If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
Two years ago, a woman knocked on my door after noticing that the downstairs apartment was vacant. She was looking for a place for a friend who was moving to town from Portland, Oregon, to make a feature film. A few days later, the woman came back with Miranda July. I’d heard her name, it’s an easy one to remember, but I didn’t really know her performance and audio work at that point. Regardless, the interaction seemed strangely meaningful. She gave me a DVD of short films and audio pieces, then she and her friend left.
The films were mysterious and subtle. In each guise, July, very much a performer, was both a protean incarnation and luminously the same. In Getting Stronger Every Day, a young girl dreamily holds her tap shoe up to the camera as if it were a talisman, a perfectly keyed moment of anonymous show-and-tell. In Haysha Royko, pink and brown computer-generated “auras” hover over people waiting at an airport gate, as if to reify an invisible connection they themselves are unwilling or unable to acknowledge. The audio pieces were funny and surrealist narratives. In one, a woman attends a romance seminar, and in another, a person dreams that everyone she’s ever known is gathered in a park, waiting for her, to celebrate her excellence (that she forgets to go to the park is a requisite tandem to this and pretty much any wish-fulfillment dream).
People hoping for miraculous events to intervene in their lives, children cultivating their own private and idiosyncratic longings, everyone improvising ways to communicate with one another—these are predominating themes in July’s work. She didn’t end up living downstairs. She did make a feature film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, which won an award at Sundance and will be nationally released this June. We conducted our interview via e-mail in the spring of 2005.
Rachel Kushner In your short film Nest of Tens, a preteen boy takes a little girl and “changes” her, but instead of simply giving her a clean diaper, he performs this really curious and kind of amazing ritual, lining her neck with pink cotton balls, stroking her folds of baby-fat with Q-tips, and then, as the final flourish, he drops his bubble-gum bubble on her. The bubble is translucently pink, just like the baby’s skin. Beyond that nuanced aesthetic concord, what’s going on in this scene?
Miranda July This scene always stressed audiences out more than I really intended. I was (and am) interested in seeing different kinds of people together, unusual pairs in terms of age and gender and race. But the simple fact of their age difference really annihilates all the subtlety in the scene. Believe it or not, I thought this scene would be relaxing. I love to watch people touch each other in non-sexual ways—watching someone getting a massage or a haircut is just mesmerizing to me. Also, at the time I wrote the script I was receiving cranio-sacral bodywork treatments to help me with an ongoing eye problem. The patient before me was a baby. I would often try to imagine this baby getting a massage, and I suppose this was the origin of that image. The bubble gum bubble to me looks like it would be one of the baby’s internal organs.
RK A bird’s-eye-view shot in that film shows this really strange sectional couch, biomorphic and almost moist looking, like a sweaty hand. Did someone make that, or is it a real couch?
MJ Oh my god, I know, that couch! I asked someone if they knew any rich people who might let me shoot in their house, and they gave me these people’s number. When I got to the house I asked if they had a living room with a coffee table, because I knew the baby in the film would be cleaned on this table. I was just totally stunned when I saw the couch, curled around a glass-topped coffee table, and to top it off there was a sort of balcony over the whole thing that allowed us to shoot from above. Total magic. That just happens sometimes. In Me and You and Everyone We Know there is a prim little girl who I imagined would live in a prim little storybook house. In one scene, the script describes her opening a little door within the front door of this house and talking to her neighbor through it. We found the house, a perfect, pink house. And I thought, terrific, we just need to replace the door. But no. The door already had a little door in it. And not just any little door—an absolutely perfect one that you could see her whole face through.
RK There’s another scene in Nest of Tens, an excellently sleazy moment when a man pulls down his shorts to reveal his erection to a woman sitting nearby. There’s a child in the room, and although she doesn’t see what’s happening, she’s clearly triangulating, providing the tension that gives the act its meaning and charge. The woman reciprocates by pulling up her shirt. Are the adults here behaving badly? Is any innocence lost, if the child isn’t aware of the interaction taking place?
MJ They are, and the children always know what’s going on. But I don’t really have that kind of judgement of my characters. They are expressing something for all of us, or at least for me, and so it’s me behaving badly. But really the worst behavior is to not talk about it, to pretend that children are not sexual beings living in an adult world. In general I’m trying to make a space where it’s not clear, or maybe not even interesting, whether someone is good or bad or crossing a line. Instead, the focus is on what the individuals are feeling, their ability to reach through the web of their own fears and fantasies and connect with someone else, regardless of how appropriate this connection is, and it often isn’t. Nest of Tens is the roughest sketch of this, the primordial version of Me and You.
