Little girl interacting with a piece from Miranda July’s outdoor exhibit, Eleven Heavy Things
Despite an early interest in both feminism and punk rock, Riot Grrrl never really appealed to me. I was in elementary school in the mid-90s—during the height of the Riot Grrrl zeitgeist—and while the aesthetic and mission statement certainly captured my snarling little heart, music was always my primary interest, and I just never found a Riot Grrrl band that really blew me away. My young ears suffered no dearth of chanteuses, of course. I just got my girl power from Joan Jett, Aretha Franklin, Dolly Parton, and those goddesses of mid-90s top 40 radio,TLC.
Still, I owe a debt to those women, and I can’t deny the legacy, especially when I come across great artifacts like this DIY documentary from a 1996 Riot Grrrl convention in Portland, Oregon. Organized by a smiling mohawked young woman named Geneva, the event was intended to foster a women’s community, make friends, and, she coyly admits, “I also needed a girlfriend.” (Let’s be honest, the prospect of romance has always been half the appeal of a good show.)
Though it boasts the production values of a decomposing home movie, the documentary is artfully edited, recording a wide array of performances, workshops, and interactions. It’s far more than a dredge of amateur bands, and the music line-up is surprisingly diverse—a two-girl group with an upright bass and a cello really stand out. The workshops were not only instructive, they encouraged women to create “out loud.” During a writing class, the teacher self-effacingly admits to a passion for the work of noted misogynist Charles Bukowski—there was clearly little to no pressure to maintain a “feminist cultural purity.” During a “basics” course on starting a band, a woman demonstrates all the instruments and identifies their parts. She even gives some sound advice on how not to get ripped off by music shops who might try and overcharge a woman. There’s poetry and avant garde performance and the introduction of the now legendary Free to Fight, the ambitious double LP concept album themed on violence against women. The record included a 75 page illustrated booklet with poetry, stories and advice—socialist feminist writer bell hooks even contributed.
I think the most impressive part of the event is how much fun everyone is having. Bands joke and banter onstage, making politically incorrect jokes about sexual orientation and gender. There’s self-defense demonstrations where nervous giggles from the audience grow into raucous laughter. The mood feels decidedly warm and easy-going throughout, with none of the humorless gravity one might associate with such serious subjects.
Those familiar with the Riot Grrrl scene might recognize a few of the musicians, but for me, the real Easter Egg is a very young Miranda July, doing a strange short performance piece, and using some of her own interview structure to contribute to the documentary. To be honest, not a lot of July’s work resonates with me—I think on some level I also avoid connecting with it, feeling foolish at the prospect of enjoying something so “dear.” For me, distorted guitars and screaming “fuck you” into a microphone has always been the accessible part of the Riot Grrrl arsenal.
But once in a while I see a Miranda July piece like the sculpture above and I’m floored by such honest vulnerability. And I remember there’s a less bombastic dimension to the Riot Grrrl legacy—something brave, but subtle. And I’m so grateful it happened.
Miranda July and David Byrne are peers, right? Both have been prolific in almost every medium (art, film, performance, writing, digital works, and music [or, more accurately in July’s case, sound art]), and through that work both have earned or engineered enough curious cache to be permitted or invited to execute massive, unusual projects, i.e. interactive public art (Playing the Building by Byrne; Eleven Heavy Things by July, now on view at MOCA in L.A.). Both live a certain kind of lifestyle (extensive travel, eccentric hobbies) that they carefully, idiosyncratically document online. And neither has lacked work or press attention in years. Both are envied for their style, career, what they do and are allowed to do. And yet even David Byrne couldn’t avoid what is plainly the only natural reaction to Miranda July’s work: mad jealousy. He discussed it on his blog in 2007:
I had recently read [July’s] book of collected short stories which is due out in about a month — No One Belongs Here More Than You — which are so good I was both inspired and jealous. Why jealous, I don’t know, I don’t aspire to write fiction.
Being the good-natured dude that he is, his jealousy feels positive—it’s earnestly stated and contains a compliment. This is what the experts call benign envy. But this is not the direction most reactions to her take: Miranda July is, apparently, polarizing. She has as many fangirls as she does haters, as was explained in a fawning cover-story profile of her in a recent issue of the New York Times magazine. Perhaps there are people that just don’t have an opinion of her? Hardly. The magazine followed up the article with this graphic, titled “Who Doesn’t Like Miranda July?,” on the letters to the editor page, which reported that only 15 percent of those who felt compelled to respond to the article did not express “a value judgment of Miranda July,” which very clearly refers to the person, not her work. So, she, whatever “she” means to the reader or viewer, seems inseparable from her work. Does David Byrne have this problem? (The only male I can think of who might suffer from this same affliction of perceived-persona-overshadowing-work is Chuck Klosterman.) What we can take from this, I think, is that Miranda July is a mirror—how one professes to feel about her or her work reflects more or less a current inventory of one’s professional and creative insecurities.
Her new movie, The Future, currently out in a smattering of select theaters, is dark and brooding, with surprising supernatural elements (an anthropomorphized t-shirt crawls across L.A., one of the characters stops time, a talking cat acts as something like a Greek chorus, etc.) that will perhaps encourage more of this kind of sniping (and then analysis of the sniping [uh, and then analysis of the analysis]) at cocktail parties and in comment threads. But though the scope of the story is narrow and the ground it covers is well trod (a couple in crisis after they glimpse reality and responsibility for the first time), the way it is told, wispy quirks and all, is broad and smart, and the movie is perfectly cast (including a brief, melancholy appearance by Andy Forrest, who plays the hapless and unpopular Kyle on Parks and Recreation).
