Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Unlike Me or You or Anyone We Know

It’s difficult to truly love something and be deeply suspicious about it simultaneously (I’ve tried on many occasions), but I came pretty close when I watched Me and You and Everyone We Know. Released earlier this year, it’s the debut full-length film by a performance artist named Miranda July. On balance, it won me over.

The phrase “performance artist” often appears on my wish list a few notches below “ornery dentist.” I can be a bit of a traditionalist, and the small sample of performance art and conceptual art that I’ve come across often strikes me as half-baked and fatuous. Not always; I recently saw a piece by Tony Oursler, for example, that I loved, and it consisted of a heavily made-up face, distorted and projected onto a rock-like formation, muttering nonsense and occasionally shouting “Boom!” (You can see it here – it’s the orange-hued beauty at the upper right of the page.) In short, I’m definitely not the guy who says “A kindergartener could do that” when I see a short film of someone riding an exercise bike and boiling pasta to the strains of Wagner’s Ring Cycle (partly because I disapprove of kindergarteners boiling anything; it’s dangerous), but neither am I always rolling my eyes at that guy.

This is only tangentially relevant, anyway, because Me and You... isn’t just a filmed piece of performance art, despite July’s background. In the most liberal sense, it’s a traditional fictional story. July has striking, expressive eyes, and generally looks, to me, like a blend of Cate Blanchett, Maggie Gyllenhaal, and a third person I don’t know because whoever it is is too quirky and klutzy to have a movie career. She has screen presence to burn, and she needs it to pull off most of what she asks us to accept. In this interview, she has this to say:
This movie was inspired by the longing I carried around as a child, longing for the future, for someone to find me, for magic to descend upon my life and transform everything. It was also informed by how this longing progressed as I became an adult, slightly more fearful, more contorted, but no less fantastically hopeful.
If that sounds flaky, self-conscious, naive, heartfelt, strangely persuasive, and kind of great, well, the movie feels the same way. (If it only sounds flaky, self-conscious, and naive, you need to strenuously avoid this movie, or wear a haz mat suit when watching it.) When July’s character, Christine, falls in love with Richard (John Hawkes), a shoe salesman in a department store, she doesn’t waste any time letting him know about her affection in a quirky, direct, borderline-inappropriate fashion. (Think Jordan, the girl in Real Genius who flirts with Mitch while he's standing at a urinal, only grown up, slightly more in control and definitely more appealing.) When Richard leaves work one day, she runs to catch up to him, and then suggestively narrates their walk to their respective cars -- narrates to him, not in voice-over -- as a metaphor for a relationship (“Tyrone (Street) is, like, when we die of old age.” “And this is, like, our whole life together, this block.”) If such a scene sounds like death, it’s actually charming in July’s hands. (Hawkes is terrific throughout, too.)

Richard has two young sons, Robby and Peter, from a marriage that’s falling apart. They’re joined by a couple of other key child characters, though July’s tone, which A.O. Scott properly described as “guileless,” doesn't blur the line between children and adults as much as it denies the line ever existed. Robby, in particular, has a couple of moments that are worth the price of admission, but giving them away would be cruel. (Also, given that he’s about six years old and the funniest of those moments arrive while he’s in an adult chat room online, the delicacy of your sensibilities might play some part in how much you’re willing to find them amusing. I thought they were handled well myself.)

The movie's preoccupation with how misfits learn to love each other (or not) and the insistent oddity of its soundtrack reminded me of Punch-Drunk Love, but whereas that movie’s weirdness (which I enjoyed) felt very consciously constructed (especially since its director had already released the relatively more conventional Boogie Nights and Magnolia), it seems quite possible that Miranda July is as bat-shit crazy as this movie suggests.

That’s the good news, because the neurotic nuttiness on display is pretty inspired (starting with Richard lighting his hand on fire during the opening credits; long story). The movie as a whole, though, is a real tightrope act, with the preciousness of July’s conceits swaying between daydream-sweet unlikelihood and flat-out ludicrousness. She takes a heavy-handed view of modernity, depicting all her characters as so accustomed to suburban isolation and technology’s mediation that real-life concerns, from sex to careerism to earnest love, become almost impossibly awkward transactions when conducted face to face. The treatment of this, too, can be alternately trenchant and cringe-inducing.

There are some really bad scenes; bad less for their implausibility than for the fact that reaching whatever deeper truth they might contain doesn't seem worth the effort of forgiving that implausibility. These mostly involve secondary characters, particularly a co-worker of Richard’s and two teenage girls whom he’s delicately and half-heartedly trying to sexually harass. But there are also a handful of moments that are fall-down funny. Two of them I had to rewind -- or whatever the equivalent is on a DVD; redigitize? (One of them is fleeting but brilliant: Christine lies on her bed, staring at the lifeless cell phone next to her, hoping for Richard to call. Slowly dropping her head towards the phone, as if to kiss it, she very sweetly says, as if to Richard, “We have a whole life to live together,” and then, seamlessly dropping her voice to a frustrated growl, “you fucker!”)

Like a lot of conceptual art, I think, the movie asks to be judged less for a larger coherency than for smaller sui generis moments that might occur. And considered that way, it’s an unqualified success. At the very least, it’s a testament to the sheer strangeness and intermittent beauty –- both planned and accidental -– that you get when you leave an idiosyncratic vision unchecked, and it makes even the edgiest independent movie look formulaic and committee-driven by comparison.

It has a good after-taste, too. Since I watched it, I find myself remembering its strengths more vividly than its weaknesses, and my fondness for it has me investigating the rest of July’s career. I came across her blog. It contains snippets like the one below, which documents her disappointment at the packaging of the DVD. In its invoking an imaginary conversation, and in the playfulness that sugarcoats its control-freak core, this passage is further suggestion that the deliriousness of the movie isn’t all an act:
Luckily the folks at IFC and Sony have agreed to let me re-design the cover for the next batch of DVDs. ... I am very relieved because I lost many hours of sleep over the whole thing, especially the tag-line on the back cover: The person you've been waiting to find is waiting to be found. I would lay in bed at night wondering who had come up with this line and how it had ended up on something that was mine. No offense to the person at Sony who thought it up, there is nothing bad about it in and of itself. But for me it is like wearing someone else's hair on my head. Oh Sony Tag-line Writer, you probably have no idea how much I would have loved to talk to you and your friend in graphic design. If you two are reading this now then please contact me through I promise we won't talk about the tag-line or the cover design, because that's water under the bridge, but maybe we can talk about our hopes and dreams for an industry where great care is given to every step of the process.

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