Why this might not seem so easy
Miranda July is something of a 21st-century renaissance woman. Her artistic credits extend to filmmaker, writer, actor, app developer and performance artist and, unlike many filmmakers who dare swerve outside their lane, she’s been hugely successful in each of these areas.
Getting her start in collaborative DIY performance and film projects in the 1990s, July dropped out of college, moved to Portland and gave herself her own surname as a feminist statement in self-authorship. In 1995, she began Joanie 4 Jackie, a project that allowed her and other female filmmakers to distribute their own films through a chain letter system. Collaboration, performance and feminist statements have remained at the heart of July’s storytelling over her sprawling career.
A glance at July’s filmography might suggest that she has a small filmography (3 features to date), but to really understand July’s sensibilities you need to think more like her – in other words, outside conventional boxes. Short films, performance art projects and a recent foray into narrative Instagram filmmaking are all to be taken as seriously as her feature-length work.
July’s filmmaking style is often labelled ‘whimsical’ or ‘quirky’ – descriptors she’s undoubtedly given because she’s a female filmmaker, and inaccurate ones at that. July wants to drop us in the unfamiliar and let us find our own way back. Her films’ worlds are shared dreams – anxiety-inducing, reassuring and deeply unsettling. Despite becoming a critical darling, July has never made the easier choice, instead choosing to expand into new forms, occasionally faltering but always carving out her own path.
The best place to start – Me and You and Everyone We Know
Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) is the entryway into the world according to Miranda July. It’s her debut feature film in regards to directing, writing and acting in a lead role, and encapsulates the themes that will re-emerge throughout her work: coming of age, intimacy, alienation and the internet. The result was a huge artistic success, winning the special jury prize at Sundance and the Camera d’Or and the Critics’ Week grand prize at Cannes.
The film follows a group of LA-based characters loosely connected yet trapped in their own isolated bubbles. A DIY artist, Christine (played by July), pursues a divorced shoe salesperson (John Hawkes), whose children are starting their own sexual relationships – the youngest via an online sex chat room and the oldest with 2 teenage girls who are experimenting with their own sexualities.
July has always had a savage eye for satirising the artworld. In Me and You and Everyone We Know, Christine goes to an art gallery to submit her work for a digital exhibition only to be told that, ironically, she’ll have to mail it in. “But I’m so close,” Christine whimpers, confused. A fear of getting too close exists in all our relationships, July seems to be saying. Even our artistic ones.
What to watch next
Skip ahead 15 years and we return to July’s emotionally defunct LA in her latest feature Kajillionaire (2020). A deep-voiced and long-haired Evan Rachel Wood plays Old Dolio, the daughter of 2 eccentric scammers (Debra Winger and Richard Jenkins). The family attempt to swindle together a livelihood through petty theft while they wait for “the big one”, an apocalyptic earthquake. Raised by her parents who “didn’t want to treat [her] like a child”, Old Dolio begins to question her inconvenient upbringing when she attends a parenting class in exchange for some cash. There she learns that newborn babies left on their mothers’ abdomens will form a closer bond; it’s a gut-punch when she learns she was put straight into a cot.
Kajillionaire is about simultaneously feeling disconnected and together – part of the group yet completely alone – which is explored through July’s familiar themes of economics, tech and family. When the bubbly Melanie (Gina Rodriguez) disrupts the family dynamics, feelings of jealousy, tenderness and desire are awoken in Old Dolio. Kajillionaire is the perfect film for right now, when strangers touching, a kiss or the word ‘honey’ can wreak emotional devastation.
You would do yourself – and July – a disservice if you kept your exploration of her work to her feature films. July got her start with bedroom filmmaking and has continued making shorts throughout her career. Somebody (2014), part of Miu Miu’s Women’s Tales series (which also includes shorts from the likes of Ava DuVernay, Lynne Ramsay and Naomi Kawase, among many more), is familiar territory for July, exploring characters’ deep desires for intimacy through technology.
Throughout her art, July has always seen the utopian potential in the digital world, whether that’s connecting with a stranger in a chat room or using smart home tech to tell the story of your life. Even in one of her earliest shorts, The Amateurist (1998), July is already deconstructing the idea of a public, online persona as a ‘professional’ woman monitors an ‘amateur’ woman (both played by July) through video surveillance. Long before the birth of Instagram, July was taking a shrewd look at how technology – and how we engage with it – is gendered.
Where not to start
For all the admirers July has gained, she’s also had her critics, most taking aim at her idiosyncratic style, and her second feature, The Future (2011), proved too much for some. Featuring an absurdist, narrating cat (voiced by July) adopted by a couple (July and Hamish Linklater), The Future is about, well, the future of the couple and the existential anxiety induced by the responsibility of caring for another person or, in this case, feline. The Future is July’s most pessimistic film about what happens if you run out of emotional capital, and it’s one to come to after acquiring a taste for July’s filmmaking.
Unsurprisingly for a filmmaker so hooked on tech, July has also taken to Instagram to make a very contemporary sort of short film. A recent narrative performance piece with actor Margaret Qualley involved sharing recordings of FaceTime calls, screenshots and chat conversations to her followers, many baffled about whether these were real or performed. Another Instagram project took place over quarantine, with July asking her followers to send her recordings of themselves dancing, standing by a window and sending sexts, which she then edited into a film. With no pitching, no credits and no budget, July’s move into Instagram filmmaking recalls the urgency and purity of her early DIY shorts. If you want to see the future of filmmaking, have a scroll.
- Kajillionaire will be screening as part of the 64th BFI London Film Festival on 7 October, and on UK general release from 9 October. Miranda July will take part in an LFF Screen Talk on 8 October
Originally published: 5 October 2020