Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Miranda July tries to get her bearings in The Future.

I became a fan of Miranda July after seeing You and Me and Everyone We Know, and I'm still a fan after seeing The Future (I kind of like that phrase, "seeing The Future") even though the movie is something of a disappointment, and hardly a step forward for July in terms of technique. Still, it's an interesting failure, and interesting failures often wind up being remembered longer than many a conventional success. I'll go a little further - The Future falters purely for technical reasons that I'll go into at the end of this review, and which July can easily fix in, uh, future efforts; happily, however, in conceptual terms The Future is perhaps more sophisticated, and certainly more disturbing, than her maiden effort, and hints at weirder depths; I still think she is one of our most important filmmakers.

This is partly because she's really the only filmmaker I can think of who's grappling thematically with the impact of the virtual world on the "real" one.  Oh, I know, just about every movie nowadays has some trippy time-traveling or alternative-universe gimmick - but they're "peopled" (and I use that term loosely) with action figures who are like nuggets of post-modern consumer consciousness unfazed by even the strangest loops they encounter; they may have some flaw, or some deep, guilty secret (as in Inception, et. al.), but basically they navigate the living video games they inhabit with unruffled aplomb.   The instability of their virtual realms never leaks back into their own identities - or the collective identity of the audience.

Miranda July is quite different, and that difference is what makes her so valuable.  In July's movies, the real world may be mysterious, but it's still "real" enough - even though her characters have all half-bled into a virtual world of their own making.  Indeed, they're happiest in these digital cocoons, where options and possibilities stretch limitlessly to the horizon; where time ends, and responsibility stops; meanwhile, in the world of sunrises and sunsets, and the seasons, and the inevitable cycles of human life, they're alienated and uncertain; terra firma to them is terra incognita.

Yet July's people - like most of us - don't want to disappear completely down the rabbit hole, however enticing its virtual blandishments.  So they keep trying to paste their two worlds together, or turn the real world into a simulacrum of the virtual one. In You and Me and Everyone We Know, for instance, people tried to strike up "real" relationships with chat room partners (and they preferred to have sex as "practice" - for what?).  Likewise, in The Future, July desperately attempts to post a new interpretive dance every day on YouTube - in an effort to outdo an acquaintance; but she barely finishes a single one; clearly she's not going to be one of those one-in-a-million Internet success stories.  And in the movie's most oddly poignant moment, July sticks her head out the window and yells at the top of her lungs (above), just to see if the guy she is flirting with via e-mail is anywhere nearby.  (Of course he isn't; or at any rate, he doesn't yell back.)

In short, July's a clear-eyed critic of the Way We Live Now (in both our first and second lives), but oddly, due to her signature cross of whimsy and alienation, she has been labeled a purveyor of slacker quirk (like Wes Anderson), some of it charming, and some less so.  She's "too weird for her own good," one reviewer grumbled after seeing The Future; "Whatevs," another shrugged at the inexplicable events that make up its plot.  Meanwhile the smarter critics were more intrigued, but seemed desperate to pound a conventional template down onto the movie's director, writer and star: "The Future is transparently about having a child, and also about being one," the Village Voice declared.

Well, maybe - it's certainly about the vicissitudes of time, you can tell that much from the title.  And July and her mop-topped doppelgänger, Hamish Linklater, do play a drifting, hipster couple planning to adopt a sickly cat ("Paw-Paw," given voice by July herself), who agree to have one final fling at freedom before accepting this (to them, life-changing) responsibility.  So they unplug from the Internet and dive into the "real" world with abandon.  What happens next, however, is too conceptually challenging to qualify as some New Age tweak of the Peter Pan syndrome; by the end of the movie, Linklater has met his future self, and literally stopped time - or has he merely folded it?  At any rate, the moon has begun to talk, a shirt has come alive, and July has embarked on an affair that may or may not be happening.  One begins to wonder if these two can ever leave the realm of virtualia behind.

The bottom line, however, is that in some non-virtual way, time is passing anyhow - the Future is becoming the Past - and the film's conclusion is surprisingly bleak: poor Paw-Paw (note how close "paws" is to "pause") dies during this interregnum, and there's a feeling in the air that in a deep sense, by the time July and Linklater have woken up, it's too late for them - and maybe for us, too (there's a hint of environmental consciousness to the movie).  These developments, though perhaps depressing, are certainly bracing - they splash a kind of cool, postmodern tonic in your jaded face - and they leave you pondering The Future long after it has ended (if it has ended, that is).

But alas, it must also be admitted that the movie sometimes seems as addicted to drift as its characters are - and much of this anomie can be traced to its lead actors.  I don't know if July is too weird for her own good, but maybe she's getting too ingrown and subtle in her performances - and basically doubling her own affect with Hamish Linklater's (at left) may have been an amusing conceptual gambit, but it's sometimes a scene-killer.  As an actress, July is fine in a quirky ensemble (like that of You and Me and Everyone We Know), but I'm not sure she can carry, or even half-carry, a whole movie.  And somebody please work up a storyboard for her next effort - The Future slouches lazily from one medium shot to another  for what seems like eons (rather like the movies of Woody Allen, with whom July shares a surprisingly deep connection).  The director's performance-artist sensibility may count as a deficit when it comes to filmmaking - she actually seems to think that you can translate a conceptual stage performance onto film without any further stylization.

So - can July hang on to her trademark combination of sickly whimsy and pointed conceptual satire while developing more compelling movie-making chops?  Let's hope so - otherwise the momentum of her own career may soon stall.  And I have a feeling we need Miranda July in our cinematic future.

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