“Fuck! Fuck you fuck me fuck old people fuck children fuck peace! Fuck peace.”
Miranda July shouts at her car’s steering wheel. With a black Sharpie, she scrawls FUCK in huge letters on the inside of her windshield. She drives. Sunlight filters through tree branches; our view of the leaves filters through FUCK. We see the world through the word. A woman tries to move beyond language, but in order to do so she must drive through it, with it.
In 1995, a twenty-one-year-old July arrived in Portland, Oregon, after dropping out of the University of California, Santa Cruz. In Portland, she encountered a new kind of punk. While the content of nineties Northwest punk differed from the versions that had come before, it shared a context: punk was an infrastructure, a shell that anyone could inhabit. This new variety was softer in places—more open to gender play, feminism—and it embraced an expansive queer strangeness. It was shopping (or shoplifting) from thrift stores, going to all-ages shows, running off photocopied zines.It was punk music’s “Fuck it, they won’t play our shit on the radio anyway” stance, the impulse to create one’s audience before making the art to show them. For July, the Pacific Northwest was an inviting wilderness of potential voices and stories.
“July’s primary vehicle is language, but our everyday, tangible vehicles—cars, shoes, and bodies—are what move things along.”
A film director who hadn’t yet made a film, July began putting on hard-to-classify hybrid plays and multimedia performances at punk clubs, using the structure of these venues and this scene to provide her with a platform and an audience. Thinking of these early performances as “live movies,” she repurposed this context to craft participatory work that demanded a different kind of attention to the narratives and emotions of the here and now. She was figuring things out in public, with the public.
In 1997, July released 10 Million Hours a Mile, an album of punk radio plays, on Kill Rock Stars, a record label known for the riot grrrl energy of Bratmobile and the softer, darker moods of the singer-songwriter Elliott Smith. One track, “How’s My Driving,” conflates driving with lying and with sexual transaction, entangling them as July voices both sides of a dialogue dripping with innuendo. On the album, her voice is frantic, vibrating with abrasive energy. It speeds recklessly, careening, veering left and right into other characters also voiced by her, embarking on other narratives. July’s primary vehicle is language, but our everyday, tangible vehicles—cars, shoes, and bodies—are what move things along.
On another track, “Atlanta,” a desperate woman’s voice describes the horror of being a child in training to be an Olympic swimmer. My body tenses as I listen, a pit-of-the-stomach recognition. A familiar feeling resonates; I can’t hang out like the others. I must work harder, be more disciplined, dedicated to an abstract vocation that I can’t articulate. This is what it means to be a young woman who wants to transcend the few futures presented to her. A young woman who wants more, despite not knowing where “more” is or what it will cost to get there.
It was two years earlier, motivated by a desire to make movies and to see movies made by other women, that July had started Joanie 4 Jackie (though it was called Big Miss Moviola at the time)—her hugely influential VHS “video chain letter.” This was years before online streaming made sharing video as easy as a mouse click. Joanie 4 Jackie was a piece of “more,” a community July created out of thin air, highlighting the missing women-made movies that she and her new community were dying to see. It was a way to call out “ECHO!” and hear her voice come back to her even louder, amplified by other voices also calling out “ECHO!” into the void.
July’s first short film, Atlanta (1996), was made with a camera borrowed from her friend Tammy Rae Carland, a filmmaker who also participated in Joanie 4 Jackie. In it, we receive reverberations of July’s recording of the same title, as here, too, she plays both a young Olympics-bound swimmer and her mother. July’s Nest of Tens (2000) represents an important step toward her first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, with its multiple interwoven narratives, odd couplings, and transgressive sexuality. Like the theme of a woman in water, the device of a character (often July) playing multiple roles within a narrative surfaces again and again throughout her work.
With an eye for substructures, July builds the conditions in which creativity will thrive. She understands that a properly formed skeleton can move a project forward with propulsive energy. In Learning to Love You More (2002–09), her long-running collaboration with Harrell Fletcher, participants responded to assignments on a website such as:
38. Act out someone else’s argument.
68. Feel the news.
Or the last one posted before the project’s end:
70. Say goodbye.
The project approached creative practice nonhierarchically, giving power and a platform to its participants. Started just a couple of years before July moved to Los Angeles and three years before she made Me and You, this web-based work is clearly a formally distant relative of the narrative film, yet the two share a key concern: July ardently believes in the capacity of imaginative invention and self-expression to connect people and free them from the limitations of convention. While Learning to Love You More creates the conditions for this proposition to play out in real life (as does Joanie 4 Jackie, for that matter), in Me and You it is the dynamic that drives the narrative. Every single character in the movie is involved in some kind of creative play that helps them to find love, explore sexuality, heal, process grief, dream of a future, and cope with the everyday.
