JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Christine, the low-tech performance artist, works in her home studio, using photographs, a small digital video camera, and a TV set as monitor.

With his vulpine face, John Hawkes is not the usual romantic lead, nor are shoesalesmen.

The bird in the branches in the film's opening sequence is recapitulated at the end when we see the painting of a bird similarly placed in the frame.

Peter and Robby, Richard's sons, explore the Internet in their room. Peter, the older brother, helps Robby compose sexual chat, which for Robby is all about butts and poo.

Richard sets fire to his hand to mark the end of his marriage.

Christine slaps a magnetic placard on the side of her car and goes to work as a driver for Elder Cab.

Rebecca and Heather are two highschool girls with fellatio on their minds.

Andrew, Richard's co-worker in the shoe department, has placed a salacious placard addressed to Rebecca and Heather in his apartment window.

Richard and his soon-to-be ex-wife quarrel. Race is never made an issue in the film.

Christine wears her comfortable new shoes, reminders of Richard. She's written on them and uses them "interacting" in a little foot performance for her art.

Andrew ducks out of sight in his apartment to hide from Rebecca and Heather.

Nancy and Robby meet for their date...

... on a park bench. They are tender with each other in this misbegotten adventure.

And Nancy memorializes Robby's coprophagic chat, replicating his online imagery in the museum's signage for an upcoming major exhibition.

Christine looks at her museum exhibit with Michael, the elderly man whom she chauffeurs. His new woman friend seems to have died ...

... and he and Christine have videotaped a memorial to her in her bedroom — which is the basis for Christine's new, more heartfelt, work of art.

Bracketing the opening shot of the bird is this framed picture of a bird that Richard places in the branches of the tree outside his window.

 

Me and You and
Everyone We Know

Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) itself is earthbound and maybe time-bound, too. Its standard is stated in the middle of the picture when the director of a center for modern art tells her assistant that her criterion for selecting pieces is that they could not have been made in another era. This film, like those pieces, is most assuredly of our time. Here are a few things that happen in it that could not or would not have been depicted in a fiction feature made just a few decades ago:

  • A young man separating from his wife, on the way to divorce, sets his hand on fire so that his two sons will remember the day as significant.
  • Two fourteen- or fifteen-year-old girls compete in fellatio skill on a male their own age.
  • A seven-year-old boy makes a coprophiliac date via the Internet, and on the park bench where they meet he encounters a mature woman — the director of the center for modern art, who kisses him ruefully and leaves.

These moments and some others like them are proof of a basic assumption on the part of July, who wrote and directed and plays a leading role: that she would not treat the bizarre moments of her film with either bravery or bravado. She assumes that her audience, like herself, is at ease in this era for — or perhaps because of — all its flouting of the moral code on which many of us grew up. In this, of course, she differs from avant-gardists (in all the arts) at the turn of the twentieth century, who found themselves in the reverse position. They weren’t at ease in their era and felt the need to make a brave, even bravado-filled, attack on all its basic assumptions about family, religion, psychology, morality, and causality. July herself has made short films and videos and done some performance-art pieces which place her among such avant-gardists, if only in the sense that these works exist outside the formal strictures of conventional artistic creation. Me and You and Everyone We Know, however, is the creation of someone who may have been working outside such strictures but has now moved, with as much of her unmediated self as she could take with her, into narrative if not quite mainstream filmmaking.

That self is immediately visible in the way July’s first full-length film begins: as if it were completely discarding traditional design or form. Me and You and Everyone We Know starts discursively, seeming to deal with whatever interests it next, its camera always curious about details along the way. Opening with a photograph of two lovers gazing at a sunset to the accompaniment of the tremulous cadences of July as she narrates an imagined scene between the pair, the movie cuts to a glimpse of a man captivated by a bird in the branches outside his window — a man who then proceeds, as I point out above, to set his hand on fire so as ceremoniously to mark the end of his marriage. But before long, July adds to her discursive manner — without losing it — some solid story strands, one of them based on the characters from the opening scenes, Christine (played by July) and the soon-to-be-single Richard. And before the picture is halfway through, it has become a romantic comedy.

Still, Me and You and Everyone We Know is a long way in texture and tenor from even the less conventional romantic comedies we know, such as one that is contemporary with it: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s as if July were chuckling twice in making the film — at her avant-garde coterie, which was beguiled by her freehand style into following this ultimately symmetrical work, and also at her new general audience, who, after they were readied for arcane art, had narrative convention slipped over on them. July’s background in the field of avant-garde art has thus given her a view of film that is bracing for the rest of the film world. That is, she treats film personally, independently, idiosyncratically, even disturbingly, as she would any other artwork. Yet as with some modern, fine art, a gentle, knowing cleverness suffuses her cinema in such a way that it is able to take us in — in both senses of the term.

