To begin, a true story: in 2002 it was my friend Faith’s thirteenth birthday and I was lovingly making her a birthday present. Naturally I had chosen to make a bin. Nothing says Best Friends Forever like a bin. In fairness, I had started out well. I’d found a piece of black rubber at a market. It was moulded into lots of spikes, like a rubbery, matt-black sea surface full of small protruding shark fins. I bought it, sensing it was a very crucial ingredient in the gift. But I knew it couldn’t stand alone; I had to do something with this metre of cool.
So I took myself to PC World, for reasons that must have been obvious at the time, and searched for something to couple with my rubber. I eventually plumped for a fluorescent pink, plastic waste-paper basket. At a push, I could stretch the material around the bin, creating something so apparently hideous that I knew I was onto something.
Even better, I then discovered that my dad was in possession of a hand-held riveting machine. In a bizarre moment of father-daughter craftsmanship, we riveted the two ends of the spiky rubber, threaded the holes with black satin ribbon, and cinched it tight around the fluorescent cylinder – it was supposed to look like an S&M corset. Truly, I thought, I have proved my credentials as an edgy yet attentive friend.
I was recently reminded of my twelve-year-old self making my bin gift when I attended a ‘Master Class’ with Miranda July at the BFI, followed by a screening of her new film The Future and a Q&A session at Tate Modern. The idea of gifts was at the heart of a lot what had been said. July referred to her film-making as:
Like when you’re making a gift for a friend and you take an insanely long time doing something really elaborate. Then you present it and the person just doesn’t really get it. And you realise the process of making the gift wasn’t for them, it was all for you.
Yes, I thought. I have seen that nonplussed expression look back at me. I have known the sinking sensation of having evidently put an embarrassing amount of effort into a gift, and it being suddenly clear in the recipient’s expression how self-involved the whole process was (“Here’s an erotic, spiked-rubber bin I spent days constructing in the vague awareness that you like the wares of Camden market: witness my superior cool and creativity over anyone else that might steal you from me, oh bestest friend I’ve ever had”).
July’s self-commentary in the Master Class was full of wit and insight. And yet, as much as I loved this reference to the politics of gift-giving as an analogy for film-making, her use of such a potentially negative analogy did pose a few awkward questions. In this instance, it didn’t only suggest a deeply felt connection with the film and of her having the best intentions; it also implied an ultimate failure to produce a piece that stands alone, independent of its creator.
This is compounded by the fact that July’s connection to her film is so comprehensive: she wrote it, directed it, and plays one half of the story’s central couple, Sophie. She also provided the voice of the talking kitten who narrates the piece. This is a Miranda July tour de force, and it is difficult to criticise such an amazing feat of imagination and creative energy, or to question the enviable confidence needed to create a film which opens July up to such wholesale criticism. The Future has some very beautiful and darkly comic moments which I am reluctant to spoil by reviewing them - so I won’t -- but I will say that, for all its fun and originality, the story never broke my heart in the way it might have done.
Fundamentally, there is a problem with Miranda July playing Sophie. It’s a part that never receives total commitment because the audience is made far too aware of the person performing it. Miranda July as the celebrated, off-beat “performer” keeps surfacing, lending a much more arch quality to the character than feels natural. Furthermore, what characterisation there is often feels like it’s working against the plot. For example: Sophie’s affair with a middle aged single father doesn’t feel propelled by any genuinely felt emotional motive. It feels pretty unnatural, and not in the same sense as the talking cats, talking moons and walking t-shirts that permeate the film.
Having the character of Sophie switch partners for an older, random man for no clear reason would not be a problem per se, but having Sophie played by July makes this unnatural-feeling choice appear like a lack of clarity, and lack of commitment to the part, rather than an artistic decision. More generally, a large part of the audience’s energy and attention is spent on picking the Miranda July moments apart from Sophie moments, which ultimately isn’t conducive to making one feel anything very much for the relationship at the heart of the story.
But to return to gifts – July replied to a question about whether she considered herself a film buff:
Absolutely not. I’m not really any kind of buff. I think you know if you are -- for instance, I have friends who are, my husband definitely is, and it’s through knowing them that I know that I definitely am not. I don’t seek out films or, like, get them for my birthday – to me a film is kind of a rubbish present.
In the same breath she went on to say how she’d just been in the BFI shop buying DVDs:
I was thinking, people will think that, as a film director, I’m buying these for me, when actually I’m buying them for my husband, thinking “Oh, he’ll be really impressed I found this!” That’s not a sexist thing, I just don’t make films out of a film buff’s love for watching films. As for good presents, I’d rather get a sweater. And he [July’s husband] knows that, he’s good at it.
This disinterested view of film as a particular area to obsess over or to collect is striking, as was her subsequent refusal to answer a query about her views on video-work as part of modern art (‘Sorry, I just don’t have any views on that!’) July is in the unusual position of having achieved commercial success with two narrative feature films, but for whom film is genuinely just one of many art forms. She is a sculptor (she created the piece Eleven Heavy Things for the 53rd International Art Exhibition at the Venice Biennale in 2009), she is a published author of short stories, and she continues to create and star in performance pieces for theatre, and in the aforementioned video-art pieces. No creative form is treated to her sole focus, as her ultimate commitment is clearly to producing good art in whichever form feels most appropriate.
In the Q&A she kept stridently referring to herself as ‘an artist, not a film maker’ and, perhaps more pertinently still, ‘definitely not an actress’. For her fans, among whom I was seated, it is clear that she inspires immense admiration for the breadth of her artistic vision. Their questions occasionally bordered on the embarrassingly sycophantic (‘I just wanted to say that, well to me at least, you can do no wrong, and I’m sure there are others who think that…’). It appeared, as the events rolled on, that this immense gratitude the audience felt towards July was in large part due to her being seen to use all her creative ‘gifts’, and to give all of herself in her work.
A friend (not Faith) once described a recurring nightmare to me, in which she was opening Christmas presents and kept looking disappointed, or not saying thank you, by mistake. She would wake up rigid with tension and guilt. The feeling in the auditorium after watching The Future and listening to Miranda July speak felt oddly and unfortunately similar to this sensation, where the pressure to love the gift you are confronted with is tangible. This is unfortunate, as anyone as eminently talented and witty as Miranda July shouldn’t need to be greeted with tense congratulations. The film was good. I enjoyed it. I just would have preferred it had I felt the film’s interests had come before the artist’s, and I had been allowed to forget how great Miranda July is for the sake of having any idea who Sophie was supposed to be.
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The Future Trailer