On Infinity in Miranda July's 'Me and You and Everyone We Know'
In a strange kind of way, Miranda July's Me and You and Everyone We Know is about two competing notions of "forever" in relation to love.
Me and You and Everyone We Know
28 April 2020Other
"I'll love you forever." You've probably said it. You may have even meant it. On the one hand, of course, loving someone forever in the quotidian sense of the word (if there is a quotidian sense of the word "forever") is impossible. In that sense, it is somewhat akin to saying "I'll be playing basketball forever," which, in practical terms, really means "I'll be playing basketball for as long as my physical health and stamina hold out." Saying "I'll be playing basketball forever" is more of a marker for just how important basketball is to you at this moment in time—"forever" is a kind of superlative: "basketball is one of the best things in my life, for now at least."
Perhaps when one says "I'll love you forever" they have something similar at stake (notice I don't write "in mind"—we may lie to ourselves in such moments). It becomes the equivalent of saying "I will love you as long as I continue to feel this way." This makes the statement something of a tautology insofar as love is defined by "feeling this way" and so by definition love persists coincident to that feeling.
On the other hand, we seem to have something else in mind when we say "I'll love you forever." If the quotidian notion of forever entails an impossibility for human life insofar as "forever" far transcends our relatively meager amount of time in existence, perhaps the "forever" in "I'll love you forever" works otherwise. Perhaps I don't mean that I will exist forever as the entity that loves you in this way (which, of course, I won't). Perhaps another notion of "forever" is at stake here. I seem to be saying that this love has a kind of permanence, a kind of wholeness that doesn't require my continual enactment of it (as a living being) for it to perpetuate. If the quotidian notion of love is a line that, owing to our mortality, has a beginning and an end, then this notion of "love forever" bends into a kind of circular stability.
In a strange kind of way, Miranda July's quietly charming feature film, Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005), is about these two competing notions of "forever" in relation to love and the desire for the nearness of another. The film traces the mostly stilted interactions among an array of characters who relate to each other through employment, proximity of residence, winsome affection, and happenstance. Christine (Miranda July) is an aspiring video artist and operates a cab service for senior citizens. She meets and fall improbably in love with shoe salesman Richard (John Hawkes) who has recently separated from his wife (JoNell Kennedy), with whom he now shares custody of his two sons Peter (Miles Thompson) and Robby (Brandon Ratcliff).
Richard has moved into a relatively low-rent neighborhood near his coworker Andrew (Brad William Henke) whose teasing flirtation with two underage girls, Heather (Natasha Slatyon) and Rebecca (Najarra Townsend), quickly escalates, traversing dangerous territory. Peter befriends an awkward neighborhood girl, Sylvie (Carlie Westerman) who can't be more than eight- or nine-years-old and yet has already amassed a hope chest of household items bought with her own money that she considers her dowry and intends for her future husband and daughter. Meanwhile, in an act of randomly adorable perversity, six-year-old Robby unwittingly carries on a torrid exchange of messages via a dating app with Nancy Herrington (Tracy Wright), the curator of a contemporary art museum with whom Christine attempts to curry favor, hoping to have her work shown there.
Each character, aside perhaps from the preternaturally centered Robby, careens from happenstance to happenstance. Each—again, aside from Robby, to whom we will return—is driven to push forward without a visible goal. They often project improbable and idealized goals, inappropriate to their age or situation. Sylvie no longer inhabits her own life; she lives for and within a future that may never come to be. She longs to appear older than she is; she acts older than she is, to the dismay of her mother and the bored clerks presiding over a department store sale.
Nancy seems established in the art world in her role as curator; indeed, she acts as a gatekeeper, holding aspirants such as Christine at bay and making sternly eccentric proclamations concerning the centrality of suffering to the digital age ("there would be no email without AIDS")—proclamations at once pretentious and revealing, supercilious and vulnerable. And yet, the security of her position belies a haunted loneliness and suffuses her, sending her to seek companionship on the internet and coming closest to finding it in the coprophilic musings of a six-year-old boy.
Equally often the characters meander in search of some grounding foundation, something that will give their lives meaning. Peter seeks a friend in his awkward teenage angst turned resentful, likely in response to the collapse of his parents' marriage. Richard is impatient to start living again (as he puts it), seeking some moment of magic (even if it means lighting his own hand ablaze), and then becoming immediately skeptical of romantic possibility during his meet-cute interactions with Christine. Christine wants to belong—to the art world, to Richard, to something—and is caught in that in-betweenness of feeling as though she has met her calling in art and yet finding no acceptance there, an in-betweenness that is recapitulated in her stilted encounters with Richard.
In a schematic sense, we might envision these characters occupying various trajectories, various lines, hurtling toward an unforeseen that the characters both fear and desire. They want something else. But it isn't as though they don't care what that is. They don't desire an alternative regardless of what it is. They just don't want to continue to inhabit the space they inhabit and the straight line seems like the best way (the "shortest path") out of that situation. They want better but they are unsure not only how to get it but even what better would or should look like. So, they rush ahead perversely into unreachable unknown, longing for a seemingly unattainable wholeness, like lines longing to bend into circles.
