Finding happiness with Miranda July

Aug. 11, 2011, 3:00 a.m.
Finding happiness with Miranda July
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Miranda July is doodling. She has been sitting in a small conference room at the Four Seasons all day. In front of her is a neat hotel notepad. In the corner of the room, away from the table, is a platter of sugar-dusted brownies and oatmeal cookies, a bowl of shiny fruits and an iced champagne bowl filled with Perrier and San Pellegrino. The treats appear untouched. On the round table before her are wine glasses and a sweating pitcher of ice water. Miranda’s glass is turned down, her side of the table untouched by crumbs. She is as ill adapted to this room as to a cardboard set, and the only piece of the space she’s disturbed is the first page of the notepad before her. Even there, her mark is minor, her scribbles small and few.

July is here to promote her second film, “The Future,” released Aug. 19. In her latest, we meet an identically coiffed and restless couple, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater). The film, while elevating the sense of whimsy inherent in July’s previous work, is also darker than her first film.

“I wanted to kind of move into sadness or find a way to do that, because…well, it was sort of a dark time, I was ending a relationship, there was a lot of change in my life,” July explained.

“The Future” is a sharp and honest look at happiness – what it means to be happy when, at age 30-something, you find yourself lacking those accomplishments you’d thought would come in time. An earlier title for the film was simply “Satisfaction.”

Happiness is something July is learning in her own life. Recently married to “Beginners” director Mike Mills, July seems to be in a much better place than the “dark time” that “The Future” was born of years ago.

“When the thing I’m writing or making is good, there’s nothing that quite beats the high of that, for better or worse,” she said. “But I think more and more I’m figuring out how to be happy not working.”

But July is insistent that though the themes of the film are aligned with themes she’s pondered and learning, her work – aside from one short story – has never been autobiographical. This is, admittedly, hard to believe. July creates and plays her protagonists, who are often artists of a sort. Nevertheless, July insists, time and again, that she is not her characters.

“I’ve never written autobiography, it just doesn’t seem to work” she said. Yet it’s impossible to argue that the themes of any artist’s work are entirely divorced from their reality.

July added, “but at the same time, issues of…worrying about time, getting paralyzed, thinking about having children and fleeing your life, these are all things in the abstract I’ve thought about. There’s just nothing in the movie that happened in real life.”

Despite this insistence, July’s film does draw some eerie real-life parallels. Linklater looks strikingly like her ex-boyfriend. There is a moment of magical realism in “The Future” when, as Sophie leaves her boyfriend and apartment behind, her security blanket Shirty moves of its own volition and follows her down the street.

“I have a yellow shirt…like [Sophie’s]. Mine’s called Nighty,” she said. “My thinking was, okay, that shirt…predates everything. Every boyfriend, my whole career, everything. Like, that is so essentially me that if I were ever to…forsake myself and try to flee my soul, my creativity, my life, everything that identifies me, I think my shirt might come crawling after me?”

July looked at us, imploring.

“Or that would be a good symbol of how…how you can’t do that, you can’t actually divorce from your essential self,” she continued. “I used it in that way…to sort of externalize the way you haunt yourself.”

Finding happiness with Miranda July
Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

July is a tiny woman, as small and thin as a child, with big, ocean-blue eyes. In the past decade, she has dabbled in every medium, from her collection of heartbreaking short stories, “No One Belongs Here More Than You,” to her art exhibit, “The Hallway,” to her Web project, “Learning to Love You More.”

But right now, she is doodling. I’ve just asked her what the most critical quality for an artist working today would be. Her eyes widen for a moment, threatening to take over her face.

“That’s going to require the paper,” she said, her hand idly reaching for the pen.

When prompted on the slightly averse take of “The Future” on the World Wide Web (the two main characters shut off the Internet for 30 days in order to free themselves to their goals), July backpedals a bit.

“There will always be people changing what is valuable, but I don’t think the Web is important, I think you could be making paintings and be a young and important artist now, just as long as it’s coming from a place of mystery.”

There are a lot of messages in Miranda July’s work. Most are calls to action: to seize, to love, to do. When asked about the “message” she’d like to write on every white board in America, she passes through her words like a mini-flipbook.

“When I used to perform live, I would often find myself saying, ‘This is really happening,’’’ she said.

July’s voice catches a kind of excitement here. Her eyes dash from mine to the other reporter’s and back.

“I think there’s so much of a story or a movie playing in our heads all of the time that if the sentence could snap me and other people out of that for just a second of like whoa, that’s crazy, yeah,” she added. “The present.”


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