Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Future (2011) — Miranda warning

With Miranda July's The Future now opening in theatrical release beyond the festival circuit, I'm moving my May write-up from the Seattle International Film Festival screening to here and now.

The press blurb that lured me in:
With droll humor and touches of magical realism, Miranda July (Me and You and Everyone We Know) tells the story of a young couple who decide to take thirty days to explore their destinies. This whimsical experiment leads to some surprising revelations about the uncertainty of what the future holds.
I like Miranda July. Rather, I like the concept of Miranda July: multimedia performance artist, musician, writer, actor, film director, and fellow erstwhile Portlander at the same time I lived there. I've enjoyed her short fiction. Her 2005 writing-directing-acting debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know, made a strong impression, so this, her sophomore film, has been on my anticipation list. Critics' ten-for-a-dollar descriptors such as "quirky" and "surreal," or even the grandiloquent yet leaky umbrella term "magic realism," typically don't put me off, and indeed can be suitable attractors for me.

Miranda July's The Future is indeed quirky, with segments of dour whimsy that employ the surreal to explore the dissolution of an L.A. couple's relationship through magic realism tropes — including voice-over narration that's ostensibly from a cat, a man's desire literally stopping and fragmenting time, and a full moon that gives indifferent relationship advice.

For my tastes it's also, like Me and You and Everyone We Know, a shade too "twee" and "precious" — other easy descriptors that, especially when coupled with "self-seriously," do tend to push me away. 

In any case (and despite its current standing as 2011's most defiantly unmemorable title), I went into The Future fully prepared to engage with it through every port. And so I did for roughly the first half.

After four years together and each in their mid-thirties, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are examining their rote, unfulfilled lives and forecasting a rote, unfulfilled future coming fast. For Jason, turning 40 is just five years away, and 40 is practically the same as 50, and after that, well.... "It's too late for us," he glums. Starting with the film's title, this theme of time getting away from us is central here.

They plan to adopt a damaged cat, Paw-Paw (whose cloying high-pitched narration comes voiced by July) from an animal shelter. But because Paw-Paw has been injured in the wild, the couple must wait 30 days until the cat's injuries heal at the shelter before cementing their relationship in its cat-owning phase. They imbue adopting the cat, like every other mundane shift in their flat-affect lives, with the life-quaking importance of childbirth or a death sentence. They characterize the waiting period as "our last month ever."

So with 30 days to get their capital-L Life shit together, they focus on "being alert" to everything around them, being open to opportunities to find themselves and actualize their true personas. (Or whatever the current phraseology is.) Jason literally pulls the plug on his job as a phone-in tech support drone, and Sophie quits her position teaching dance (rather, "dance") to five-year-olds.

There's the setup, the premise that hooked me enough with its humor and my willing questions about what colorful surprises July was going to unfold like origami out of these two drab, emotionally and vocally monotone, empty characters. (Later on, Sophie's flat affect remained so changeless and severe that, by the last half-hour, I wondered if she was meant to be brain-damaged. Honestly, I did.)

And for a while their thin story continued on satisfactorily: His determination to encounter new people and experiences quickly lands him in another drone job, this time selling young trees as a door-to-door environmental activist. (When Sophie notes, "You're not environmental," he replies that he appreciates the outdoors being out there somewhere.) On his route, he engages with an eccentric elderly man who seems to need Jason's attentions as much as Jason needs to feel engaged with a human being in the same room. Meanwhile, Sophie's frustration at her immediate failure to fulfill a simple goal — one new YouTube solo dance video for each of the thirty days — soon lands her into an affair with a drab stranger (David Warshofsky) in the suburbs.

At this pivot point, the film gradually started detaching itself from me like a damaged retina. Once Jason discovers the affair, July shifts to a darker tone and a Donnie Darko vibe. As time unlocks from a linear progression, July piles on the inexplicables. What is suggested when the moon (in the voice of the aforementioned eccentric elderly man) tells Jason that by laying his hand on guilt-ridden Sophie's head he has made 3:14 in the morning last for days? How much, if any, of Sophie's affair and submersion in suburban wifely humdrummery is real or some splintered-time dream-state? Why does the man's young daughter want to bury herself in the yard up to her neck? And then there's the yellow shirt that crawls by itself until Sophie uses it as a conceptual-dance body-condom.

Again, on paper none of those should push me away. Here, though, with Jason stopping and splitting time to prevent losing Sophie, with the moon giving him uncertain wisdom, and Paw-Paw interjecting in July's squeaky child-like voice with dislocated, seemingly tacked-on meditations on waiting and wildness and death and the afterlife (two finger-puppet cat paws are all we see, so it's not unequivocally clear exactly who or what that voice is supposed to be), what I wished to find intriguing soon became merely annoying, followed by similar annoyances, then still more stacked drearily further until ... as I checked my watch ... I disengaged wholly from the narrative, the characters, their relationship, and whatever meaning or import July was trying to impart through it all.

If there are, as the promo copy states, "surprising revelations" to be had in Miranda July's The Future — perhaps the shiver of an experienced truth expressed in a new way, or some unique turn of the prism through which I see life, relationships, or the reality-warping effects a dissolving relationship can have on the inner and outer lives of its participants — I missed them. Or else I saw them and yet still hoped to be surprised.

We've all experienced our own relationship crashes in our adult lives, and certainly I've been in Jason's position: that desire to just stop the crunch's forward motion, to make it all not be happening, to suspend reality long enough to fix the broken bits. "If only" spoken as an alchemical incantation rather than an impotent whimper. Likewise, I so, so get Sophie's frustration at her blocked creative self-expression. And yet rather than feel the shiver of penetrating identification with what was happening on the screen, I experienced no revelation more surprising than a desire to shift in my seat.

Movie-watching being, ideally, a two-way experience, I'll cop to some likely fault or missing component in my half of the equation. Rather than brushing it off as some error on July's part, I feel as though I came to this particular screening unequipped with whatever built-in code key I should have to decipher whatever she was trying so resolutely to communicate. After all, I appreciate movies that try to make me work for it, that ask me to be a co-player in the communication. In this conversation at least, July and I were speaking on the same frequency for about an hour before she started adjusting the dial in ways that didn't engage me enough to keep up.

As a filmmaker July displays a skilled, artful eye and a certain welcome economy in her craft. But narratively, The Future struck me as analogous to a university-press novella whose author was so determined to be "literary" with 21st-century mod magic-realism technique that she exchanged the Story for the Aesthetic, leaving both damaged and under-served.

For what it's worth, a fellow audience member behind me, as the lights came up at the end, sighed with the chill wind of discontent and said, "Good thing she added the cat."

The Future played at Sundance, and Sundance-buzz reviews such as here (, here (, and here ( liked the film more than I did, so their experience with it may align better with your own, should you choose.

Music: The Decemberists
Near at hand: Tin House 41