Miranda July is a hot young filmmaker who is getting loads of attention and generating a lot of controversy. The recent New York Times Magazine profile of her lays out the issues as follows: Is she a clichéd, pretentious “dreamy, young hipster,” or a brilliant and fascinating artist “devoted to the only truths worth engaging, about love, sex, and death”?
I just saw her new movie, The Future, and I vote for the latter. It starts out as a very low-key slacker comedy, a combination of the long-take physical comedy of Jacques Tati and the dry but very touching cartoons of Jules Feiffer. (July herself stars as a children’s dance teacher, and her ironic dance turns are directly reminiscent of Feiffer’s famous dancers.) But from affectless meditation on love, loyalty, and relationships, the film halfway through takes a sharp metaphysical turn, and becomes even deeper than the words “love, sex, and death” usually suggest. It’s a film where likeable characters — most especially the dance teacher’s boyfriend (played by Hamish Linklater), and an old man (Joe Putterlik) who handcrafts off-color greeting cards for a living — explore what life is, and what’s beyond it. The film is accessible on a purely linear level, but it sometimes employs the language of dreams; in other words, it’s magical realism where the accent is as much on the “realism” as the “magical.”
The male protagonist says at one point that life today is like the moment in a cartoon when a wrecking ball has hit a building, but the building remains intact — before shivering, as we know it will, into a million pieces. This is pretty good as a snapshot of the American mood in this terrifying summer of 2011, but the point is not limited to our current malaise. As the Bible reminds us, we have here no lasting city; that’s true of good times as well as bad. The film makes clear that this is a beautiful world — July’s dreamlike images convey that in startling fashion — but that it will evanesce, because it is built on a broader reality in which ego and separation are transcended.
Here’s where I think a lot of reviews get the film wrong. The critic for New York magazine calls its mood “defeatist”; the website i09 unleashes the term “nihilistic”; Slant magazine agrees, and also refers to the film’s “misanthropy,” “pessimism,” and “resignation to a hopeless existential despair.” All of which proves to me yet again that the MSM, as a whole, does not “get religion.” To be sure, the movie has no explicitly Christian or Buddhist or atheist elements; we don’t have here a specific brief for any particular organized religion. July is trying to find new language for the reality beneath the surface. To call that nihilism is tantamount to calling Shakespeare a nihilist for his true assertion that “the great globe itself / . . . shall dissolve / And, like this insubstantial pageant faded / Leave not a rack behind.”
I have not seen any of July’s other work, in film or any of the other genres she works in, so I don’t know if this movie is representative; but it’s a very impressive achievement.