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Miranda July finger
April 3, 2016 | by  | in Features |
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The First Bad Woman—Miranda July and the power of taboo

As an artist, Miranda July doesn’t just dabble in taboo, she dives right into it, taking her audience with her. Cassie Richards went along to her debut appearance in Wellington, and takes a look at a woman blowing social norms out of the water.

A woman walks onstage to applause. She is tall, slender, wide-eyed, with brown curls coiffed artfully atop her head. She wears a coral orange blouse, a thin belt around her waist, flared leather pants, expensive looking heels that accentuate her stature. I normally hate leather pants, I think. But they look good on her.

It wasn’t simply that she looked stylish, and I’m loathe to objectify anyone, but seeing somebody whom you admire for the first time in the flesh can be a transformative experience. You notice every little thing, and they all feel significant. Standing at the podium, face softly lit by the glow from her Macbook, July is poised and graceful and I am eager to decode her, as is everyone else in the room.

We are gathered at Wellington’s Opera House on a March evening to see Miranda July present Lost Child!, her one-woman, one-off show that is here as part of the 2016 New Zealand Festival. Despite scouring the festival brochure and website for clues, I didn’t really have any idea what to expect from the evening. The show is described as “part artist lecture, part interactive performance.” Mysterious. This probably fits July, however, for as an artist she is hard to pin down.

She has two feature films to her name; a collection of short stories and a novel; an interactive art installation which appeared at the Venice Biennale; even an app called Somebody, where your text messages are verbally delivered to the recipient by a total stranger. She stands both at the fringes of popular culture and firmly at the centre of it (last year she interviewed Rihanna for the New York Times—the two instantly hit it off in a conversation which touched on, among other things, “deep vaginas”). She challenges norms and fraternises with the taboo. Her work intrigues, repels, and shares secrets.

As it turns out, the title Lost Child! comes from a book that July wrote when she was seven years old. It begins: “One morning Jenny woke up. She said to her little brother ‘I’m going.’ ‘You’re what?’ ‘I am going.’” It is charming and precocious, a glimpse into the mind of a young July, and I would have been quite happy if she had read us the whole thing. (The show could just have easily been called Surviving Discomfort, she tells us). But this was just the starting point for a talk that spanned her creative life and influences.

July grew up in Berkeley, California, the daughter of writers. She began challenging her audience with taboo subjects early on: at 16, she wrote and staged a play titled The Lifers, based on her own correspondence with a man incarcerated for murder. After following a girl to Portland, Oregon, she started a video project called Joanie4Jackie, collecting short film submissions from women and compiling them on VHS. She also made her own short films, fulfilling all production roles as well as starring in them, and sometimes playing all the characters. She performed ‘live movies’, and staged one-woman shows at a punk club in between bands.

Alongside these creative pursuits there were some regular (and not so regular) day jobs, which July shares with us at intervals: cashier at a Goodwill Superstore (fired for stealing a pink blouse); car door unlocker for Pop-A-Lock; stripping, because it made more money in less time. “If these job interruptions are annoying and jarring, then good, so were the jobs”, she quips. Then she tells us, more seriously, “I was fighting every day to be able to do what I wanted to do.” Sitting in the audience, listening to her share these parts of her life, I am transfixed by her candidness, and the wry humour she injects into her anecdotes. She is not uncomfortable to be on a stage speaking about these things to a crowd of strangers; most importantly, she is not humiliated or ashamed by sex or her own sexuality. Eventually, she gave up the day jobs in order to focus on her art full time (she was able to do this, she mentions, because her rent was dirt cheap).

As July lists off her creative projects she accompanies them with footage of her in front of the camera, or on stage, inhabiting wildly different personalities. Her characters are not ‘ordinary’ people. In one movie she plays both a child Olympic swimmer, and the child’s intense, hyped-up mother. She is drawn to people in their most extreme forms, and the most bizarre situations. To call her characters ‘quirky’ doesn’t seem right, is too obvious and cliche; but their idiosyncrasies are a feature, and she plays upon this.

The most revealing portion of the show is the first half, as we are shown July’s first steps as an artist, her experimentation, and the honing of her craft. What comes next is her move into the slipstream that would bring her to a wider audience. After relocating to Los Angeles, July set to work securing funding for her first feature film. Me and You and Everyone We Know was released in 2005, and won the Caméra d’Or (best first feature film) award at the Cannes Film Festival. A second film, The Future, was released in 2011. July wrote, directed, and starred in both films.

Despite the transition into studio-funded filmmaking, live performance is a form which July keeps returning to. Her most recent iteration of this is New Society, in which she collaborates with the audience in the creation of, well, a new society. Interactive and immersive (July showed us footage from a performance, featuring the construction of a national anthem), while the show was in season it was asked of participants that they not share details of their experience, requesting “a quiet absence of information about the show online.” In an age of constant sharing and updating on our personal lives, July’s request was a challenge to her audience to keep the experience sacred and preserve the intimacy that they shared, so as to ensure the show was fresh and surprising for others. This desire for mystery and the unknown is evocative of July herself; as an artist, she is elusive and impossible to plot, which is part of her appeal.

July included an interactive segment in her show for us: a script of a phone call was displayed on the screen, all of the men in the audience reading as all of the men in the world, all of the women in the audience as all of the women in the world. Reading our lines, an atmosphere of inclusivity was created in the room. The exercise also revealed something about our groups: as the men struggled to stay in sync, the women’s voices were fluid and unified. As with most things she does, July is concerned with cutting to the quick of human nature and showing us as we really are. It’s a mark of her talent that she can achieve this in a film or a book as well as in a theatre full of people.

