[12 January 2010]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
For years, the writer/artist/filmmaker, Miranda July has been creating work that has challenged audiences to think beyond the conventional norms of expression. Both sweeping and observational, her work often tends to highlight the fragile relationship between human pain and pleasure, with a particular emphasis on how the minutia of everyday life can help foster an understanding of collective experience.
In particular here, I am eager to discuss how July’s feature length film debut, the oddly beguiling, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), is able to utilize a series of narrative and aesthetic devices, to subvert traditional capitalist, and patriarchal ideologies. The first of these devices of which I will discuss, relates to the female protagonist, Christine, and her whimsical approach to life.
Take for instance her first rendezvous with the object of her desire, Richard (a troubled shoe salesman). After they meet in a department store, Christine starts following Richard as he walks to his car. During this time, she asks him to imagine that the road before them is an emblem of their life together. As they continue along this street, they begin to envision their future together—they share unadorned hopes, dreams and desires. Throughout this, the pair’s conversation takes on a surreal emotional language that is incredibly childlike. Such is the case that at times; it feels like one is watching two idealistic children sharing an intimate moment. This innocent and unbridled approach to romance in the narrative defies the usual dating tropes – suggesting that patriarchy can exist without the rational expectations that contemporary logisticians are so keen to maintain.
But July’s desire to dissent from the confines of conventional expectation is perhaps better evidenced through her representation of the art world. In Me and You and Everyone We Know, the institutional world of art seems preoccupied with an inexplicable capitalist ideology that lacks any grounding in the artist’s practical processes. For instance, the curator in the film, Nancy Herrington – approaches art with an odd timidity, almost as if she is afraid that she might cross creative boundaries that she herself is unaware even exist. As such, she comes out with absurdist quips like “E-mail wouldn’t exist without AIDS”, and flutters about her gallery space, twiddling her thumbs, whilst listening to her air headed assistant harp on about convoluted artistic trends. Indeed, Nancy is so rife with fear about being exposed as a fraud that when Christine, the struggling video artist tries to hand deliver her work to her, Nancy staunchly refuses to accept it, asking her to send it by post, to the very same location, where Christine has already made the trouble of arriving to herself. It’s almost as if by accepting the tape personally, Nancy felt that she was going to expose her humanity. For Nancy, this is an impossible prospect because in her mind, high-flying collectors and curators are supposed to be impervious, if not completely sealed off from public access.
Ironically, when July exposes the deceptive mask of creative snobbery, she also achieves the dual feat of making ‘art’, and indeed ‘art practice’ accessible. To the audience, July’s character, Christine may be an Artist, but she is first and foremost, a single woman, with idealistic goals – searching for love and hope, in perhaps all of the wrong places. Contrary to the elitist perception that artists are all wealthy sons of noblemen, who attend specialist arts colleges, July paints a picture of the artist who exists within the confines of the mundane and everyday. Our protagonist, Christine weaves her way around town, working on art subjects, before changing the plates on her car, which also doubles up as a transportation vehicle for elderly people. As such, the façade is unmasked. As well, Christine’s choice to fall in love with a shoe salesman is also an oppositional force to capitalist ideology.
Shouldn’t an up and coming artist be seeking out businessmen, curators, or academics, i.e. men who can engage mentally on her level? Well, no. July is not content with these limiting labels, which suggest that interests such as fine art, are only worth the erudite brow of the aristocracy. Instead, she tells the story of a couple that are drawn together by an unfettered, and largely inexplicable connection – one that has more to do with life experience, as opposed to the professional credentials that have come to weigh so heavily on contemporary society.
Just as intriguing, is the manner in which July unravels the creative process. Through Christine’s daily life, we grow to understand the nuances that drive her creative process. Moments of inspiration are interspersed with instances of pragmatic heartbreak (re: the initial gallery rejection) – while other illuminating events help the viewer comprehend the depth of Christine’s character. In one of the initial scenes for example, we watch Christine as she pines over the life of a helpless goldfish that is about to reach its inevitable demise. It is in these scenes that the audience begins to understand the issues and subjects that fuel Christine’s work. Above all, she is interested in ‘life’, and the plethora of conflicting feelings that accompany the experience of ‘living’. We follow Christine as she tries to ‘feel’ something with another person, and the journey that sees her documenting fragile lives, and love affairs. As such, July’s preoccupation with emotionalism, and human connections supersedes her desire for fame, or commercial success, and so, her film in and off itself subverts the more material trappings intrinsic of capitalist ideology.
The next thread of subversion is a more delicate narrative detail that rarely simmers to the surface. Particularly, it is how Richard’s two children are dealt with throughout the duration of the film. Richard (the shoe salesman) is White and his wife (who he is currently in the midst of a divorce with), is Black. Their children are biracial, and live in an almost completely Caucasian suburban community. Yet, despite this, July never makes an issue out of the protagonist’s racial identity. A more common patriarchal retelling would probably have the couple embroiled in dense class, social, or ethnic divisions i.e. Monster’s Ball (2001). In other wards, there is the assumption that there will be dissenting family members, friends or relatives who are unhappy about the couple’s interracial status. Indeed, a 2006 survey by Cathy Keen of the University of Florida revealed that the majority of biracial couples on screen were portrayed negatively – that is, if they were even show on screen at all.
But here, July summons a casual multiculturalism that demands acceptance. Elsewhere, the filmmaker wrestles with other transgressive matters such as, child sexuality, and even a suggestion of pedophilia. In a mainstream release, such details would be steeped in melodrama – with the intent to shock, or stir audiences. Yet here, we are left feeling empathy for the film’s characters. Take for instance, the portrayal of Andrew (Brad William Henke), a fellow shop worker, who soon finds that two sexually curious teenage girls are trying to seduce him. Andrew’s reaction, which is to play along with the girls, in order to momentarily satisfy his ego, would be greeted with audience scowls in another picture. But here, we understand the root of Andrew’s isolation. He is overweight, lonely, and he feels almost ‘touched’ by the fact that these burgeoning girls have taken a liking to him. Of course, this isn’t to suggest that Andrew was ever going to seriously act upon his impulse – but the subversive element is clear. Despite what the limiting bounds of patriarchy tell us, i.e. that we can only ‘feel’ or be ‘aroused’ by our close relatives (i.e. husbands and wives), who are of the same age, class, racial background…human beings more often than not, are forced to find their meaningful sense of ‘validation’ elsewhere.
For instance, a married man or woman may find that their partner fails to ignite his/her ego, and may flirt with strangers and friends (ones who may be more or less attractive than him/her) – without the real desire to ever actually act upon these urges. But, the fact remains—all human beings need to feel validated, and the shallow bounds of organized family tradition do not allow scope for this, in light of the emotional failure of human beings.
Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know in a sense is about fulfilling that longing. Each and every one of the characters in the narrative is hell bent on finding the human connection that will help free them from the burden of living alone – each searching for the thing that will help them see the ‘color’ in the banal, the mundane and the everyday. Unfortunately, too often, the peculiarities of how we engage with others around us are restrained by the bounds of conventional patriarchy, and capitalist culture. July’s film isn’t so much about dismissing these rules, but about finding one’s own niche, and hopefully, the courage to live life by one’s own set of values.