Ethnographies of the Hipster: Miranda July’s ‘The Future’ and ‘It Chooses You’

Miranda July has a reputation for being either adored or mocked depending upon one’s individual tolerance for the hipsterati. She is very much the kind of bohemian who is parodied on IFC’s Portlandia. And of course, she starred in a Portlandia sketch and directed videos for Sleater-Kinney (Carrie Brownstein’s band). Back in the ’90s, she lived in Portland (post Berkeley), both cities of formidable cool.

July is an acclaimed filmmaker, performance artist and writer, most of her work has been well-received by respected establishments (such as museums and The New Yorker). Her debut feature film, 2005’s Me and You and Everyone We Know, was beloved at Sundance and Cannes, and esteemed by Roger Ebert. This affection shows how the film was able to bridge the taste gap between the independent and mainstream film markets.

Even so, July falls victim to that term often tossed onto indie filmmakers and cultural artifacts that are to the aft of the mainstream, but not offensive to it: “quirky”. While those labeled “quirky” are given a kind of “free pass” to exhibit peculiarity with gusto, they are nonetheless dismissed, and the term is usually attached to the work and demeanor of women.

July’s persona plays into this trap. She is thin, white, and attractive, usually seen wearing something that seems both designed and random, expensive and thrift shoppish, at once. As Sophie in The Future, July remarks that she wishes she were just a “notch” prettier. I suspect that this quality of being not too beautiful, but beautiful enough, has been a part of that “free pass” mentioned earlier. July also speaks in an affectedly casual and girlish voice — one that masks its high performance as such.

July’s latest book It Chooses You (2012) is a remarkable companion to her second feature film, The Future (2011). Though written after the film’s completion, It Chooses You dramatizes the process of writing the screenplay and the choices and decisions of her creative process. The book also records July’s procrastination and anxiety during the writing — or non-writing. As a distraction, she interviews a series of people selling odd and random items through the PennySaver classifieds, a familiar, but antiquated mail supplement. July ends up meeting with anyone who will agree to an interview about their “hopes and fears” and other haphazard inquiries.

July pays the subjects $50 dollars and records and transcribes their conversations. She brings along Brigitte Sire, her own wedding photographer who captures images of the people (and the objects for sale) in their natural habitats. July also brings along her assistant, Alfred –“there to protect [them] from rape.”

It Chooses You appears to be a sympathetic study of people in the greater L.A. area who sell things through the PennySaver — or in other words, people who do not own or use a computer. July comes across all manner of eccentric characters, one of whom ends up playing (as versions of himself) two key supporting roles in The Future. These interviews allow July to confront a range of non-internet users of variant class status (though predominantly poor). She also encounters folks of diverse age, race and gender (including a person in the midst of a gender transformation). Despite the varied “multi” aspect of her subject’s socio-cultural stats, what emerges is not so much a study of them, but a presentation about July’s peculiar privilege, as representative of those who are cool, who can recognize cool, and who can act as its arbiter and enthusiast.

“Cool” is a status and category to which the interviewees are particularly oblivious. July’s position, from her vantage of whiteness, allows a particular portrait of this kind of artist, the contemporary observer, performer, and ironist. Perhaps accidentally,It Chooses You provides a sketch of the deluxe hipster, one who hardly knows what to make of the poor, the underprivileged, the recently incarcerated, and others who are just plain weird, as opposed to quirky.

It Chooses You as a companion project to The Future is so original that I refuse to treat either work dismissively, despite the fact that the film is narrated by a cat (voiced by July) that is made visual by some Jim Henson-y feline legs, one of which is bandaged. Of course, It Chooses You notes the particular cat tragedy that merits this insertion in the film. (And also mentions that many a friend had suggested removing the sequence). The two texts together make a stunning coupling, each art form made richer by the other. It is rare to have this kind of inside look into the writing and filming of a movie. Rather than being a mere diary or descriptive account, July shows the way that a tangent, a distraction, the PennySaver people, impact her process. I saw The Future before I knew about It Chooses You (the book title is also a line in the film), but I doubt anyone could read the book without feeling a giant urge to see the movie.

