Sunday, July 1, 2012

Innocent pleasures

(originally published in The Outreach Connection in August 2005)

Miranda July has received accolades for her debut film Me and You and Everyone we Know, winning awards at both the Sundance and Cannes festivals. July wrote and directed the film and also stars in it as a struggling conceptual artist who falls in love with a newly separated shoe salesman. Other characters revolve around them, linked in generally rather perverse ways. A. O. Scott in The New York Times said that the film “proposes a delicate, beguiling idea of community and advances it in full awareness of the peculiar obstacles that modern life presents.”

Me And You And...

The film is often nicely handled, generally intriguing and sometimes quite funny, and July herself comes across as sweetly quirky. But I must say thatMe and You and Everyone we Know struck me as egotistical and pretentious. The title points to the film’s melding of intimacy and universality – its every line of dialogue seems like a gambit in some celestial game of strategy. The characters have sex heavily on their minds, but there’s no conventional gratification in the film, and its most extreme sexual concepts come from the doodling imaginations of children. But they find a point of intersection in the real world, and July’s film is at its most skillful in crafting connections and parallels. The subtext of these though, intended or not, seems merely to be that one thing is just about as meaningless as the next. The performance art videos made by July’s character appear to be, more or less, improvised drivel, but it appears we’re meant to find them charming (one scene makes fun of the pretensions of modern art, but this seems merely like biting the hand that feeds).

Indeed, watching the film felt less like a conventional cinematic experience than like being before an installation in a modern art museum. This could be praise (certainly it was so for Matthew Barney’s Cremaster cycle, released here last year) but in this case it’s primarily a reflection of the film’s dubious relation to reality – neither grasping it, not placing itself at an artistically rewarding distance from it. On the Ebert and Roeper TV show, the two reviewers raved about a scene where the two main protagonists have a conversation while walking down a street, praising the dialogue’s individuality and delicacy. But that scene is a fake –no one talks that way, which wouldn’t be a problem if the scene had any other kind of payoff, except it doesn’t. It’s a device for the easily seduced; a plastic bouquet.

In the film’s last scene, July engineers a set-up involving a child, a coin, and the sun, that reminded me a little of Stanley Kubrick’s famous cut in 2001 from a swirling bone, thrown into the air during the dawn of man sequence, to a space station thousands of years subsequently. It’s rather stunning, but July’s evocation of ultimate power is disproportionate to anything justified by the movie, and the scene’s underlying notion of self-determination is merely trite. As for the film’s widespread success, I think it merely illustrates the vanity of middlebrow urban audiences. The mixture of non-denominational new-age spiritual uplift, mildly racy humour, longer than usual words and a general patina of “artiness” just about catches the intersection where I and you and most of whom we know aspire to live.


Sally Potter’s film Yes hasn't received such uniformly positive reviews, which is fairly typical of Potter’s work. Of her last two films, The Tango Lesson was largely viewed as self-absorbed (which made sense to me) and The Man who Cried had virtually no admirers whatsoever. Except me – I put it on my top ten list for the year (admittedly a little generously). An epic of sorts, with international settings and a big name cast, it seemed designed to be susceptible to analysis in the same way that film theorists mull over Bette Davis’ 1940’s films, and it came pretty close. Her new film has a gimmick to rival her earlier gender-bending time-traveling Orlando – the dialogue is spoken completely in iambic pentameter. Joan Allen plays a genetic researcher in a deadening marriage, who falls in love with an Lebanese kitchen-worker; obviously a touchstone for a meditation on contemporary geopolitics.

The film is sometimes difficult to warm to (although the poetic dialogue goes down smoothly enough that you often forget the entire conceit), but overall it’s impressive for all its flaws, and unlike July’s film it feels resolutely like a piece of cinematic exploration, in search of a visceral audience response. Taking the opposite tack to Me and You... (an oddly clean, as in sterile, work), Yes opens and closes on particles of dirt, meditating on its ever-presence, its intimate relationship to human activity, the way it can only be moved around and never destroyed. Initially this sounds merely worth a shrug, but it becomes gradually persuasive as a totem of Potter’s investigative zeal, her belief that all can be transcended if you just analyze and care about it enough. Her scenes radiate visual and thematic immersion (albeit sometimes of a gee-whiz nature), and the film leaps around at times as much as Me and You...,  with as convinced a sense of universal dysfunction. Potter takes her camera to Beirut, she forces herself into the perspective of a Middle Eastern immigrant; and the poetic verbal device denies her the luxury of a single easy piece of dialogue. Thus Allen’s profession, immersing herself in the building blocks of existence, becomes a viable metaphor for Potter herself, and the preoccupation with minute physical matter becomes more than merely an affectation.

Moral Complacency

The movie’s approach to global politics is no doubt romantic and idealistic – Allen’s dying aunt is a diehard Communist who still idolizes Castro’s Cuba, which prompts Allen to take off there, leading to a rather glorious climax that fuses contemporary realities, swooning romantic fantasy, and a final return to the concept of granularity and interconnectedness. The same A. O. Scott gave Yes a blistering review, stating among other things that Potter’s “formal ingenuity..., which it would be unkind to dismiss as mere pretension, is yoked to ideas of almost staggering banality,” that the film “consists of nothing but stereotypes,” and that it “offers a case study in the moral complacency of the creative class, and its verbal cleverness cannot disguise the vacuous self-affirmation summed up in the title.” I can’t argue that the film has its problems, but banal as its themes may be, those are the issues that continue to confound us, and moral complacency is our age’s universal currency. Did I mention that Me and You and Everyone we Know has I think but a single stab at political analysis, via one character’s assertion that “Email wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for AIDS”?

The difference in quality between the two films seems to me all but obvious, but most reviewers saw it the other way around.

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