Imagine a straight line, unbounded on both ends (which, of course, means there are no ends). It stretches from an undefined—indeed undefinable—point and disappears into the infinite distance. Indeed, this image is what many of us think of when we consider infinity. It is not, however, the only kind of infinity. Let that go for now. From a past immemorial to a future beyond reach: notice how easily our image of the infinite line becomes an image of infinite time. The line (provided it is a straight line) is fully determined. It will stretch in those two directions (the past and the future, backwards and forwards) toward determined but constantly deferred goals.
Notice how the concept of the infinite line stretches our notion of space. Our concept of space is also infinite (it would have to be to accommodate an infinite line) but when we deal with space (whether practically, or imaginatively, or in most cases even conceptually) we think of it as being the background to location. We find a thing located in space. But the infinite line challenges that conception. From somewhere in the infinite expanse of the middle of that line, provided it is infinite, we are no closer to one end than the other because, by definition, there are no ends, and thus, by definition, the line betrays the very notion of location. The ends can't be located because the line goes on forever.
This is what we, following thinkers such as GWF Hegel, will call a bad infinity. This infinity isn't the true infinity for Hegel because it is predicated on the simple negation of the bounded line. We can't conceptualize the totality of the infinite line, we just accept its fatalistic determinism, its insistence in going on forever, arriving literally nowhere, insisting on a place that is not a location.
Now consider the circle. I don't have to write "bounded circle", because the circle is, by definition bounded. It is, indeed, self-binding; it rounds about upon itself to create a whole. Unlike the unbounded line, the circle is a clear, conceivable totality, not the mere negation of wholeness. But like the unbounded line, the circle has no beginning and no end. Rather, the circle obeys the logic of give and take. Breathing is circular—flowing in and flowing out; tides are circular—ebb and flow, flux and reflux. This is a different type of infinity, the bounded infinity of recirculation, a good infinity. There is no one goal here but rather the continuation of the flow. The circle is not static but it is not condemned to wayward, empty becoming either. The circle's repletion counteracts the line's nihilism.
Notice that the circle posits a different conception of time. As opposed to the endless next thing of the line, the circle offers endurance and sustenance. Circular time is the time of the seasons, of change rounded out into benign, meaning-providing repetition, the signifying wholeness of the eternal recurrence. Circular time is the time of habituation: not empty habits that we would do well to repudiate, but the habituation that accrues to establish what we are, how we are with ourselves, with our world, and with others in that world. Time here flows into itself—static and moving at once. It is its own goal; it needn't go anywhere and yet it keeps going. The repletion of the circle is the better these characters seek, without any of them putting it in quite this manner. They long for the circle and fear they are doomed to the line.
An illustration of the perilous nature of the line comes early in the film. Christine is driving one of her elderly clients when they notice that a man has unwittingly left a newly purchased goldfish in a plastic bag of water precariously perched on the roof of his truck. The fish, oblivious by nature, and the man and his daughter (presumably the recipient of this new pet) remain blithely unaware of their predicament. It was a mere oversight, not intentional cruelty; but the danger persists all the same. Christine and her client drive alongside the truck, unsure of what to do. When Christine suggests that they somehow inform the man of the situation, the client insists that doing so would be fatal to the fish. If they speed up, the fish will fly backwards; stop and the fish is catapulted forward. The best thing for the fish, the client offers, is if the truck could continue in the same direction and at the same speed "forever".
This dream of an ever-continuing line of flight for the fish wouldn't solve the fish's problem (even if it were realizable). All it would do is to extend the point of precariousness. To leave the fish forever in danger is deemed the only way to prevent utter disaster. The line doesn't redeem the fish, it simply prolongs the discomfort and defers the moment of absolute collapse—which, in the end, comes nonetheless. The line is an empty promise for mortal beings because we don't go on forever—neither in comfort nor in discomfort. Eventually, the fish will fall to its doom. The client reassures Christine that at least they can be there to commemorate its passing, to see it to the end of its line. This scene resonates with a later moment when the client reveals that his girlfriend, whom he adores, broke up with him once she realized that her death was imminent. She wouldn't permit him to witness the end of her line.
Most of the characters are caught up in their own lines while seeking something better, or at least while seeking an escape. While the client's girlfriend refuses a witness to the end of her line, Christine, eager to capture the attention of the curator Nancy, desires acknowledgment of an end. Nancy had twice dismissed Christine's work for her upcoming show; she refused to watch more than a few seconds of her video admission. But later in the evening, by casual accident, she saw the end of the tape, during which Christine voices her assumption that the submission will never be viewed in its entirety. At the end of the tape, Christine provides her telephone number and requests that if Nancy were to see this part of the tape, if she were to make it to the end of this particular line, that she call the number and simply say "Macaroni". It is in such small gestures that we sometimes escape the lines that trap us.