The Future, on its own, is highly watchable, holding our attention as we follow the drab, yet familiar existence of a couple of urban bohemians. When we first meet Sophie (played by July), she cannot muster the ambition to leave the couch and her laptop to fetch a glass of water. She rests, legs entwined, with Jason (Hamish Linklater) her boyfriend, perhaps husband, although their living space is so laid-back, one can hardly imagine these two mustering the energy for a wedding — or indeed, a wedding registry.

They both share an identical mop of brunette curls and seem, at times, male and female versions of the same disaffected hipster—Generation Xers who face their inevitable disappearing youth. The couple have agreed to adopt an ailing cat, believing it will die within six months, a fact that helps them cope with the temporary responsibility.

When the vet explains that with love and affection the cat could hang on for up to five years, the two descend into an existential tailspin. They imagine their life as already “over” in five years, when they turn 40, because, “forty is basically fifty and at fifty the rest is just loose change… like not quite enough to get anything that you really want.”

In response, they decide to use their last month before the cat’s hospital release to embark on vague, but vital journeys toward self-discovery. Sophie promises to post a daily video of herself dancing onto the internet. Jason becomes a tree salesman (an eco-activist-capitalist), but also finds fascination with the PennySaver . He meets the elderly Joe (one of July’s real life interviewees), and notices startling parallels between his own life and the old man’s.

Jason and Sophie stagnate in different ways, unable to find fulfillment in their newly acquired month of freedom. If their 20s and half of their 30s have been marked by a kind of cultivated procrastination, the film’s trajectory insists that they now confront “the future”.

In It Chooses You, July explains that she found the film’s title by looking up “the most commonly used nouns.” Number 320 is “future”, while number 1 is “time”. “Time’s” predominance made July “feel less alone”, but it also indicates that the practice of procrastination might be culturally inherent, embroidered upon the English language, (and things that are googleable). Time is at the forefront, but the future always exists at a far distance.

Many films play with the idea of time, and films about childhood or history usually obsess over nostalgia, lost time. Works of science fiction, about time travel or other temporal manipulations, focus on time in alternate ways and resist seeing time as consecutive, conventional, or ongoing. The Future dabbles in tenants of the science fiction genre when Jason exhibits the ability to stop time. Sophie (and time) move on without Jason. Jason also talks to the moon, and in an arresting visual sequence, restarts time on the coastal shore. We watch as the waves struggle to start up again.

Sophie’s time-space reality appears conventional, except for some bizarre incidences after she instigates an affair with a staid, but successful father named Marshall (David Warshofsky) who offers respite and financial support. She moves in to his Tarzana home, a smallish “McMansion” decorated with taste and dullness. Their bed boasts 1,000 thread count sheets, but the mandatory sex, (we only witness the awkward before and after), seems brutish and likely dreary.

Marshall has a young daughter, Gabriella (Isabella Acres), who like Sophie, is filled with anxiety, as if in this world, the female gender is automatically angst-ridden and misunderstood. Without explanation, Gabriella digs a hole in the backyard and buries herself in it — up to the neck.

Things get stranger when Sophie’s security blanket-style T-shirt (July has something similar in real life), literally follows her to Marshall’s house after she leaves Jason. The thing crawls, in a mastery of puppeteering, over to Tarzana, up the walkway, into the house until she can no longer ignore it. Sophie crawls into the T-shirt thing and becomes an alien figure, performing a bizarre dance in which her body shifts into fantastic, misshapen forms. She resembles something cellular splitting, then stretches tall, but seems faceless with missing limbs. In the dance, Sophie’s body becomes monstrous, morphing into new identities, and reveling in grotesquerie.

Marshall’s gaze, when he sees her, may stand in for the larger audience, baffled and unsure what to make of it.

While Jason is able to transcend the limitations of his life, by stopping time, conversing with the moon, and finding communion with his unlikely PennySaver friend Joe, Sophie remains in a state of alienation. Though Jason and Sophie appear as twin-like, possibly soul-mates, The Future assures the chasm between the potentials for women and men of this particular demographic and its accompanying crisis.

What was that crisis again? Oh yeah, taking responsibility for a cat, facing the “end” of one’s life at 40 or 50 and, I suppose, finding some sort of meaning, however minimal, in life. Jason realizes that he loves Earth, even though selling trees won’t solve all environmental problems.

And Sophie discovers that life with Marshall is boring and that she prefers Jason. She comes to this conclusion after Marshall sings her a cliché-ridden love song that he wrote himself. Though he seems to have genuine affection for Sophie he’s simply just not cool. At all. It’s embarrassing.

