With her incredibly auspicious debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, the acclaimed multimedia performance artist Miranda July makes the leap to feature film with such skill and vision it’s hard not to feel a tremor of excitement. A new voice in American cinema has arrived.
In the annual guide outlining the programs of the Sundance Film Festival, the synopses of the movies screening there, written by the programmers, are typically zealous. Every film puts a new spin on a classic story, revitalizing the art of cinema with an uncompromising, unforeseen vision. Every maker is either a towering icon of independent film, continuing heedlessly on a self-blazed trail, or its out-of-nowhere saviour, often emerging from the depths of middle America to show the world a new way.
It is the rare case when every thesaurus-exhausted sentence is true.
This is one.
Me and You and Everyone We Know truly is auspicious, skillful, visionary and exciting. But Sundance got one thing wrong in its proclamation. Miranda July is an artist who performs in multiple media—on stage, on video, through fiction, the web and now film—but she is not a
multimedia performance artist.
She wrote to IFC Films, a producer and distributor of Me and You, to tell them so.
“And they were like ‘Got it. Got it.’ And then of course”—July laughs ruefully—“that’s everywhere and I’ll just never see the end of it. And the only problem with that is whatever the ideas are in people’s heads of what that is, it’s just so far from what I do. I mean, obviously if I was doing art with, like, meat or something, that would be a really huge leap from that to making the movie, you know? Which isn’t the case.”
Calling from home on a cloudy Los Angeles morning, July’s Berkeley accent (think drawn-out words, statements that sound like questions, and lots of likes and you knows) sounds wary, and weary, after talking about herself for six months straight. Sundance audiences fell rapturously in love with the film, and the jury agreed, awarding July a special prize for Originality of Vision. It steamrolled its way out of the Wasatch mountain range, on to Chicago for Roger Ebert’s annual Overlooked Film Festival (the critic tripped into a screening by accident and emerged the movie’s most influential fan, declaring it the best of Sundance, saying he’d “rarely felt so contained by a film”) and in May it crossed the Atlantic for the Cannes Film Festival. There July shared the Camera D’or, with Vimukthi Jayasundara, for best first film and was the sole recipient of the Critics’ Prize. Me and You and Everyone We Know opens in Halifax this fall.
Born Miranda Grossinger in 1974, July was writing plays before she reached double digits and replaced her surname in high school. After dropping out of college, she spent a decade as an indie darling in Portland, Oregon, where she made shorts, Sleater-Kinney videos and one-woman shows. In her early 20s, she put out three albums, on indie labels Kill Rock Stars and K Records. (“Those people are, like, trying to figure out if I sold out or what.”) She created a distribution network for women filmmakers, Big Miss Moviola, which is now known as Joanie 4 Jackie.Video and audio art installations at the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York followed, as well as a pair of short stories published in The Paris Review (multiple media, indeed).
In the fall of 2001, July submitted approximately one-third of Me and You and Everyone We Know to the Sundance Institute for its annual series of workshops. She was rejected twice before gaining entry in the January 2003 screenwriters’ lab, followed by the directors’ lab, the summer writing lab and the composers’ lab. The film premiered on the crystal-clear night of January 23, 2005, at the Park City Racquet Club, high above the state of Utah. By evening’s end, July was independent filmmaking’s next great hope.
To summarize Me and You and Everyone We Know is not the point, but here goes: Christine (July) is an artist who drives a cab for the elderly. Richard (John Hawkes of Deadwood) is a recently divorced shoe salesman with two sons, seven-year-old Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) and 14-year-old Peter (Miles Thompson). In the opening scene, Richard douses his left hand in lighter fluid and sets it alight while his children watch.
A pair of teenage girls (Natasha Slayton and Najarra Townsend) play sexual mind games with Richard’s dorky co-worker Andrew (Brad William Henke). Peter has an odd friendship with Sylvie (Carlie Westerman), a classmate and neighbour who meticulously collects toiletries and appliances for her hope chest. Lonely art curator Nancy Harrington (Tracy Wright), who refuses to look at Christine’s video work, embarks on an internet relationship with a surprising partner.
