Love You More,” which she produced with Harrell Fletcher — in which more than 8,000 people submitted material in response to online assignments like “Make a protest sign and protest” and “Take a picture of your parents kissing” — was recently acquired by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “Me and You and Everyone We Know” won the Camera d’Or at Cannes and was named by Roger Ebert as one of the best films of the 2000s. She inspires a devotion among her fans that is positively swoony: “I love Miranda July, and everything she does is so subtle and sweet and bizarre and necessary,” is a fairly typical sentiment. July is preoccupied with intimacy — she habitually uses the words “you” and “we” in her titles — and this demands, and inspires, an intense engagement from her followers. After a screening of “The Future” at the San Francisco Film Festival, a small crowd surrounded July, pinning her against the back wall of the movie theater, wanting to tell her, with palpable urgency, how much her work mattered to them. Her office has an entire room filled top to bottom with boxes of letters and objects from fans around the world. One man printed every e-mail he ever wrote and sent them all to July, because only she would understand.

Yet despite this (or perhaps because of it) she has also become the unwilling exemplar of an aggravating boho archetype: the dreamy, young hipster whose days are filled with coffee, curios and disposable enchantments. “Yes, in some ways Miranda July is living my dream and life, and yes, maybe I’m a little jealous,” wrote one Brooklyn-based artist on her blog. “I loathe her. It feels personal.” To her detractors (“haters” doesn’t seem like too strong a word) July has come to personify everything infuriating about the Etsy-shopping, Wes Anderson-quoting, McSweeney’s-reading, coastal-living category of upscale urban bohemia that flourished in the aughts. Her very existence is enough to inspire, for example, an I Hate Miranda July blog, which purports to detest her “insufferable precious nonsense.” Or there is the online commenter who roots for July to be exiled to Darfur. Or the blogger who yearns to beat her with a shoe.

I understand this, at least in theory. The urban bohemian irks precisely because his or her quirky individuality is just part of a different kind of uniformity, where the uniform happens to be a bushy beard or Zooey Deschanel bangs rather than country-club khakis. Twee fascinations with childhood innocence can mask an unwillingness to tackle life’s darker quandaries. Who wouldn’t be annoyed by a guy who, say, finds a cracked milk bottle, makes a film about it, then silk screens it on a T-shirt and names his band Milk Bottle? The stakes are low. The results are soon forgotten.

But is Miranda July the archenemy of seriousness? She has an affinity for surface detail, like the childlike scrawl on her sculptures that appeared in the Venice Biennale or the matching haircuts of her two main characters in “The Future.” But unlike certain directors who fixate on marginalia, creating art in which the engraving on a character’s belt buckle takes precedence over the story, July’s seemingly superficial gestures service something greater: a pulsing emotional center. It’s odd that she has come to represent, for some, a kind of soulless hipster cool, because in July’s work, nobody is cool. There’s no irony to it, no insider wink. Her characters are ordinary people whose lives don’t normally invite investigation. So her project is the opposite of hipster exclusion: her work is desperate to bring people together, forcing them into a kind of fellow feeling. She’s unrelentingly sincere, and maybe that sincerity makes her difficult to bear. It also might make her culturally essential.

On a spring California weekend, I drove while July rode shotgun, navigating on her iPhone and guiding me through the Berkeley of her youth. The city was in full splendor, with cedar-sided cottagy houses shaded by magnolia trees in bloom. We pulled over in front of the Arts and Crafts home where July lived between the ages 7 and 14. A big purple sun was painted above the picture window, as if the house were a magic bus.

“It didn’t look like that when we lived in it,” she said quickly.

