Berlinale Dispatch: Miranda July Can't Quite Read The Future

Filmmaker, writer, performance artist, what-have-you Miranda July ambled onto the scene in 2005 with her debut film, Me and You and Everyone We Know, which became a surprise arthouse sort-of smash. Since then, July has published a book of short stories, created art projects for the Venice Biennale, and put together a performance piece. She's working hard at becoming the Woody Allen of the "Meh" Generation, and she's getting closer, and not for the better, with her new picture The Future, which premiered at Sundance and is one of the competition films at the Berlinale.

In The Future, a youngish couple (they're in their mid-30s), stalled out in their careers and their relationship, decide to adopt a sick cat that will require constant care. It's never spelled out exactly why these two -- they're named Sophie and Jason, and they're played by July and Hamish Linklater -- have decided to embark on this shaky adventure. Is it a trial run for a baby? Or just a joint project that they hope will make them feel more connected to each other and the world? Neither they nor we nor anyone else knows, least of all the poor cat, who we hear in voiceover reflecting on his sad, lonely life as a former stray and counting the days until his new people will pick him up. He needs to recover for a month at the vet's, though the couple is warned that if they don't pick him up on the assigned day, he'll be immediately euthanized.

You can guess pretty early on in The Future that that's going to be a problem, because it takes Jason and Sophie forever to do anything. It's as if they're moving and talking in an underwater dream, and they have the audacity to think we ought to care about it all. Using the cat-adoption waiting period as a time to change their lives, they quit their boring jobs and try, limply, to reinvent themselves. Things happen to them; one is drawn to do something that's potentially hurtful to the other, for reasons not even that character seems to understand. July folds in all sorts of surrealist elements: A little girl digging a hole in her backyard (what she wants it for is even weirder); a man who has the ability to stop time; a security "blanket" (its actually a T-shirt) that follows its hyperneurotic owner like a faithful dog.

The Future is too self-absorbed and too boring by half; July's style of direction is so indirect that the minutes inch by with caterpillar speed. The bummer is that it didn't have to be that way. The Future is actually trying hard to be about something: The painful reality that it's impossible for us to value seemingly dull everyday routines, as well as the emotional security that often comes with them, until they're gone. And in the film's final 20 minutes, July comes close to pulling off something that feels like poignance.

Close, but no cigar. There's just too much July in The Future, and a little goes a long way. She looks like an alien flapper doll, with her arms and legs attached at slightly off angles, and the false modesty of her character's spacy observations and pronouncements comes off as a perverse kind of self-importance. Sophie and Jason moan about their not-so-horrible lives, while their potential adoptee, lonely and desperate in his little cage, waits. And waits. And waits. We know just how he feels.

Thanks to a combination of schedule conflicts and minor mid-festival exhaustion, I wasn't able to catch the Monday night screening of Hungarian slowpoke filmmaker Béla Tarr's new "short" (at least in relative terms -- it clocks in at only 146 minutes), The Turin Horse. A colleague filled me in at breakfast the next morning: "There's a man and a woman in a house," he began. "They have nothing but potatoes to eat." He paused before adding helpfully, "There's also a horse." Béla Tarr fans will, of course, want to know more -- the film has been respectfully received here. For others, that may be enough.



Comments

  • Patrick McEvoy-Halston says:

    She had her husband in "Me and you" burn his hand before their kids, and you had a sense throughout that anything vaguely dependent was being kept around, sometimes for knowing commentary, but just as much to be savy but still for-sure compliant deposits of sadism. If this proves the voice of a generation, it's one THAT WANTS to be put out of its misery. Seems untenable; can't go on like this. There's got to be some purpose to make self-sacrifice seem just plain necessary or, even better, noble, rather than so apparently just a grotesque, entrenched impulse to repeatedly play with sacrificing themselves or near-obvious "them" substitutes into the cairn. A generation that indulges too much in being, not profoundly lost, but repetition-driven, pointless, is going to stop licking and pointing to its wounds when it fears that too much time is passing to keep their old wounds and wound-makers relevant to their current behavior; at some point, with even entrenched old tormentors surely now onto many other things, with even the recent past, in the increasingly rare instances we really focus on it, as today's daily survival and urgent, reverberant events commands all our attention, at best just a bafflement of how could they have done or thought this?, their urgent scrambling for holding will mean their taking whatever proffered to upgrade from "meh" to become the "greatest" generation: what the post 1920s depression generation did, as it went from the crowd that doesn't get to have any fun, to one that entrenched itself into cultural memory for maybe millenniums.
    Even poor cats are a bit hard to imagine as having pleading eyes, or as ever really being that attached to you; the death-dealing vet could probably near as easily provoke it into one last purr as readily as a ten-year owner might: I wonder if she selected a cat so to be an improvement on the kids in her first film; something actually stronger, more distinctly alien, to push back with an empowered unrelatingness against her scary, rebounding play with snuffing the vulnerable but "hip to" out.

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