The film is low on plot and high on moment—“I knew that it wasn’t gonna work to have a plot,” says July, “that it was going to have to be a free territory, feel really fun to get to write in”—with a handful of terrific scenes that would make great short films on their own. Richard’s self-immolation is one. Another is an intense drive down the freeway, where Christine tries to get the attention of a man who has left a goldfish on the roof of his car. The teen girls use Peter as a test subject to determine which one of them gives a better blow job. And in the movie’s oft-cited centrepiece, Christine and Richard walk one city block together, still strangers, and turn it into a metaphor for their lifelong romance.
July conceived Me and You in June of 2001 on a 20-minute train ride. “The distributor for my short movies is a company called Video Databank and they’re at the Art Institute in Chicago, and I was there giving a few talks at the different colleges,” she says. “My friend Jennifer Reeder, who’s also a filmmaker, had given me instructions on how to take the El train from the school to her house. She was waiting for me and was, like, ‘How was the ride?’ And I was, like, ‘Great! I thought of a feature film I’m gonna make!’”
The hand scene was the first to find its way into her brain. “It wasn’t so much that it would even necessarily be in the movie,” she says, “but that kind of stood for a level of desperation that I was kind of inspired by. Desperation to connect, and to be seen.”
Connection is the movie’s theme. The internet features prominently in a subplot. Richard disfigures himself to impress his children, terrified to lose them as their lives change drastically. Andrew’s interaction with the teens takes a dirty turn, but he never acts on his macho bravado. Sylvie dreams of the future, when she’ll have a daughter to love and be loved by. And Christine, alone in her creative world, awkwardly tries to reach out to Richard, who’s too hurt to reach back yet.
July delivers these off-kilter, often dangerous scenarios with a daring optimism free of irony or cynicism, rendering complex sexual taboos practically joyous, something opponents of the film have taken her to task for.
“I worry that the child sexuality stuff is just coming off as a point of comedy,” she frets. “Even really bad reviews—usually when they hate the movie, they really specifically hate me in it—but usually as their parting words they’ll say ‘Well there is one funny scene with the kid on the internet’ and my heart kind of falls. Is that all it is, just funny?”
(It’s a fair assumption that here July speaks of Jack Mathews’ two-star New York Daily News review, in which he calls her “a terrible actress in an awkwardly self-reverential role,” and in the final paragraph plugs the “hilarious subplot” of Robby chatting online about poop, dubbing it “almost worth the price of admission.”)
She has had a hard time letting these people, people she made, go.
“It’s been a gradual thing,” she says. “Initially there was so much hype to distract me, you know, from the fact that I was disengaging creatively from that. I kind of had to get over an ex-boyfriend before I moved on to someone else, that I was going to have to start something new to not feel really emotionally overwhelmed.”
She’s spent much of the past few months taking the film to cities around the US, a process normally reserved for film festivals where, post-screening, the audience is able to engage in conversation with the filmmaker.
“When I do my Q & As, I come in at the same point every time, when Robby’s tapping up at the sun. And sometimes it just feels so heavy in a kind of, I guess, post-partum way.” Her accent gets even lazier as she imitates her freaked reaction. “This was my whollllle worrrrrld. Who am I nowwwww?” She laughs. “But it’s also kind of a relief to get to move on.”
Me and You and Everyone We Know has become synonymous with this symbol: ))><((
Invented by an oblivious Robby while chatting in a sex room, he thinks it’s hilarious because he’s talking about exchanging poop (“Back and forth. Forever.”). The person at the other end of the ether is titillated, assuming he’s discussing a particularly messy kink. At Sundance, publicists handed out pins and postcards bearing the symbol, black against a white background.
“My boyfriend says I’ve got a bit of a vaudeville side to me, he’s always surprised by this showmanship, you know?” says July, laughing. “I did always intend for that symbol to be something for people to hold on to from the movie.” She pauses. “I think that a lot of artists wouldn’t admit that kind of thing, but maybe that’s one part of performing live, or maybe it’s my roots or something, I want to make it good for the audience. At the same time it’s so personal and intuitive, there’s part of me that wants to give them stuff to have.”
Feel a tremor? That’s the excitement of a new voice in American cinema, arrived at last, to show the world a new way.
Me and You and Everyone We Know opens this fall.