The house is just off Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley’s central thoroughfare, where the homeless co-exist, sometimes uneasily, with students and yuppies. The house’s living room once served as headquarters for the family business, a New Age publishing company called North Atlantic Books. (The company is still a going concern — its current list includes books on crystals and raw foods, as well as more fringy philosophical meanderings like “Manifesto for the Noosphere: The Next Stage in the Evolution of Human Consciousness.”) As children, July and her older brother, Robin Grossinger, packed Jiffy bags with books for shipment and occasionally tiptoed past a writer finishing a draft on a typewriter in the living room. The Grossingers were a D.I.Y. family; July cut her father’s and her brother’s hair, guided by an article she remembers clipping from Seventeen magazine called “A Trim for Him.” When July began to have recurring eye trouble, her mother sewed her an eye patch out of a floral print — from the same material as the curtains, as a friend pointed out to her, to July’s dismay. “When I was very little, I probably wanted to be more normal,” she told me. “I probably wanted the Laura Ashley bedroom, and instead I got thrift-store everything.”

We moved on, driving past a cinder-block apartment building. “That’s where I lost my virginity,” she said casually. “I was 16. He was a 27-year-old grad student at Berkeley.” This revelation seemed in line with how July uses sex in her films: as both a sudden surprise and a way to illuminate the inner lives of her characters. “I was always interested in sex, even as a kid. Sex includes shame and humiliation and fantasies and longing. It’s so dense with the kinds of things I’m interested in.”

After dropping out of college, July left California in her early 20s and took off to Portland, Ore. Her photo albums from that time are Riot Grrrl artifacts, with Kill Rock Stars fliers for her old band, photos of a “queercore” event and snapshots with postpunk heroines like Kathleen Hanna and the band Sleater Kinney. Describing a false ID she used at the time, July wrote in The New Yorker, “The student it had belonged to looked sort of like me, in the sense that she, too, was probably giving lesbianism a whirl and had cut off all her hair.” In the art scene, July was a prolific polymath making lauded performance and video pieces, but when “Me and You and Everyone We Know” came out, she was handed an immediate international identity as a filmmaker. With her film debut, she emerged as a less angry, more spiritual Todd Solondz or a more tender, more libidinous Noah Baumbach. At the same time, she, and her film, seemed unlike anything that was percolating elsewhere, leading Roger Ebert to praise the movie’s “fragile magic” and to say, “July’s film fits no genre, fulfills no expectations, creates its own rules and seeks only to share a strange, lovable mind with us.”

In “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” July plays a lovestruck video artist pursuing a damaged single dad. (The film is gently comic; July’s unblinking stare and reedy, slightly strangled voice can come off as high comedy on screen.) One of the man’s sons, a 7-year-old, ends up in an accidental relationship with a haughty art dealer after proposing in a chat room that they “poop back and forth, forever.” All of her characters crave connection — and rarely get it. Still, the film is buoyant, popping with a hopeful California brightness: the Japanese version’s title translates as “A Rainbow-Colored World for You and Me.”

“One of the bravest things in that film was trying to have a frank exploration of children’s sexuality, which is really taboo,” says Julia Bryan-Wilson, an associate professor of art history at the University of California, Berkeley, and an old friend of July’s. She views July’s work as playing with the idea of the uncanny, which Freud defined as deriving “its terror not from something externally alien or unknown but — on the contrary — from something strangely familiar which defeats our efforts to separate ourselves from it.”

When we first met, I asked July which filmmakers inspired her, and she drew a blank, answering apologetically: “I’m not a cinephile. My films don’t reference films. I’m more interested in rhythm and feeling.” Later, in L.A., she followed up with a story. Her house is filled with Mills’s DVDs — lots of Criterion Collection — but one night, at home alone, July wasn’t in the mood for avant-garde. She picked up a copy of “Bowfinger,” the 1999 comedy starring Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy. She was about to watch it when, she says: “I thought: Come on, Miranda, really? Let’s try something between ‘Bowfinger’ and the Czech New Wave.”

That compromise proved to be “Magnolia,” by Paul Thomas Anderson, one of her favorite directors. She listed similarly inspiring peers: “Todd Solondz’s ‘Happiness,’ David Gordon Green. Jane Campion, Andrea Arnold, Spike [Jonze]. I sometimes get painted as so ‘in my own world,’ but I probably wouldn’t even want to make films if there weren’t this world of people who I’m waiting for the next film from.” As a young artist, she was interested in connecting with other women, so she started an influential project that became “Joanie 4 Jackie,” a video chain letter for female filmmakers to share their work. “It sounds really altruistic,” she says, “but I was also lonely. ‘Joanie 4 Jackie’ saved me, because I felt like I was part of something. That was my film school.”

