Filmmaker, writer, actress, director and visual artist Miranda July is a true renaissance woman. Successfully managing to embrace and produce across the board of art forms, as well as incorporating contemporary technology into her work. To fans July is both a jack and a master within the various creative trades.
She has made two feature films, Me and You and Everyone We Know and The Future, both of which she wrote, directed and acted in. As well as several shorts, including Wholphin featured Are You The Favourite Person of Anyone?. Aside from film she has written two works of fiction and has developed numerous visual art projects, two of which became books.
Of course writing, producing and acting in ones own films isn’t particularly new, Woody Allen has been doing it since the sixties but there does seem to be an especially strong new wave of modern film and series makers who choose to be directly involved at every level of production. As well as July, there is the prominent example of her friend Lena Dunham with her massive HBO hit series Girls, as well as her film Tiny Furniture. Another example is Mindy Kaling with her FOX series The Mindy Project.
One clear benefit of this method of working is of course the scope for creative control it allows, plus the issue of representation where it otherwise might not be. Kaling has commented on this as an Indian-American woman. As has Dunham, who has said her motivation for writing Girls was that she that she struggled to find women similar to herself, and her friends, adequately or realistically reprented on screen. In her recently published memoir Not That Kind of Girl Dunham details how when she couldn’t find actors able/willing enough to create the kind of ‘sexual despair’ she was hoping to portray in her work she choose to do it herself. Even if that meant frequent nudity and the consequent sexist analysis of her ‘imperfect’ body that followed. Would Blake Lively be commended for her bravery at getting naked so often, (and the subtext that question implies), Dunham rightly asked?
What characterizes the work of all three of these women is the personal, sometimes confessional nature of their series and films; self-analysis and self-exposure is key.
Aside from these intimate elements of July’s work what makes her a particularly interesting filmmaker is that she chooses to not only comment on our changing relationship to art, with a particular focus on the role of modern technology in this but her decision to interact with said technology. Most recently she collaborated with high-end fashion label Miu Miu making the short film Somebody in which she imagines a world where one can use a Smartphone app to deliver personal messages via the mouths of other users of the app. Don’t want to dump your boyfriend in person, type your message to an app user in proximity of him and he/she will say the words for you. But more than just imagine this world, of disconnection from known persons and oddly intimate connection between strangers, July has actually created it; the app is available for use in real life. It has the potential to be both hilarious and terrible. Unfortunately the site is currently under construction.
Her 2011 film The Future is in part focused on this theme of technology’s impact on our lives. In it July details the emotional strain felt by a couple that choose to go without the Internet for thirty days. The couple’s hope is that without this distraction they will be better able to focus on their artistic and environmental projects. The film opens with Sophie and Jason facing each other on their sofa both engrossed in the Mac’s on their laps, saying the odd sentence to each other. July plays choreographer Sophie, who mainly works as a receptionist at a dance school, (working in the field of what she loves but not actually doing the thing itself, to paraphrase July in one of her stories from No One Belongs Here More Than You). And Sophie’s aim during her tech detox is to film herself doing a dance a day. However as the months passes the lack of technological distraction as well as the newfound pressure to really commit to each other as a couple, (this pressure coming from their decision to adopt a rescue cat that might live for six plus years), the cracks and ultimately the disconnection between Sophie and boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater) grows.
July however doesn’t simply critique our modern reliance on (or addiction to) the Internet but rather makes her theme the various ways in which we all struggle to and often fail to connect to others, as we would like. Technology just happens to be another medium for this. Like writing a story about a bad relationship, producing a piece of personal performance art, or the act of monk-like self-ignition that broken-hearted character Richard (John Hawkes) takes in July’s first feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know.
But July despite the scope of her work is not beloved by all and tends to provoke a strong response of devotion or loathing. Her work can seem too Californian liberal arts school-y for some, diminutively quirky, as opposed to profound and offbeat. Kooky and cute, (The Future does have a talking cat in it!), as opposed to meaningful and charming. For others, she really does touch on the universal yearnings and struggle for genuine connection between people; she has a great interest in the connections between strangers.
Yet July has not even yet reached very great heights of artistic fame; her oeuvre remaining somewhat on the indie periphery. After her first film she talked of industry pressure to quickly make another, she dismissed this and instead focused on other projects. Whilst making The Future she took a ‘break’ from filming and researched and created the book It Chooses You. And so perhaps it is the very breadth of her work that has kept her on this periphery. This thin spreading of herself across the arts that has meant critics have not been able to adequately pigeonhole and so condense and market July.