Sometimes an essay is prefaced by a list of topics that will be covered. Here’s a list of things in Punch-Drunk Love that won’t be covered but that I love nonetheless:
Barry’s blue suit and Emily Watson’s red outfit and her face and breasts and nipples and performance, all ordinary and spectacular. Mary Lynn Rajskub. All the things that happen in real time, like Barry waiting for the phone sex worker to call him back. How the movie is shot, including the blue lens flare. Adam Sandler’s performance. I know he was, at the time, this comedy giant, but if you haven’t seen even one of those comedies, if this is in fact the only movie you’ve ever seen Adam Sandler in (other than Funny People, years later)—then he’s just a masterful, if underutilized, character actor. The stupidness of him holding the phone receiver for so long, all the way to Utah. That Watson’s character, Lena, was stalking Barry a little, and that she admits this, and that it’s taken as the compliment it is. I didn’t exactly stalk my husband before I met him, but I knew he would be at that party, and when I saw him I marched over, stuck out my hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Miranda July.” It’s the only time I’ve introduced myself so boldly. I don’t trust relationships that are kicked off by the man. I mean, how’s that going to work? The whole movie would have to
be him persuading her to go on a date.
I don’t totally love the phone sex scenes. I worked in peep shows when I was young, and the territory just stresses me out, especially in movies. I probably wouldn’t have worked in peep shows and been a stripper if it weren’t for Paris, Texas and that Atom Egoyan movie, Exotica—or, I should say, if both of those movies hadn’t been favorites of my father’s. (Although, if Paul Thomas Anderson’s phone sex worker, Georgia, makes you want to be a phone sex worker, then your dad must reaaally love this movie, because there is nothing glamorous about her. I do like the part where Barry is laboriously giving her his credit card information.)
In 2002, five years after I stopped stripping, Punch-Drunk Love came out, and two years after that, I was a fellow at a Sundance lab, workshopping my first feature. The illustrious alumni were invoked all the time (Tarantino, Soderbergh), but I only pricked up my ears when P. T. Anderson was mentioned, and when he was mentioned it was to say that he swore a lot. He was always cursing, they said. Hearing this made me blush and look at my lap. I tried to imagine him cursing around our house, saying I fucking do at our wedding, bitching and assing in front of our babies. Now, many years and many-kids-not-had-with-each-other later, they occasionally mention me at the Sundance labs when they discuss the alums. She didn’t swear is what they say. No cursing from her at all.
My favorite part of the movie is when Barry goes to Hawaii. He suddenly realizes he can just go to her, even without the frequent-flier miles. This is also my favorite thing in life: the sudden understanding that you aren’t condemned to sadness, that you can simply walk toward the thing you want. When I was twenty, I dropped out of college and moved to Portland to live with my girlfriend, all while my parents were on vacation. Some people probably do this sort of thing all the time, but for Barry and me, it’s a big deal; we don’t take anything lightly, ever. Even right now, my heart is pounding as if I’m in a high-stakes car chase—why? Because I’m unclear on my dinner plans. Because there’s a fly in the room. Because the food in the earthquake supply kit is past its expiration date. Paul, P. T., Mr. Anderson does such a good job of describing that perpetually alarmed feeling—the trucks literally roar by like Jurassic Park dinosaurs; the warehouse door rolls up and down, blinding and blackening like the wrath of God. Life really is terrifying.
I just took a moment to consider the ways I’m condemning myself to sadness at this very moment. The problem is that even if you have enough frequent-flier miles to go anywhere with Emily Watson, the anxiety comes with you. You can sort of see this in Lena’s eyes—she loves Barry, but she’s no fool. Sometimes it’s going to be a nightmare having this guy around. Barry thinks he just said, “That’s that” to fear, forever. God, how I wish you could just leave the tyranny of worry and self-loathing at some shitty mattress store in Utah. I did try to fix myself up in time for really loving someone, but as Barry will discover in hotels all over the world, your out can’t outrun your seven sisters. I see them chasing him forever (internally) like the seven horsemen of the apocalypse.
I don’t have seven sisters, but I have one father. Also well-meaning—but jeez. Fuck. Motherfucker. Ass fuck. (Swearing feels terrific! I’m hooked!) Fucking shit, what a legacy of anxiety my dad bequeathed! Though there were some good times. We made Jell-O in a big yellow bowl. He read to me. And together we loved Popeye, the Altman movie. So when “He Needs Me” plays in Punch-Drunk Love, it’s not just Barry and Lena, Olive and Popeye; it’s also me and my father feeling okay for a second. When you steal a song from a twenty-two-year-old movie, you also steal all the tenderness the movie’s viewers have accrued since it came out. All the pain and dashed hope. All the desire. This is why everyone steals all the time, though usually not so openly. An open theft is joyful; it implies that these two men, Altman and Anderson, were so confident, they could share a song. Which adds to the overall glad spirit of the moment—the moment when Barry goes to Hawaii. In just a few weeks, I myself am going to Hawaii for the first time. They say the air smells like flowers there; it better.
In closing, I’d like to thank everyone involved in this production. Thank you to the entire cast and crew, and a special thanks to the people given a special thanks at the very end of the credits. I wish I were one of those people! It would have been amazing to be thanked, in advance, for loving this movie as only an audience member can. But why single out one woman? Why not thank everyone who loves it? The reason is obvious: it would take too long. Especially since the list is always growing. If I served as a delegate, an ambassador of the audience, then it might make sense to include me. As they have, in this release.
I know I haven’t spoken to all of our feelings about the movie—they are wily and specific, like each one of you—but I hope I adequately represented our passion. It only grows. Thank you for the honor, and good night.
Miranda July is a filmmaker, artist, and writer. Her most recent work is The First Bad Man, a novel.