Thursday, November 17, 2011

Admirable Miranda July

Miranda July feels different. The 37-year-old performance artist, fiction writer, and film actress and director has made and starred in two admirable movies, the prize-winning Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) and The Future (2011), which is now playing at an art house cinema near you. Her short stories have appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review, among other places, and are collected in No one belongs here more than you. (Scribner, 2007). Yet despite these conventional signs of success, Miranda July, like many other artists,  feels different.

Born Miranda Jennifer Grossman, she changed her surname to July once she became a professional artist. The name change presumably expressed her sense that she was different, the daughter of hippie intellectuals, her father Jewish and her mother Protestant. She kept Miranda (from the Latin for “admirable”), probably taken by her parents from Shakespeare’s ingĂ©nue in The Tempest. The name Miranda July sets her off as distinctive, the way “George Orwell” submerged and improved on Eric Blair, who was also felt uncomfortably different from the lads he went to school with.

Though a blue-eyed, raven-haired beauty who can resemble the young Liz Taylor, July at times appears uncomfortable in her own skin. As Sophie, her character in The Future, says, “I wish I were one notch prettier.” This sense of personal unease contributes to the anxiety her protagonists feel about physical intimacy onscreen. In The Future, for instance, though Sophie and her androgynous boyfriend live together, sharing the same bed, it’s not clear that they are lovers. That might be why she has an affair with a conventional businessman with conventional lust for her. She seems bemused but not displeased by his attention.

July’s short-short story “The Moves” begins, “Before he died, my father gave me his finger moves. They were movements for getting a woman off. He said he didn’t know if they’d be of use to me, seeing as how I was a woman myself. . . .” Later he says, “You’re going to make some woman very, very happy. . . .” But the narrator doesn’t indicate that she is a lesbian and speculates that one day she’ll “have a daughter and I’ll teach her what he taught me.”

July’s sexual ambivalence or ambiguity probably explains why a lesbian group has petitioned Wikipedia to include in her bio a note that raises the issue of whether she is gay or bisexual. In any case, she is married to the artist and director Mike Mills, whose film Beginners (Ewan McGregor and Christopher Plummer) explores his father’s coming out at the age of 75.

One of the treats in The Future, which grew out of a performance piece, is a dance that July conjures up while wearing an expansible yellow t-shirt that has the power of self-animation before she picks it up off the floor and pulls it on. July has the body control of a modern dancer and has performed at such venues as The Kitchen and The Guggenheim Museum. She seems slightly more at ease when dancing, usually solo, than when acting.

Whatever her art, July remains compelling. She has a sly sense of humor and an intriguing persona that tests the line between innocence and knowingness, ambition and inertia, desire and ambivalence. I suggest you make her acquaintance by seeing her films and reading her stories. You, too, might feel she’s appealingly different and an admirable artist.

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