RK Shoes are aestheticized objects in your projects. In Nest of Tens, the “business woman” looks down and flexes her foot, a funny moment because she’s wearing those comfort heels, Aerosoles or something. And in Me and You, the courtship between the two protagonists pretty much takes place in a store’s shoe department, and symbolic of the potential romance are these pink shoes your character buys. It’s funny, when I met you, a couple years ago, we talked about shoes, because we had the same kind. Are shoes a kind of platonic form for you?
MJ I’ve always had trouble finding shoes that were relevant to me. In Portland I eventually convinced a shoe-repair man that if he could fix every part of a shoe, then he could probably make a pair of shoes from scratch. We designed them together, sort of a cartoon nurse shoe, and I wore them every day. We became friends, and the character of Richard in Me and You, the shoe salesman, is inspired, in part, by him. So the shoes are like so many of my themes: they were an organic part of my life and over time they’ve accrued meaning.
RK Birds: You wrote a piece of fiction called “The Man on the Stairs” in which a couple nearing the end of their relationship each fantasize they’re sleeping with someone else, and the man likes to share his fantasy, as the narrator says, “like a cat presenting a dead bird.” In your feature film, Me and You, birds are alighting in trees, or people are sliding framed images of birds alighting in trees into the branches of real trees. In Blue Velvet, Sandy tells Jeffrey of a good omen in her dream about robins who bring light and love to a dark world. Her bird dream is meant to be comical and naive but also dead serious: a crazy assertion of the redemptive value of naive clichés as such. I’d like to think that your use of a bird as a symbol for “optimism and light” is also duplicitous, but I will admit it’s slightly problematic to me, verging on the sentimental. But perhaps that’s my sensibility: a preference either for dead birds, or for charming robins only in the context of a world with an obscene underlayer, à la Lynch.
MJ The bird, and all the grace and freedom it implies, is both real, with the actual bird at the beginning of the movie, and fake, a picture of a bird that becomes defaced. Richard is someone who is afraid to play a role (of father or lover) because it feels fake to him—he feels “like a man in a book.” But I think we must play roles, and believe in them enough to connect to each other through them. So when Christine catches Richard trying to hide the bird picture at the end because he doesn’t want her to see it, and then she puts it in a tree, it’s like she’s saying, Yes! It’s not real! But let’s pretend it is, let’s celebrate it and in doing so, let’s believe in the invention of us together.
RK Characters in your work often end their declarations with the word forever, in hopes that various arrangements or vows will last precisely that long. “Forever” implies, to me anyway, both an infinitude and, ironically, infinitude’s opposite: the certainty of forever’s impossibility. What seems infinite is longing. And finite: relationships as longing’s repository. Maybe it’s abstract, but it’s interesting to me that what’s infinite exists in an ineluctably finite space: one human consciousness. That forever is impossible, that relationships end—what I read as a wistful reversal within your utterances of “forever”—suggests a kind of endlessness. The endless repetition of endings. What’s your sense of the meaning of this word, and the way your characters pronounce it, the ever-emphasized predicate?
MJ I was listening to a song today (by my friend Khaela Maricich) that goes, “You know you’ll regret it for the rest of your life.” And I thought, I always feel like I’m going to make the wrong decision and regret it forever, but really, that’s not what life’s like. Things usually make sense in time, and even bad decisions have their own kind of correctness. But there is still that perverse human fear of regretting forever and hope of loving in the same way forever while we know good and well that everything changes.
RK You have a thing for spoken cryptograms as symbols for various kinds of expression, which psychoanalysts would call “full speech”—that to which we are denied access by fear and the alienating codes of conduct. You have an audio piece in which an adolescent boy calls an older girl from school and tells her to say peanut and hang up if she doesn’t love him. And in Me and You, it’s the word macaroni, which your character, filming herself at the very end of a video monologue submission, asks the curator to whom she’s submitted the tape to utter if she’s still watching: Just dial this number and say macaroni and hang up, no questions asked. Saying the word macaroni essentially means “I’m ready to break down whatever it is that has barred me from reaching out to people.” I wonder if part of the very positive critical reception of Me and You has included something of this, in the sense that your work circles around themes of private longings. I somehow imagine people—not literally, but in essence—calling Miranda July and saying macaroni.
MJ The same day I got into the Sundance Film Festival I also got an email from the head programmer and it just said “macaroni.” And at first I just laughed and then I suddenly began sobbing. Granted, I was editing 24-7 and completely sleep-deprived, but it seemed in that moment that I had broken through and gotten the only thing I’ve ever really wanted: unequivocal proof that the message was received. The whole time I’ve been building my audience I’ve also been trying to unbuild the walls that come with having an audience, with having power. The whole point is to be able to feel more, to connect more, and yet in some ways having power runs at cross-purposes to this. Maybe I feel more just by sitting with a friend. And can I make a career, as a filmmaker and performer, that makes this sitting-with-a-friend feeling more possible, for each member of the audience and for myself? Yes! I say yes.