Even though July is often lumped in with directors like Wes Anderson, Jonze or Baumbach, the face of independent film — really, the face of film — remains distinctly male. Her work is highly personal, delving into the emotional, inner life — in other words, it’s girl stuff. Criticism of July often carries a whiff of sexism. “Precious,” “light,” and “twee” all describe conventionally feminine qualities, and all have been tossed July’s way as insults.

Of male directors, she said: “They become kind of brands. It’s much harder to do that if you’re a woman. That’s crucial for longevity.” The fact that she appears in her films helps give her work a recognizable face — the Miranda July brand.

She admires directors like Baumbach and Wes Anderson, but she said: “All those men are also personal. I don’t mind that, but I do mind that it’s not really questioned, whereas I or another woman is looked at as so self-obsessed. Men are just not being judged in the same way. They’re never going to be annoying in the same way.”

July turned out to be an excellent road-trip companion; she laughed often, gave great directions and constantly worried if I had enough to eat. She generously offered to share her peanut-butter cookie, then navigated us to her parents’ current house, which sits high in the hills of Berkeley.

If you were to try to recreate the hothouse of familial circumstances that might grow a Miranda July, it would look like this: Richard Grossinger and Lindy Hough, both in their 60s with 45 years of marriage behind them, drinking herbal tea in a living room lined with books and Oaxacan wooden animals in bright colors staring out from every surface.

Hough, cross-legged on a throw cushion on the floor, offered me her recently published book of poetry (blurbed by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore). July’s brother, Robin, a 42-year-old environmental scientist, sat on the couch. In one corner of the living room stood a tall wooden cabinet he built when he was 16. It housed behind its glass doors many rows of creatures he made from fruit pits and pine cones. “Look what’s in here!” July said as she showed me the secret compartments in the cabinet’s drawers — one hidden drawer held a key that led to another interior chamber. In the cabinet’s heart lay a Nike shoebox filled with envelopes marked in children’s writing: “ ‘Muppet Movie’ stuff.” “Mimi’s drawings.” Her brother had kept a file of July’s crayon pictures of stick people with their hands over their heads. “Robin could make things out of nothing,” July said. “That feeling of ‘we can come up with something!’ — you’ve got to believe that was really formative. You felt like you could do anything.”

Richard Grossinger is a writer, too, with several books, including a self-published memoir charting his absurdly dramatic childhood. July’s father grew up near Central Park in New York City, under the name Richard Towers. When he was 9, a psychiatrist told him that his real father was actually a Grossinger, which explained his summer visits to the luxurious Grossinger’s resort in the Catskills. So he took the name Grossinger — then learned, years later, that in fact he was the product of an affair between his mother and an entirely different man.

All of this made it easy for July, at 16, to adopt a new name based on a story in a zine, by her high-school friend Johanna Fateman (who was later a co-founder of the band Le Tigre), about two buddies named Ida and July. She changed her name legally in her early 20s. “It was part of being self-authoring. And it was vanity. I wanted a name that I liked. July looked good on everything and seemed edible. But it’s a 15-year-old’s idea of a great name.”

I asked Grossinger if he minded his daughter’s changing her name. “My kids are their own people. Their stories are their own.” Nonetheless, he handed over a sheaf of papers, stories of July, starting with her birth.

“They’ll be filled with inaccuracies,” July said of the papers later. Really? Like what? “Stigmata,” she said. When July was a kid, she cut her foot and somehow, in family lore, this became stigmata. “I’m sure I played into it, but basically my dad thinks I’m magic.”

The family seemed open to magic. Her dad was born Jewish — there was “the occasional Hanukkah candle,” she says — and her mom was raised Protestant, but the family trade was New Age. “There was no one specific belief but a kind of looser spiritual believing in just about everything,” July says. “I think there’s something spiritual in a very day-to-day, mundane existence. It’s impossible to articulate, and it’s happening now, almost like a perverse secret. . . . That’s always sort of fascinating to me.”