Once the “take-in” is under way, we learn that Richard is a shoe salesman at a department store in a bleak district of Los Angeles. He and his wife, who is moving out at the start of the picture, have two sons, the boys mentioned earlier: fourteen-year-old Peter and seven-year-old Robby. It is part of such a film’s very mode of being that no one ever mentions that this is a biracial marriage: Richard is white, his wife is black, the boys are mocha. Never, at the beginning or later in Me and You and Everyone We Know, are marital disputes, father-and-son abrasions, or neighbors’ comments ever colored by racial reference. This is not because we now live in an United States untouched by racial divisiveness or discrimination. Rather, any reference to it would be out of key in a movie so extraordinary or inclusive that a father could set fire to his hand as an act of commemoration. In other words, a prosaic social-problem picture this isn’t.

Enter Christine, who is a struggling artist trying to place one of her videos in the local museum for modern art, headed by the woman (named Nancy) to whom I have referred. Meanwhile, Christine supports herself by using her car as a taxi to transport the elderly. One day she takes a customer to buy a pair of shoes, and in the shop she meets Richard, by whom she is sexually struck. Though he deals with Christine only as a cool salesman, she is dazzled. (He examines her blistered feet and then sells her new flats with the line, “You think you deserve that pain, but you don’t.”) The rest of the film is largely concerned with her attempts to get a response from him. Thus, for a change — the kind of change we witnessed in 3-Iron, in particular — we get an emphasis on the quest or adventure in romance instead of just the typical courtship, coupling, and promise of marriage. After one of Christine’s failed attempts to interest Richard, she disconsolately scrawls “FUCK” on her windshield as she drives away. As a result the standard movie shot of watching a car’s progress through its windshield — as well as the standard movie romance’s measuring of a relationship’s progress by how much time the couple spends together in the bedroom — gets an added element or twist.

Less of a subplot than a sexual and decidedly unromantic counterpoint in Me and You and Everyone We Know is the story of Rebecca and Heather, the two fellatio-minded junior-high-school girls. They attract the attention of Andrew, Richard’s sales colleague and neighbor, whose way of enticing this duo is to put up salacious placards in the window of his apartment. After practicing on Peter, the girls decide to take Andrew up, but he hides in panic when they knock on his door. There is another counterpoint — not concerned with sex though vaguely related to it — with even younger participants. Robby makes friends with a girl about his age named Sylvie, who is collecting things for her marital hope chest. He decides to contribute . . . Even Michael, the elderly man whom Christine chauffeurs to the shoe store, gets into the act, for, like her, he seems to have been rejuvenated (or infantilized) by a serendipitous romance of his own into a permanent state of wonder.

Through much of the above, lazy, pillowy music (by Mike Andrews) — sounding as if it were made by Fisher-Price instruments — accompanies the action, both (it seems) to cushion the fact that only the main story or plot, concerning Christine and Richard, reaches any sort of conclusion, and to suggest a child’s playful or whimsical perspective on life. For make no mistake: Me and You and Everyone We Know is as much about play as love, about fortuity more than linearity. Thus the film allies itself in spirit with the childlike marvel and impishness, spontaneity, randomness, and improvisation central to so much avant-garde art from dadaism to abstract expressionism. That is why July can depict children’s sexual lives here without moralizing about them or turning them into forbidden games or unfortunate rites of passage. They are part of the fabric of play of the movie as a whole, even when by chance they intersect momentarily with the sex (or fantasy) lives of adults like Andrew and Nancy.

July herself subscribes to the view that Me and You and Everyone We Know takes on a child’s playful, expectant point of view — the very kind, this film implicitly argues, that we adults could use more of in our goal-oriented, over-scheduled, leisure-deprived lives. She has said that her movie

“was inspired by the longing I carried about as a child, longing for the future, for someone to find me, for magic to descend upon my life and transform everything. It was also informed by how this longing progressed as I became an adult, slightly more fearful, more contorted, but no less fantastically hopeful.”

And nowhere in Me and You and Everyone We Know is this conjunction of the fantastically hopeful and the majestically transformative more apparent than in the film’s ending.

Early one morning Richard finally telephones Christine and asks her to come over to meet his sons. As he rushes to tidy up their apartment, he takes a framed picture of a bird (on which Robby had colored) outside in an attempt to hide it in the shrubs. At that moment Christine arrives, suggests that Richard put the bird — or its picture, it doesn’t matter which in the aesthetic by which this film breezily operates — in the branches of the tree outside his window, and helps him to place it there. Robby then wanders outside to find that the tinging sound he habitually hears at this hour does not come from the streetlight (as his mother had told him), but from a man tapping a quarter on a metal signpost as he waits for the bus that will take him to work. As the man boards the bus, he turns around and gives the quarter to the watchful Robby, who begins to tap with it as the sun rises on as delightful a first film as I have seen in a long time.