***

July repeatedly made it clear that for her, the road to creativity was never smooth. Stuck in a rut while writing the script for her second film, July began to obsessively read the local PennySaver newspaper. She was enthralled by the items for sale, the innocuous listings behind which lurked a real person. She began to call the numbers on the listings, asking if she could meet and interview the people who picked up. These interviews, and the accompanying photographs, became the book It Chooses You (2011). The stories told here are surprising, heartwarming, alarming, sad—in essence, utterly human. The ordinary items for sale—a leather jacket, a hair dryer—are the door into these people’s lives, and nothing is ever as it first appears. July’s fascination with human complexity, and perversity, is found in all her work, in one form or another. Her characters are often exaggerated, but never move totally out of the realm of plausibility. Through It Chooses You, July deals with a creative block by going out into the world and connecting with real people.

Breaking down barriers so that people can connect clearly holds massive appeal for July, and is central to the narratives she creates. Her story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You was released in 2007 to wide acclaim, and some discomfort. The New York Times described it as “a series of vignettes in which lonely, disconnected characters try to find communion with others, often by acting out in bizarre ways. Reading it is less like taking a narrative journey than undergoing a sort of occult experience.” In “Majesty”, a woman becomes obsessed with Prince William following a sex dream and concocts far-fetched plans for their meeting; in “Ten True Things”, a woman joins a beginners sewing class in order to get close to her boss’s wife; the frustrated, disparate couple in “Mon Plaisir” reconnect by becoming film extras, miming passionate conversations in the background of a movie set. I could go on, as the book is filled with characters and situations like these. The stories are undeniably bizarre, and yet they also touch upon something recognisable to all of us—loneliness, and the ways in which we circumvent it.

As you watch and read her stories, it is easy to transpose July onto a lot of her characters. Whether deliberate or unintentional, she creates the illusion that she is sharing secret parts of herself with her audience. In the story “Something That Needs Nothing”, the narrator and her girlfriend move to Portland and become specialised sex-workers; the narrator eventually ends up working in a peep show, similar to July. In her novel The First Bad Man, the protagonist Cheryl Glickman, an isolated and obsessive woman, becomes a mother following a bizarre series of events involving her boss’s daughter. Her inspiration for the story, July tells us, was her pregnancy and the deep connection she felt with her newborn son. Throughout her work July stretches and morphs the boundaries that separate self and art.

In what is probably the most confronting and taboo element of her work, July is fascinated with how adult sexuality intersects with the sexuality of the child. In one of her early short films, a couple in a living room give each other horny looks while a young girl watches television, totally oblivious as the man pulls his dick out. She shares this clip in her presentation, and the audience emits awkward laughter. July assures us that the child was never in the room at the same time, making it clear she knew how powerfully taboo this clip is, but nevertheless, it’s an uncomfortable watch. In Me and You and Everyone We Know, a young boy engages with an older woman in a chat room. Attempting dirty talk, the boy tells the woman that he wants to “poop back and forth, forever.” It’s innocent and hilarious and fucking weird, all at once. The First Bad Man features a relationship between a man in his sixties and a sixteen year old girl. Pondering their attraction, the man asks Cheryl, “Is it real or is it just the power of the taboo?” That’s a question that could be asked of a lot of July’s work.

How we should think of July? A sexual liberator? A voyeur? Just another crazy artist? She never attempts to tell us how we should feel about these scenes, or her part in them, leaving interpretation up to the audience—if we want to feel weird about it, that’s on us. Explaining her approach, July tells us that “at a certain point I realised that I was willing to be vulnerable […] It’s like a super power.” And her work is powerful, challenging us to think outside of what is normal and acceptable. Human behaviour isn’t rigid, and July’s characters, while they live in a recognisable world, don’t subscribe to our usual rules.

Of course, July faces plenty of criticism for her style. Descriptors like ‘quirky’ and ‘hipster’ are deployed against her like missiles; there is an ‘I Hate Miranda July’ tumblr, and various enraged blog posts. Reading these comments, I can’t help but feel like these people have got it all wrong. July’s work doesn’t seek to exclude anyone, like the ‘hipster’ accusation implies. By exploring fears, fantasies, and perversions, she is speaking to the weirdness in all of us; the things we won’t admit out loud, or even to ourselves. What we usually think of as taboo, July shows, isn’t something to necessarily shy away from. Then again, perhaps that’s too confronting for some. Personal taste aside, I think David Sedaris got it right when he said, “people who don’t like her are just jealous.” There is a daring and an openness in her work I can’t help but admire.

***

At the close of the show, after a Q&A session, July requests that we all turn to the nearest stranger and place a hand on them. There is some nervous laughter from the audience, but most people oblige. I turn to the woman next to me and gingerly, politely, place my hand on her bare arm. Behind me, somebody leans forward to touch my shoulder. The theatre is hot and I worry that my hand is leeching sweat onto a stranger’s bare skin. As we bashfully touch one another, July offers commentary: you may never meet this person again, years later you might pass each other in the street and not recognise that you once touched this person at a Miranda July show. She asks us to imagine what we might say to this person if we were with them on their death bed. I got the feeling that this was the part of the show she looked forward to the most, creating these connections in her audience, however fleeting. It’s incredibly awkward, and yet oddly moving. Kind of like July herself.

 

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