These fascinations first emerged in a play she wrote in high school, inspired by her correspondence with a prisoner who was jailed for murdering a man who had repeatedly robbed his gas station. (She found him through an ad for a prisoner-correspondence program in the back of a magazine.) “I was very existential. It was the first time I had a feeling like: I can’t bear this. I have to do something to understand these feelings,” she says. “That we could be friends at all and know each other and be living such different lives and that he might die in there — it shook me.”

The play was called “The Lifers.” She held auditions and cast a 20-something Latina woman to play the role of the teenaged Miranda July. “I had to call the actors to say, ‘The good news is you got the part, but the bad news is I’m 16 and we’ll be rehearsing in my parents’ attic.’ ”

She wasn’t interested in performing the play at her preppy private high school, so she approached 924 Gilman, a local punk club. “I remember thinking: I have to do this [play]. If I don’t, I might as well not exist.” But the process was grueling. The night before the opening, July remembers wandering out of her house in a kind of daze. “I was so overwhelmed, feeling like I could barely pull it off. I remember going outside and getting under a car parked in front of our house, some random car, just lying under that car, which seemed like the lowest thing you could do,” she says. Then she walked around Berkeley, into the backyard of a friend, took off her clothes and climbed into a lukewarm hot tub.

“I’m pretty much exactly the same now,” she says. “I’m planning on working on that, by the way.”

Despite the success of “Me and You,” July found herself broke after the film’s release. But given that her life seems disproportionately abundant with strange, otherworldly moments, it makes perfect sense that one day she opened her mail and found an unexpected check for $25,000. Years before, in Portland, she was hired as a tastemaker by an ad agency; Coca-Cola later realized that a name chosen for a new Coke product had also been suggested by her, so the company sent her a check. (“Coke II — genius, huh?” she says.) That $25,000 bought her time to turn her attention to writing, shaping the short stories she had been tending for years.

July sent some early pages to Rick Moody, who had met her after seeing her perform a piece called “The Swan Tool” at the Kitchen in New York. “She knew how to spell, but other than that I’m not sure she had a single conventional writer trick in her arsenal,” Moody told me in an e-mail. “The weirder she was, the better I liked it.” July had left the University of California, Santa Cruz, after her sophomore year, and though she reads voraciously — she will often dip into Lydia Davis or Steven Millhauser before sitting down to write — she has no formal artistic training. She admits she had to learn the difference between first and second person, and she’s still not confident on how to use quotation marks around dialogue, which is why there aren’t any quotation marks in her first book.

“No One Belongs Here More Than You” won the Cork City-Frank O’Connor short story award, along with a 35,000 euro prize, and also became a best seller. July then set about adapting “Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About,” an interactive performance piece about relationships in crisis that would become the basis of “The Future.” In 2008, she went knocking on doors for financing in the midst of a recession, when many studios were shuttering their independent divisions. “The Future” ended up largely backed by Film4 and a German company called Razor Film. A condition of the financing stipulated that many of the smaller parts be filled with German or European actors, which adds to the film’s off-kilter mood: it’s set in L.A., but only sort of.

“I had a lot of anxiety,” she says of the 21-day shoot. “I was like, I can’t do this. I can only make one movie. But in truth, it was pretty great. It doesn’t mean it was fun, because I drove myself crazy the whole time, worrying that it wouldn’t come together.”

July set out to write a tighter, more controlled story than her first film, with fewer characters. She was also in her 30s, and she was feeling older and less rainbow colored.

“It’s kind of about letting go of that feeling of my 20s, that feeling that I will do absolutely everything, I will have sex with everyone, I will go to every country,” she says. “In your 30s, it’s obvious that a finite amount of things will happen.” In “The Future,” the characters sum it up. Sophie: “We’ll be 40 in five years.” Jason: “Forty is basically 50. And then after 50, the rest is just loose change.”

The midlife crisis is usually a male response to mortality terror, but in “The Future,” it’s July’s character, Sophie, who takes up with a single dad, leaving her bohemian surroundings for an affair in a nice house in the suburbs. For July, the story of a woman fleeing her life was a personal purging.