Perhaps making this film was the next logical step for an artist with July’s velocity. She had written and directed her first play, The Lifers, in high school in Oakland, and, looking back at her career now, it seems that since those early days she has only been gathering speed. Me and You launches her into the air, suddenly weightless, unencumbered by gravity. That’s how it feels to watch the film in 2020. Here is a woman making a dream concrete, miraculously given support at just the right time in her creative process. What happens when punk spirit gets a bigger stage and a louder mic? One can imagine cries of “sellout” in 2005, given the puritanical way that subcultural borders are often policed. But making a feature-length narrative film can also be viewed as an act of generosity, as well as a provocation. How weird can a mainstream movie be?
If Me and You and Everyone We Know was a catapult up to another artistic level, the three-inch stack of business cards handed to July at Sundance when the film premiered there showed that she had once again found an audience, interest, and support. An overwhelming pile of fan mail, for the first time in her career too much for her to keep, was further confirmation. She had always kept a thorough archive, both of her own ephemera and correspondence from admirers, but now there was just too much. This is significant: the words, the dreams, the inner lives of others had always been a valuable source of inspiration. Suddenly, raw material arrived in excess. I imagine this to be the worst kind of feeling, like being sick on your own birthday cake. There’s a sense of loss whenever a long-held dream is realized; it’s an ending and a beginning.
The film still feels fresh fifteen years later, which is a feat given that it depicts a world in which people interact via landlines and instant messenger on clunky desktop computers (and one character simply writes messages on paper and tapes them to his window). In part, this is because July is talking about universal human truths in a voice completely her own, replete with the unique imagination and humor she developed through years of writing, performing, making art, and creating platforms for participation and cocreation.
Early in Me and You, we see a plastic bag containing a goldfish vibrating in the sun on top of a fast-moving SUV. July’s character, Christine, is driving on the highway near the SUV, and Michael, one of the elderly people she provides rides for as an “Eldercab” driver, is in her passenger seat. We watch the fish sway precariously, on the edge of certain death, through the windows and rearview mirror of Christine’s car. Are we all just watching things—anything, any movie, any object—as a way to pass the time before the ultimate inevitability, death? How does the way we watch what we watch define our inner lives and relationships?
Cars are emotional snow globes, sealed biomes of feelings and thoughts that float around as one gazes out at the flattened world. They give us the illusion we are moving through our alienation, but their structure perpetuates it, keeps us inside and separate. There is a sensation of simultaneity; we’re on our way somewhere, but even as we’re elsewhere, we’re strapped safely into the same stationary car seat. Movies are vehicles, too, in the sense that they transport us from one place to another, from one time to another, from body to body, from body to nobody, while at the same time we remain exactly in place. In Me and You, Christine looks out at the world through her car’s movie-screen windshield (which she later defaces with FUCK). The experience of being in a car is like being at the movies—people sit side by side, facing forward, watching reality move. Each trip is a story with a narrative arc built in: beginning, journey, arrival.
“You think you deserve that pain, but you don’t.”
Kneeling before Christine is Richard (John Hawkes), a shoe salesman. He opens her heart by noticing her chafed ankle and looking at her tenderly, as if he can see the inner ache to which the sore spot corresponds. Christine is at the shoe store with Michael, awaiting his purchase. She ends up buying pink flats exactly like a pair she already has, except these conjure a world in which she possibly deserves love instead of pain. Later she writes ME and YOU on them with her enormous Sharpie and videotapes her feet dancing coyly toward and away from each other. We witness Christine attach meaning to the shoes entirely based on their emotional value and the imaginary pain-free world they represent.
July’s interest in shoes had begun many years before. Back in her early Portland days, she often preferred to wear a style of orthopedic shoes and eventually designed her own custom shoes with a cobbler, elaborate yet elegantly sleek platforms entirely wrapped in ACE bandages—the sort of thing that Rick Owens might wear if he twisted his ankle. These shoes made explicit the connection between what we wear and a body in pain, neatly summarizing a theme at the core of July’s work: that none of us deserve pain, but we have it. How we decide to address our pain is the vehicle of our transcendence.
We also encounter this on The Binet-Simon Test, a record July released on Kill Rock Stars in 1998. On one of its tracks, a talk-show host (July) asks three child siblings—Lena, Patrick, and Martin Beamish (all July)—about a curious condition they have that keeps them from feeling pain.
Host: How do you know when you’re hurt if you can’t feel physical pain? Lena?