Miranda July has beautiful skin and is very thin. When I interviewed her recently in a backyard in the West Village, she was using two back issues of W magazine as a cushion to, I assumed, prevent her pencil skirt from being snagged or sullied on the wrought iron chair. Her posture was perfect and dancerly (rather appropriately, considering her character in The Future, Sophie, is an aspiring internet dance sensation), and she seemed to be consciously trying to keep it that way, jutting her elbows behind her to square her shoulders and stretch her diaphragm.
We talked, press junket-style, about what she called the “Russian roulette” of reading what people write about her on the Internet, the current oversaturation of female protagonists obsessed with having babies, and why she won’t discuss the secrets of her movie’s feline puppet narrator.
LG: I think it’s kind of funny, the names Sophie and Jason. Names carry different connotations for everyone, but for me, Sophie is a fancy or complex name and Jason is a normal name, a more common name.
MJ: Because Sophie does imply a little bit of—there’s Sophie Calle, the artist—implies a little pedigree.
LG: Or, like, “sophistry.”
MJ: Oh yeah, right. Even with Donny and Fiona, like Donny is—
LG: Donny is the worst name.
MJ: The worst! And Fiona got a little bit of flair. He’s a sympathetic character, so I guess I wanted the name to reflect that.
LG: Do you identify very strongly with Sophie?
MJ: I really identify with both of them. I extracted all my worst fears about myself and put them into her. So she’s pretty embarrassing for me. It’s a little bit unbearable to play that part, but sort of enjoyable because of that.
LG: Yeah, because the way she starts behaving is balls-out embarrassing
MJ: Totally. At times I was like, you could just not do this and no one would know the difference. Like why choose to do this? But it also seemed like it might be a good idea—there might be reasons why it seemed so shameful that were interesting. And I put all my saving graces into Jason: my actual curiosity about things other than myself, and openness, and creativity. He’s not an artist, but he’s more creatively open.
LG: Jason is out in the world doing things, and I felt claustrophobic for Sophie because she’s seen so rarely outside of the house.
MJ: It’s true. She’s always in there. I end up identifying with her more because I’ve just lived with that. But when I very first wrote it I had it reversed, and it was the woman that stopped time. So it’s funny to remember that.
LG: It may just be the movies that I see, but basically every new movie with a female protagonist between 20 and 40 focuses on her struggles with getting older, which includes coupling and reproducing and accepting responsibility, and which is thematically similar to The Future—even the title nods to it. Did you approach the movie trying to do a unique take on that theme?
MJ: I didn’t have any of that in mind when I started. Then, as it took longer and longer to make and I got older, that stuff just kind of snuck in. It was more like a color. You can have that plot without any of that in it because it started out that way, but then it was like, well, this is sort of is universal and I can’t say that I’m not having these thoughts. My friends are all having kids, and I’m still making this movie. And now they are having second kids.
LG: In your movie, the anxiety Sophie has about having kids is expressed in a thirty-second sequence, as opposed to being the plot.
MJ: Right, exactly. It seemed sort of both, you don’t want to be that cliché of that woman who’s only concerned with that, but it also seemed important to not pretend that an artistic woman just doesn’t have to deal with that. So I had to get that in there, find a way to do it that was interesting.
LG: The Internet is a pretty large presence in the movies you’ve made so far and it’s a medium you’ve done other work in, like Learning to Love You More, so what is your daily relationship with the Internet?
MJ: It’s funny, if I’m alone, like on these tours, I’ll check my email immediately when I wake up. If I’m at home with my husband, I have too much pride to do that, which is good. When I wake up, I’ll write my dream down, I’ll be what I consider a good person. It’s funny how my husband makes me a better person.
LG: And how do you use things like Twitter?
MJ: I’m really at an all-time high for all that stuff right now because of the movie and I’m glad that a movie that doesn’t have a huge marketing budget, that does require word of mouth, can use things like that. It’s really pretty effective from what I can tell. So I embrace it in theory and then I try to figure out how to make it sort of inspiring, to feel a little bit creative.
LG: So, I really loved the way you portrayed Sophie as being completely overwhelmed and undermined by the dancers she saw on the Internet. I thought it was an accurate, realistic depiction of what can happen if you let it. Do you ever fall down one of those self-defeating rabbit holes?
MJ: Right, it’s an addictive thing. It’s not so much that the work is so good, but that you literally cannot stop looking. Each thing just doesn’t quite deliver so you need to click on the next one and the next one. But in the case of that character, I do feel like she’s doing the thing where you become preoccupied with someone else’s work instead of being able to focus on your own.
LG: Do you ever read negative stuff about yourself on the Internet, or stumble across it?
MJ: For sure, yeah. I try and stay on the right side of that stuff but it’s so easy. It’s a little bit like playing Russian roulette, where you’re like, I’m going to keep reading until I come across a bad thing. Eventually there’s going to be someone who says, “I want to punch Miranda July in the face.” And you feel punched in the face! You’re like, honestly, what did I do? I’m just trying here. Just because you don’t like it—why the violence? It’s definitely a vice. I have to be resolute about that.
LG: I recently also saw Beginners [directed by July’s husband Mike Mills], and there’s also a talking animal in that movie—a dog. Are you guys are animal people?
MJ: This isn’t going to sound good, but he’s more the animal person. We have a dog named Zoe, a border collie.
LG: Are you more of a cat person?
MJ: I am more of a cat person because I didn’t grow up with dogs. If I see a kitten I just have to engage with it. I want to just take it away. Whereas dogs, I’m still learning about them. But the cat in my movie is so much more symbolic in a way than his dog.
LG: Speaking of “Paw-Paw,” the cat narrator of the film, how did the puppetry work for that, if puppetry is even the right word?
MJ: You know I’m not talking about that, only because I’m so thrilled that it’s not totally obvious how we did it, that I’m like, I’m going to keep that one for myself.