Imagine this scene: a woman in her thirties is standing in her apartment with her boyfriend of four years. She’s leaning against the wall and turns toward the mirror and says, apropos of nothing, “I wish I could just be just one notch more beautiful.”
Here are some things this scene is not. It is not the start of an argument between this woman and her boyfriend. It is not a calculated moment of self-deprecation designed to make a flawless heroine more “relatable.” It is not a part of a film “about” body image. It is not part of a film that will impart any lessons about lovable imperfections or self-acceptence.
Here is one thing the scene is: it is a moment in a film that creates and explores one woman’s subjectivity. After she expresses this wish, she thinks aloud about something no character from a “body image” movie ever thinks or talks about: the actual experience of living in the in-between space where most women live, of feeling attractive some of the time, and thinking about it sometimes, in the course of a day when you’re also trying to think about other things. . It’s like I’m always on the border, she says. Like I have to make my case to every new person.
The scene is from Miranda July’s second movie, The Future, which came out last year. And despite everything you might think about July, here are some things the film is not: it is not quirky, twee, ironic, or whatever they’re calling it. July’s dancer character Sophie is no one’s manic pixie and she’s no one’s dream girl. But neither is the film a “response to” or “deconstruction” of manic pixies. (Although this also a very worthy project!) Nor it is a “response” to irony or an embrace of neo-sincerity or what have you. As Andrew O’Hehir points out in an interview with her, she’s the rare indie auteur who doesn’t seem to be responding to other films or to some theme or some aesthetic. She’s not “responding” to anything except the experience of being alive.
July wrote what is possibly my favorite short story, “Roy Spivey.” The narrator of that story has an encounter with a famous person on a plane. They build a connection but he explains that they won’t be able to talk when they get off. They come up with a code: he will say “Do you work here” and she will say, “no.” But when the time comes a flight attendant interrupts. I work here, she says. I will help you. Then she rolls her eyes at the famous man, as if she was commiserating with him about people like her. This is the kind of imperceptible but all-important shift short story writers often try and fail to describe: the little shifts in our alliances, the circles we draw of who is inside and who is outside.
I heard “Roy Spivey” read at a benefit for 826. I was there with someone I was interested in, and it wasn’t really going anywhere, and I’d done the lame “I have two tickets” thing. Before it started I went on about how it was my favorite story, and how it perfectly described the experience I’d recently had during a brief encounter with a famous person. Maggie Gyllenhaal introduced the story and said it was something we didn’t hear enough of, that it was about a woman’s body from the inside out, not about how it looked but how it felt to be in it. That was the first time I realized exactly what July was doing in her stories and in her movies, and why the twee thing she gets tagged with is so wrong. Like Mary Gaitskill, July is the opposite of an ironist. She’s making a movie about artistic types in their thirties and the apartment looks like something out of Portlandia but she never makes fun of them for being what they are. If you think about it, that satirical impulse – making fun of hipsters, academics, what have you – is just another way of asserting, despite all evidence to the contrary, that their (ok, our) lives and fears are fundamentally different from anyone else’s.
As in Gaitskill, there’s some very interesting, very un-twee sex in “The Future.” I imagine that a lot of people probably looked at it and said, that came from nowhere or, why would she do that. You can look at it and say, she’s anxious in her relationship, or afraid of commitment, or afraid of growing older, or you can look and say she’s narcissistic or masochistic or what have you. All of these things make sense, or none of them do. In a commentary to Three Women, Robert Altman talks about how strange it is when actors say, oh, my character does this because so and so. But people, unlike scripted characters, don’t know why we do what we do. We don’t act, he said, we behave. To the extent that July’s character has a “motivation,” it’s a kind of poetic one. She and her boyfriend make the decision to “open themselves up” to new experiences and for Sophie that means that the boundaries between inside and outside start to dissolve. Women who “act out” sexually in movies or television are usually shown as lightweight and stupid or as vicious man-eaters or beautiful fuckups. With Sophie it’s any or all of the reasons anyone might, or at least have the impulse to – and that’s a different kind of psychological motivation to explore, that what ifs – restlessness, curiosity, transgression for the sake of transgression, not in the sense of shocking anyone but in the way that Brenda explained it on Six Feet Under: that your cross a line, and then you realize the lines are all in your head. (Brenda was one of the best-written female characters on TV, although they sadly pushed her a little too much towards the fuckup category and saddled her with shade-by-numbers Freudian motivations. Her parents were shrinks! And swingers!)
After we heard that story at that benefit, the guy I was with said, “yeah, it was ok, not really my thing.” I remember feeling that thing I identify with being a kid, when you’re all enthusiastic about something and try to explain it someone and they try to humor you but you can tell what they mean is, yeah, whatever, kid. It’s why it’s sometimes better to go on a date to a movie you only like so much, or not to try to teach your favorite texts. It was why I was glad to watch The Future at home with my baby sleeping on my lap. He slept through the whole thing, and so I had the rare treat of watching the whole thing without interruptions. At certain points I found myself thinking that that guy from the benefit or this person or that would hate it, and all their reasons, and just where it would lose them. But the film is all about indeterminacy and perspective. Unlike the ironists, July never distances herself from what she’s doing. She risks being seen as pretentious. And you can choose to see it that way. Or you can let the boundaries dissolve, and think, maybe this has something to do with me, just a little bit.