Lena: I see the blood.
Patrick: I see the blood.
Host: And Martin?
Martin: I see the blood.
Host: And what does it feel like to bleed? I mean, it doesn’t hurt, right? Lena?
Lena: It feels wet.
Patrick: It feels wet.
Host: And Martin?
Martin: It feels wet.
The skit goes on to reveal that Martin can, in fact, feel pain. He was just pretending not to so he could be like the others. It also turns out that Patrick is a fake kid, a robot built by Martin, and Lena is the only one who can’t feel pain after all. She convinced Martin to pretend he was her twin, because “one of anything is a terrible thing to be, but two of the same thing is twins!” July is posing a series of questions to her audience: How do we deal with our vulnerable, fallible bodies? And how do we deal with that innate, cellular pain, the sad ache, the longing born of the recognition that we are separate and alone?
We see these themes again in her 2015 novel The First Bad Man, as the protagonist and narrator, Cheryl, reads to her pregnant roommate, Clee, about the biology of pregnancy:
“‘With the fusion of their membranes and nuclei, the gametes become one cell, a zygote.’” I could see it so clearly, the zygote—shiny and bulbous, filled with the electric memory of being two but now damned with the eternal loneliness of being just one. The sorrow that never goes away.
With pregnancy and birth come a wide range of bizarre sensations, including pain so unimaginable that there are no words to describe it. Medically, that kind of pain is given a number on a scale: ten. A similar system is at play in July’s 1998 short film The Amateurist. In it, July performs as a “professional,” who reads the body of an “amateur” (also July), looking for numbers. This is obviously an invented system, one whose logic is opaque yet real within the video’s diegesis. July’s work reminds us that we’re already imagining and performing all the time anyway. (Why is a coin worth anything? Because everyone agrees to act like it is.) How we structure our time and relationships is framed by inherited arbitrary systems. We can change them if we see and rethink them, expand our definitions. The same trauma that warrants a ten on the pain scale is also extraordinarily mundane, something that happens a zillion times an instant every day all over the world, something without which all humanity would end.
In Me and You, Christine transforms her pain through imaginative play. We see this both in her work as a video artist and in her personal life. On the street with Richard, the distance of their walk together becomes the story of their life together, which in reality has not yet even begun—or if it has, this is its first moment. As they reach the end, Christine says, “Okay, this can’t be avoided, everyone dies! Don’t be afraid.” They part ways, walking separately to their cars or the afterlife.
“Through performative fictions, July’s work highlights the courage of living honestly—of daring to be vulnerable, to play and love in the face of shame, pain, and fear.”
“Now as in now?!”
In one of the film’s final moments, Christine and Richard appear poised to begin a real relationship. Unexpectedly, Christine tells Richard she will arrive at his apartment any minute, so he is tidying frantically. In a moment of absurd panic, he tries to conceal a large work of art, a damaged photograph of a bird—in a bush, as one does with shameful things. The shame one feels when confronted by nowness is the shock of recognition that one’s whole fucked-up life is in this very instant, this photograph of reality.
Shame prevents us from truly seeing our whole selves and from revealing ourselves to others. It makes us retreat and forfeit our opportunities to connect, perpetuating a cycle of isolation. An artist’s shame is their greatest wellspring of power and creativity, their deep source of strength. An artist’s process metabolizes shame into pleasure and fortitude to continue: “getting stronger every day,” as the title of a 2001 short film by July puts it. Integrating shame into our lives takes courage, the kind that is painfully mundane. Through performative fictions, July’s work highlights the courage of living honestly—of daring to be vulnerable, to play and love in the face of shame, pain, and fear—and in doing so expands the definition of what one can be and how one can belong with others.
Are movies vehicles for transcending our reality, human pain and shame? Movies reveal something already within us: a complex desire to see ourselves from the outside, to leave our bodies and watch ourselves walk around “acting out” real life before our eyes. Who wouldn’t want to leave their body behind for a while? Bodies get backaches, chest pains, stubbed toes, chafed ankles, get accidentally left on the roof of a car in a plastic bag—bodies die.
Near the end of Me and You, Christine and Michael stand in an art museum watching a video piece of Christine’s. In it, their voices accompany an image of a postcard on which we see a man and a woman from behind, gazing at Mayan ruins. Christine plays the role of Ellen, Michael’s recently deceased girlfriend.
Michael: Isn’t it amazing, Ellen?
Christine: Yes, I’m so glad you took me here. It was a whole civilization.
Michael: Two Mayan people in love probably stood right where we are standing now and thought, Look what we have built together, and now they’re gone. And so is the city. And there is just . . . us.
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