July’s goals, as described in It Chooses You,are much larger than the conclusions for her two characters suggest. For her, the film’s theme is something about “faith.” She writes, “Sophie was all my doubts and the nightmare of who I would be if I succumbed to them… Jason could be the curiosity and faith that repel that fear.” July arrives at these themes through examinations and uses — of other people. July writes, “it occurred to me that everyone’s story matters to themselves,” which is how she explains the PennySaver interviewees willingness to go on and on to her. She consciously tries not to fetishize the strange penny savers: “It would require constant vigilance to not replace each person with my own fictional version of them”.

July also expresses the desire to override the gaps between disparate types of people; gaps that are “lyrical in scale”, such as the one between her teenage self and her imprisoned pen pal, documented in her first play, The Lifers. The gaps between the penny savers and the adult July seem less immense, but prove just as insurmountable. Nevertheless, she wants to be close: “Bridging [the gap] seemed like one of the few things I could do that might be holy or transcendent. I’ve been trying for so long now, for decades, to lift the lid a little bit, to see under the edge of life and somehow catch it in the act”.

When July comes across one seller’s grandson, she discovers they are both 39, Gen-Xers. They commiserate, July perhaps insincerely, about the tragedy of Michael Jackson’s death. “Right before his big tour,” July responds to the man’s heartbreak. The man wears a hearing aid, delivers mannequins for a living, and in fact has a mannequin replica of his favorite soap star up in his bedroom. Even if he weren’t living with his grandmother and collecting mannequins, he would still never be someone July would hang with. July admits after leaving him: “It suddenly seemed obvious to me that the whole world, and especially Los Angeles, was designed to protect me from these people I was meeting”.

July also realizes that her fame, however “indie”, does not attend her when she meets the PennySaver clan. “They aren’t googlers,” she writes. At one point, when she meets Domingo, through his sister selling Care Bears, she realizes the exacting nature of her own privilege. Domingo admits to troubles with reading comprehension and keeps manila envelopes labeled “babies”, “pretty teen blonde”, and “LAPD cars,” which Sire carefully photographs. He collects these images in envelopes and then tapes them to his wall so he can imagine a better life. July writes, “Domingo was not the poorest. Not the saddest, not the most hopeless, but the person whom I felt most creepily privileged around.” She describes driving home in her Prius, realizing that she is creepy and deciding that’s okay, as long as that’s not the only thing she notices.

Yet July never fully transcends this position, though she very much wants to. It Chooses You becomes especially problematic when we learn the fate of Joe Putterlik, the penny saver who stars in The Future. He is in the late stages of cancer during production and dies shortly after filming ends. July visits his widow afterward, interviewing and recording her. After Joe’s widow dies, months later, July goes through a dumpster trying to salvage some odd, perhaps quirky, objects from the couple’s life.

I often wondered what Domingo, or the many other profiled penny savers, two who are teenagers, would think if they read It Chooses You. In one case, a woman who is especially excited about July’s visit, prepares a fruit salad, “the kind with marshmallows; they’d melted into the juice, turning it milky”. July and her entourage take three bowls to go, clearly not wanting to stay and dine with the woman. They dump them at the first gas station, guiltily.

It Chooses You shows July’s interest in the stories of the tragically weird, but her latest twinned texts ultimately reveal the moral and artistic ethnographies of urban hipster Gen-Xers, if she is at the helm. Her sentimental urge to treat her subjects with compassion and raise up their raw, true living, turn it into art, or offer it as a bridge, does not work as such.

No artist is required to speak from a platform that represents their demographic, but I wish pretty white women with the privilege of having a platform, would be more aware of both. Forget quirky. Do the T-shirt dance more, again. Refuse to be darling, or worse, ironic.

In It Chooses You July explains the raison d’etre for the cat who narrates The Future, a stray hit by a car in real life: “all this carelessness had culminated in the death of a stranger”. She explains about the resulting film character, “his voice might be the distressing, ridiculous, problematic soul of what I was trying to make.” I could not help thinking about the other strangers, humans, truly stranger than the cat, who populate It Chooses You (and also the one who dies).

It Chooses You demonstrates how a dead cat transforms into an intellectual idea. That’s what happens to the people there, too.