Sylvie can't bring herself to inhabit the space of the line she traverses without attempting to leap ahead to a time when she will no longer be a child, no longer be ignored or forgotten or dismissed. She describes her vision of her future kitchen to Peter who lies beside her on the floor, staring up at a ceiling lamp. Peter claims he would like to live there, in that projection, which he envisions within the space of the lamp. Sylvie then turns literalist. Yes, she says, but if that were the case then all of the items in this room would be above you and come crashing down upon your head, killing you. Sylvie's perfect wholeness, projected into an irredeemable future, is continually crushed by the ineluctable and suffocating linearity of her present.
The two teens, Rebecca and Heather, enjoy their ability to arouse Andrew. He knows they are too young and they recognize that he knows. The illicit nature of the suggestion of an encounter is what all three of them seem to find exhilarating. But they simply engage in yet another line. Heather flashes her panties at Andrew, who stares at them through his window. She and Rebecca kiss, convinced that Andrew is pleasuring himself while watching them. Andrew begins posting provocative notes in his window, detailing what he would like to do to them.
The girls practice oral sex on Peter to see if they are up to the task of seducing Andrew; they convince themselves that it wouldn't matter if they weren't that good at sex because they don't care about Andrew; and, anyway, they would be together. Andrew continues to post notes. This line of escalation could continue endlessly. Eventually, the girls knock on Andrew's door. He falls to the floor to hide himself. The girls run off laughing. Improbability collides with possibility and collapses their line, the girls relieved by their escape, Andrew horrified by his proximity to the abyss.
Richard and Christine walk a line toward their cars one afternoon when Christine stops by the shoe store. They analogize the walk to a relationship. At the road where they have to go in different directions, they will part. Does the road represent months, 20 years, a lifetime? It hardly matters in this linear view of love. Regardless of timespan, they will part. The line threatens eternal deferral but it eventually ends. That's the pernicious nature of the line. Whatever goal is promised or envisioned never materializes.
Christine longs to belong; Richard longs to begin. They are both longing to break the trajectories they've established, to break free of the endless string of events leading nowhere. But unlike what we saw with Heather and Rebecca, escape will not suffice. A new line will always begin if it doesn't eventuate in something else. What is needed is not the linear rush to a "forever" of deferral, a "forever" that lacks redemption. What is needed is a circle, a "forever" that can, in some manner, endure.
The image of that circle manifests in one of the most celebrated and perverse aspects of the film. Peter entertains himself and Robby by perusing dating chat sites and flirting with the anonymous, faceless writers (this is a quite primitive site—amounting to no more than a username and lines of text). Peter asks after his interlocutor's "bosoms" and is convinced he is talking to a man pretending to be a woman. Six-year-old Robby suggests that they should send a bewildering dispatch: "I want to poop back and forth." In his delightfully halting cadence, Robby explains his intention: "Like, I'll poop into her butthole and then she'll poop it back…into my butthole. And then we'll keep doing it back and forth, forever." In a later chat session, Robby devises a symbol to illustrate his concept: ))<>((
Brandon Ratcliff as Robby (IMDB)
Notice the symbol is symmetrical (indeed palindromic) and thus circles in upon itself. It is closed and yet implies perpetuation and reciprocity, an infinity of circulation, not endless distention. Of course, the coprophilic obsession of a six-year-old (and its ability to seduce a grown and established woman) is amusing. It is also telling. Robby recognizes that poop is a part of his body, his being, that he doesn't keep, that he gives to the world. The fact that it is deemed waste is beside the point. Anything the body divests itself of can be considered waste (including other bodily emissions we happily exchange in acts of love). But what I give can be accepted by another; and what I give can always return to me. Our laughter at Robby's innocent perversity merely belies the fact that his vision of the reciprocity of the circle, the endless flow of exchange, the recycling of parts of the self is a childish but nonetheless penetrating symbol for what all of these characters seek.
Here a different kind of "forever" is broached. This isn't the "forever" of linearity, stretching off impossibly beyond all horizons of experience. This is the "forever" of the flux and reflux, the breathing in and the breathing out, the giving and the receiving. When I aptly say "I will love you forever" this is perhaps what I intend. I will inevitably perish and so will you. We will die and we will thus cease to exist. But insofar as I am I and you are you, I remain that which flows into you and you are that which flows into me. What I give, you receive, and give back to me in turn, augmented by its having been yours, returning to me ever stronger, ever more certain, redeemed and infinite.
The circle is infinite, in this sense, not because it lasts forever but because it persists as what it is. It doesn't long for a faraway, unreachable, indeterminate goal. It abides here in the flux from me to you and you back to me. And when we reach the end, our love persists in that it will always be what it is, because it is. It becomes and it adapts without ever losing what it is. Thus, when we reach the end of our personal line, we won't have to wonder, we will know who bears witness, who affirms our existence.
Criterion Collection now releases a wonderful Blu-ray edition of Miranda July's beguiling feature-film debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know. The disc is packed with extra, supplementary material, including an interview between July and Lena Dunham, a 2017 documentary on July's interfaith charity shop, a documentary on July's Joanie 4 Jackie video chain letter project along with four films from that project, and two other short early films: The Amateurist (1998) and Nest of Tens (2000). It is a quirky and fitting tribute to this alluring film.
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