RK Me and You and Everyone We Know begins with a dialogue performed by one person—your character, Christine—pretending to be two, herself and also a (deeper-voiced) lover. “Let’s make a vow,” she says. It’s an art project she’s doing. She attributes the dialogue to the people in a wall of photographs she faces. But the real dialogue as I read it is not between the people in the photos. It’s between herself and her fantasy “other,” who might “make a vow” with her. In the realm of love I can’t resist calling in the expert, his majesty Proust, who says, “Love has so much eloquence, and indifference so little curiosity.” It seems as if the character’s pretend vow-making is an attempt to conjure this “eloquence” from a flat wall of images. A kind of séance by ventriloquism with a microphone.
MJ In the most simple sense I am trying to show her longing. But this isn’t a pretend, “movie person” longing: she is someone with all kinds of internal resources, and we see her transforming her feelings and experiences into art in immediate and simple ways throughout the movie. You could almost see this as a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Me and You. It’s about trying to make something powerful on a large scale without sacrificing an intimacy with myself or the audience. With movies it is particularly hard to both create a fiction and make it permeable, such that it gives the audience some feeling of agency, of relating to the process of its making, when the lights come up.
RK Shortly thereafter, Christine meets the shoe salesman, Richard, and is love-struck. But what is it that attracts her? As he says to her when she gets in his car, uninvited, she doesn’t even know him. And since I’ve now conjured his eloquence, here’s a bit more Proust: “The return of our own tenderness is what we see as the other’s feelings, working their new, enhanced charm on us, because we do not recognize them as having originated within ourselves.” Is Christine’s “tenderness” likewise a confusion of the desire to be loved with desire itself? I guess I’m never convinced that there’s anything about the shoe salesman, per se, that she’s responding to.
MJ When he says, You think you deserve that pain but you don’t—I think she is just amazed that anyone can see her at all, that’s how much she’s living in her own world. (Although of course he is likely just seeing himself, his own self-inflicted wound.) In any case, it is enough to fill the place she had already cultivated for loving.
RK If I consider the main character of Me and You as comprising the following elements: 1) someone who cares for the elderly; 2) an earnest artist who faces a corrupt and inhospitable art world; 3) a girl who simply wants to love and be loved, she starts to seem a bit too morally flawless. In the final scene, she “gets the guy.” I hate to think she’s being “rewarded” with the embrace-as-fadeout into perpetuity. In reflection, do you recognize an overtone that could be perceived as moralizing?
MJ A former boyfriend recently said to me, Of course your movie ends with that magical first embrace, you’re so good at that part! I laughed, knowing that Christine would probably not be able to stay with Richard; there’s no real evidence in the movie that she or he would have what it takes to sustain such a thing. Their happy ending feels very tenuous and fragile to me, but I did want them to come together; I wanted some actual loving touch at the end of the movie. I’m approaching these characters so much from the inside that I don’t always notice what the morals might seem to be. Christine is probably too morally flawless. Since I see myself strewn across all the characters, I have this sense that great complexity is being expressed, the complexity of my internal world! But of course the audience doesn’t know that it is I who would kick someone like her out of the car, and I am the pervert who would put the signs in the windows. She is simple because she is just my perpetual hope and dreaming.
RK I see you as having gone from more experimental-type short films to a rather conventionally plotted feature (i.e., coincidences suture everyone in the film together, and the ending is unequivocably happy). I’m wondering if, now that you’ve established that you can successfully make a more classically-structured feature, if you’ll return to making something less conventional, with characters that are less burdened by the requirements and simplifications of plot?
MJ I have a gigantic plan, Rachel, and it involves performance, and fiction, and radio, and the www, and TV and features that are both “conventional” and totally not. And when I am done with my plan, when I am very old, hopefully there will be a little more space for people living with profound doubt to tell their stories in all different mediums. Also Hollywood won’t be so sexist. I’m laughing as I type this because I really mean it! But one thing at a time.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews Edward Dimendberg and Allan Sekula, Luc Tuymans and Kerry James Marshall, Nell McClister and Paul Chan, Sue de Beer and Nancy A. Barton, Heather McHugh, Susan Wheeler, Miranda July and Rachel Kushner, William Wegman and George Steel, Tony Conrad and Jay Sanders, and Carolyn Cantor.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.