Things You May or May Not Know About Miranda July

Johnny Ray Huston October 19, 2006

For close to a decade now, Miranda July has been exploring and often crossing the traditional boundaries between life and the movies. One of her best early short videos, 1998’s “The Amateurist,” hinges on the relationship between one woman and a mute look-alike figure she sees on her TV screen — a bond that takes on greater comic pathos when the viewer situates him or herself in relation to this Quaker Oats box mise en scene. Performance pieces such as 1999’s “Love Diamond” and 2001’s “The Swan Tool” have involved both elaborate and intentionally crude interactions between July and video projections — an approach that she continues to build upon in her current work-in-progress, “Things We Don’t Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About,” which will be performed twice locally next week as a benefit for San Francisco Cinematheque.

Caroline Savage, executive director at the Cinematheque, has seen portions of July’s latest project, and thinks that it might be her most complex multimedia work to date. “She’s using a rear projection screen, and it’s very large,” Savage says. “She’s lit from the front, addressing the audience — she engages with them immediately. She asks people in the audience if they have a relationship, and how long they’ve been together and what it’s like. Audience members are involved [in the performance] — she uses the audience as illustrations for her ideas.”

Even back in her early days as a music and spoken word performer for the Northwest-based labels Kill Rock Stars and K, July was able to turn seemingly offhand remarks that might even be scripted — an abrupt confession of discomfort, say — into a direct and uncomfortable “live” confrontation. She has an acute talent for suddenly exposing the feelings of what could otherwise be traditionally detached voyeuristic audience members. In musical realms, her influence is apparent in concerts by a performer such as Jibz Cameron (sometimes known as Dynasty Handbag), who has mimed to tape recorded between-song banter to create similar discomfiting and funny effects. In some ways, the interactive — or is it? — “Things We Don’t Understand” might be an opportunity for July to revisit and rework her early, confrontational punk experiences as a solo performer (with the Need and the Ce Be Barnes Band), but from more varied and nuanced angles.

During the late ’90s, July’s varied non-musical public art projects, such as Big Miss Moviola (in which women on the street were asked what movie they’d make if they could make a movie) and Joanie 4 Jackie (compilation tapes of D.I.Y. films by women), focused on a female audience of potential creators. More recently, an endeavor such as her ongoing web-based Harrell Fletcher collaboration Learning to “Love You More” reaches out to whoever happens upon it, an approach that has resulted in some great connections, such as San Francisco artist Colter Jacobsen’s moving Liz Taylor-inspired pencil rendering of the site’s 32nd assignment, “Draw a scene from a movie that made you cry.”

While the video projections in past July pieces have been pre-recorded by filmmakers such as Vanessa Renwick, her latest show will use live transmissions of audience members. “The live feed aspect [of “Things We Don’t Understand”] is going to be complicated and challenging,” says Savage. “She’s also using some props that are actually speaking — a hat and a sweater are going to talk.”

Talking objects aren’t exactly out of the ordinary in the world of Miranda July, which — coincidentally or not — is returning to a Bay Area orbit (where it initially formed during a ’70s-and ’80s Berkeley childhood) at roughly around the same time that celluloid eccentrics such as Crispin Glover and possibly Dennis Hopper are also coming to town. Unlike those fellows, July received raves for her first feature-length effort as a film director, the work by which she is most recognized, 2004’s “Me and You and Everyone We Know.” What everyone who adored that movie might not know is that its plot quite effectively mainstreamed and made accessible many of the more subversive aspects of her previous projects.

Some accounts claim that July has feature-length film plans for “Things We Don’t Understand,” but at this juncture, it’s hard to say whether the project will go in the direction of a Laurie Anderson performance film (though July has to be tired of such comparisons) or a more traditionally scripted and acted drama, a la “Me and You and Everyone We Know.” In fact, there’s reason to believe it won’t turn out to be either, but rather a creature-like creation solely of July’s making — one that allows her to walk through third walls and even fourth walls, if not on water.

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