“I think I was afraid; I was committing to someone forever,” she says. “That [idea] that you might just defect from your life, I’ve been carrying around for so long. You don’t want that to be a constant threat. So I think I was like: O.K., what would happen? So you leave. Then what happens? Then I realized: You’re probably haunted by yourself. Your soul follows you.”

In the film, the soul takes the shape of a yellow T-shirt, which literally creeps out to the suburbs and back to Sophie. Then Sophie climbs inside the shirt for a kind of dance of suffocation and rebirth.

O.K., no doubt July dissenters are now experiencing ear smoke. They probably also won’t like the fact that July does, in real life, have a ratty T-shirt that she takes with her everywhere for comfort, carefully placing it in her suitcase in hotels so the maids don’t think it’s garbage.

And they definitely won’t like this: Paw-Paw, the narrating cat, came into existence when July saw a cat hit by a car and, while bagging the dead body, announced to her producing partner, Gina Kwon, “We must redeem this cat.”

But here’s the part they will like the least: “The Future” is really good, a film that’s not only tighter than the free-ranging “Me and You” but also more mature and tonally darker. (It’s literally darker, too: July shot it in a pastel-free palette of beiges and browns.) It may not convert all her critics, and it might shock some of her fans. But “The Future” should definitively dispel the lingering notion that her art is some gossamer, transient confection. The film is devoted to the only truths worth engaging, about love, sex and death, all questions unasked in the neutered, cutesy world of, say, “Napoleon Dynamite” and the like. “I do believe my work should be of service,” she told me. “The Future” is not just a rebuke to the idea that her work is somehow shallow; it actively attacks the idea of shallowness. July wants you to feel a part of something larger than yourself and, in “The Future,” you do.

And Paw-Paw, that cat with the bandaged paw, who narrates the movie?

I swear that talking cat will make you cry.

“The Future” features a small role played by an elderly man, Joe Putterlik, whom July met through the PennySaver. (She was interviewing and photographing people who advertise in the PennySaver, for a book titled “It Chooses You.”) Putterlik plays a stranger selling a hair dryer (which he was doing when July met him) and also, in the magic-realist spirit of the film, provides the voice of the moon.

Back at her office, July showed me a few of his things, which had been photographed for the book. There were his wedding-cake figurines and a stack of old, bawdy handmade holiday cards he’d given to his wife. The couple met at a place called Paw Paw Lake, an uncanny coincidence that July discovered only after creating her own Paw-Paw. She began to think of Putterlik’s marriage as a parallel for Sophie and Jason, and all young, vulnerable love, a subject that was on her newly married mind.

The day after “The Future” was completed last fall, Putterlik died at age 81. In the spring, his wife died, too. July found out that most of their things were being tossed in a Dumpster, and so, in a panic, she drove over to their house and rescued as many objects as she could.

The tableau — July rifling through a box of poignant mementos, including a plastic-cow diorama that she placed gently on its side — could well have been a scene in one of her films. It could even, at first glance, have seemed like the kind of moment her critics accuse her of: a boxful of curiosities passed off as profundity.

But when she showed me the construction-paper card, holding it very carefully, she was clearly touched by this man’s love for his wife. With her film, she’s trying to understand and excavate something of that love. There was no fetishizing of the oddball, no crippling nostalgia, no lack of gravitas, either in that desire or in its result.

Maybe not everyone will believe this about her. I asked her what, if anything, she would like to say to those people. “I would just say I’m totally not kidding,” she said. “Life is too short. This is all too hard to do to actually be kidding about the whole thing.”

Katrina Onstad is a Toronto-based author and columnist for The Globe and Mail. Her novel "Everybody Has Everything" will be published in 2012.

Editor: Adam Sternbergh (a.sternbergh-MagGroup@nytimes.com)

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: July 17, 2011

 

An article on Page 24 this weekend about the film director Miranda July reverses, in one instance, the first two words in the title of one of her movies. It is “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” not “You and Me.”