So delightful that it put me in mind of the similarly aimed drama of William Saroyan, whose effusive play titles The Time of Your Life (“In the time of your life, live”) and My Heart’s in the Highlands (both works from 1939), like that of Me and You and Everyone We Know, tell you everything you need to know about the nature of the art you’re about to encounter. In July’s case, what her title could not have prepared you for is the quality of her film’s acting — which is all that it needs to be, and more. Heather and Rebecca, for example, are played by Natasha Slayton and Najarra Townsend, who have the unnerving competence of people otherwise too young to have had much professional training or experience. This is even truer of Miles Thompson and Brandon Ratcliff as the two sons, Peter and Robby: both of them precocious but unself-conscious, focused yet playful, serious at the same time as they are relaxed.

The casting of John Hawkes as Richard is another matter: it is obviously part of July’s intent both to disguise and to undermine convention. Hawkes is a perfectly good (and professional) actor, but, with his vulpine face, he is not at all a romantic lead — nor are very many romantic leads shoe salesmen. And his character seems to know he’s no leading man, as when Richard shyly asks his boys,

“Objectively speaking, if you weren’t my children, would you think, ‘That guy looks okay’?”

There is more to July’s use of Hawkes, however, than a proof that non-beautiful people fall in and out of love. She is subverting the very requirement that a man moving toward or away from love (both in the soon-to-be-divorced Richard’s case) behave like an alternately ecstatic and brokenhearted Romeo. She also she subverts, through her film’s cinematography (by Chuy Chávez), the requirement that a romantic comedy look like a piece of brightly colored eye-candy. This romance is set in drab bedrooms and shabby malls, and features naturalistic long takes in contrast to the snappy or perky cutting — as well as upper-class settings — to be found in such screwball comedies as The Philadelphia Story (1940) and The Awful Truth (1940).

One quality Me and You and Everyone We Know does have in common with the best romantic comedies, particularly of the screwball kind, is the spanking fresh tang of its dialogue. July is not quite ready to move into Preston Sturges’ league, but the following lines — spoken in wonder by Richard to his children after he unwraps the bandage around his hand (the one to which he had set fire) — give hope:

“It’s so sensitive; it needs some air; it needs to do some living. Let’s take my hand for a walk.”

July is ready, however, to join a relatively small if not always select group: that of writer-director-actors. (There is a fair number of actor-directors — let’s take Kenneth Branagh, for one instance — but when you add screenwriting to the mix, the list thins out to such an extent that I’m forced to name someone like Woody Allen.)

Besides the fact that her writing is whimsical without being precious, that her directing in her first feature film is intimate without being cloying, and that she has handled her younger actors remarkably well given some of the things they are called upon to do, July’s own performance is startlingly delicate. Her acting consists of fine-filigree, small-scale work that is filled with intelligent glances, subtle inflections, and reticent gestures (a style, by the way, that is the fruit of one hundred years of film plus half a century of television). She thus convinces us that the wispy, flower-like, wide-eyed woman-child we see and hear is only a hint of the real woman simmering inside. July wisely seems to have realized, moreover, that without her warming presence, Me and You and Everyone We Know could easily have turned into a cold, quirky, even dismal Todd Solondz-like experience about the sexually-cum-romantically dysfunctional landscape otherwise known as the United States.

I’d like to close by commending July on her move, temporary or not, from performance art into quasi-narrative filmmaking. In a sense, she has it both ways in this picture, for Christine herself is a performance artist who also makes videos of her work. But performance art, on stage, for me has long marked the death or at least the senescence of avant-garde drama, since it cultivates or even deifies postmodern performance as an art unto itself, apart from or superior to any a priori text. Performance art thus privileges the theatrical event's indeterminacy and unpredictability over the text's finish and fatedness. It also privileges dramatizing the self over self-consciously exploring the nature, limits, and possibilities of human drama (a drama already the most naturally reflexive of art forms). And, for this reason, the problem with performance art is that of all inwardly-drawn or -directed arts. They tend toward a narcissism bordering on solipsism, and embody less of the relativity, subjectivism, or flux of modernity than its fragmentation, disjunction, and estrangement.

The same is true, mutatis mutandis, of a performance-art film or video, but with this difference. Such art is no threat to the dramatic text, and may in fact have more in common with performance art in its original incarnation in the late 1950s, as visual art that was “performed” by objectified human bodies. Hence Christine’s desire to place her video in the local center for modern art, not to re-perform it before, or even show it to, a large, live, theatrical audience. Indeed, in one sense performance art on film or video has more in common with conventional narrative moviemaking than with experimental avant-garde cinema. For the latter, in its extreme manifestation, becomes abstract film from which the “thingness” of this world and the human form are banished, as they never are from mainstream movies and as only the thingness — the recognizable, outside world — is sometimes removed from a performance-art film or video.

I suspect this is the chief reason — the fear not only of narcissism bordering on solipsism, but also of abstraction become abnegation — that July, Gondry and Kaufman, Van Sant, Kim, and Ichikawa have all walked the tightrope in their respective films between the opposing sides, or opposite extremes, of tradition and rebellion, imitation and invention, the world as it is and the world as we think, dream, or imagine it to be. After all, this is where most of us reside, most of the time — somewhere in the middle — and it’s about time more movies started reflecting that fact.


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