Bird of a Feather
Miranda July's wonderfully strange new film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, opens with a shot of a live bird perched on a branch outside a house in which a married couple are breaking up. It ends with a giddy romantic breakthrough and a cheesy painting of the bird tossed in the bushes outside the same house. In between, more or less real people do bizarre things with more or less artificial objects to more or less make contact with others. The movie is the product of someone brought up in a household that revered authenticity—to a fault, she implies—and who has since devoted her life's work to questioning its value. "I was raised with this fear of fakeness," says July over lunch on the patio of a Beverly Hills hotel, "this fear that I might become fake. But what is fake? Like the bird picture in the tree at the end, does fake really matter if we're really able to connect? That's the human condition."
A slyly crafted yet charmingly accessible romantic comedy, Me and You was rapturously received by audiences at this year's Sundance Film Festival, where it won a Special Jury Prize for originality of vision, and again at Cannes, where it shared the Camra d'Or for best first feature. Its ensemble of emotional bumblers who will do almost anything to make a human connection will be easily recognizable to anyone who's ever had the guts to make an ass of himself. Yet they're not characters in the rounded psychological sense of realist fiction, but lonely-hearts pared down to their creative manipulation of the found objects that they use to stave off loneliness, deflect pain and reach out to others. "With an ensemble cast you can only go so deep," says July of her creations. "I enjoyed that flatness. You only go so far with each one, so they become almost symbols of themselves, or their particular obsession." A shoe salesman sets his hand on fire to impress his children. A small boy talks dirty to a stranger in an Internet chatroom. Two mouthy teenage girls set off calculated sexual explosions in males they barely know. A little girl collects state-of-the-art home appliances for her hope chest. They're artists of sorts, and the central character, Christine Jesperson (who's played by July), really is an artist, which does and doesn't have something to do with the fact that she's willing to wear socks on her ears to attract a romantic interest. She's not July, of course, but she shares July's magpie habit of culling odd fragments of personality and reshaping them into a narrative that's surprisingly straightforward for someone best known as a performance artist.
July, a 31-year-old, blue-eyed porcelain beauty who looks nothing like anyone's idea of an avant-garde performer—she's snazzy, even downright professional in a yellow shirt and shapely brown suit—winces slightly at the term. "It's such a misnomer for what I do in performance, which is actually much closer to the movie than people imagine. My performances are very dialogue-heavy, they're pretty narrative. They have somewhat more abstract elements, and I'm usually performing more than one part, but they're linear and have the same wealth of detail." When I remark that her movie reminds me of the short stories of Lorrie Moore, whose characters are hapless but brave doubters like July's, her face lights up. "That's a massive compliment," she says happily.
July's own short stories, powerfully voiced pieces that traffic in fragile, insecure creatures who nonetheless strike out with bold, foolhardy gestures of emancipation, have been published in The Paris Review and the Harvard Review and, on the coattails of her current success, will shortly be collected in book form. Her background, if not her training, is more literary than most, though the progress of her career seems as much a flight from formal intellectual life as an expression of it. Her parents—Berkeley publishers of New Age and eco-friendly books (her father was heir apparent to the famous Catskills eatery Grossinger's, which may explain why his culinary catalog leans heavily to the macrobiotic) of whom she speaks with careful diplomacy as "complex, interesting people who were pretty much in their own world"—were encouraging but less engaged with her than her older brother. Now "an artist-scientist," he built her dollhouses and a playhouse with an upstairs and downstairs in the backyard. "It was exactly what I needed," says July. "He made a world to scale for me, which our parents really weren't doing for us."
However painful the emotional gaps in July's early life, they fostered in her an acute ear for weird dialogue. When she was 7 years old, she made an audio-cassette that was one half of a verbal exchange with spaces built in that allowed her to talk back to it. "I was doing both sides of a conversation, and that's frighteningly similar to my performance work now. I was very precocious," she says wryly. "And basically I haven't really evolved."
Hardly. Rebelling against her academic, non-arts-based prep school, July started writing plays, the first of which was based on a long correspondence she kept up with a man in prison, a relationship she describes as "a pre-Internet-esque type of inappropriate exchange." After a brief stint at UC Santa Cruz, she dropped out and moved to Portland, whose lively, do-it-yourself music scene inspired her to forge ahead and do just that. By the time she was 20, July was touring the country in clubs, doing multimedia performances alone or with a musical accompanist, and the Pacific Northwest indie music labels put out albums of her work, from which grew new pieces she calls "cinematic radio plays," some of which ended up playing at the 2002 Whitney Biennial. Looking for a way into the film world, she initiated a project called Miss Moviola, later known as Joanie for Jackie, by which any woman who sent her a short film on videotape would receive in return a tape with her movie and nine others on it, thus creating a shared community for women filmmakers. July began making her own shorts, and by the time she moved to Los Angeles to be with an unspecified love interest, she felt ready to make her own feature.
Shot in 24 days for around $1 million in Van Nuys, Me and You and Everyone We Know is an assured marriage of literary and visual flair that wouldn't look out of place on the experimental fringe of indie film. Still, it wasn't July's craft that moved audiences at Sundance, or the ecstatic French teens and old men who rushed to pay her homage at Cannes. More likely, it's her articulation of the inner and outer lives of ordinary people in the modern age—doubting Thomases and shrinking violets with few social skills and fewer social frameworks in which to meet, who grope their way toward love or something like it. For all her sudden mainstream success, she sees a cumulative continuity to her work. Though she worries, like all overnight success stories, that she will become a pariah in the fringe art world so hilariously lampooned in Me and You, and that she'll never have quiet time again to work on new projects, July is thrilled to have discovered in herself a common touch. "I'm fighting the intellectualism I came from," she says. "I want to make my world in the world."
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