Realism is a dubious premise for reality. Verifiable data accumulates endlessly but, for those to whom this wealth of knowledge is most accessible, it can often take the form of an overflowing bathtub. There’s a scene early on in writer/director/star Miranda July’s The Future, when Sophie (July) and her boyfriend, Jason (Hamish Linklater), anticipating a month-long campaign to jump-start their lives, are about to have the Internet shut off in their apartment. Rushing to make the most of their last, precious moments in the Library of Alexandria, the pair are panicked to discover that they have no idea what to google. “Christmas falls on a Tuesday this year.” mutters Linklater. “Don’t look that up!” “Well, what are you looking up?” “I’m looking up Mapquest!” It’s one of the funniest scenes in a funny movie. That it is a movie about implausible characters with psychokinetic powers set in a magical-realist L.A. and narrated by a talking cat is also true. “Nothing is true, everything is permitted” said someone whose name I would be unable to tell you without googling it. I am comfortable calling Google a psychokinetic power.
The talking cat is Paw-Paw, so named for her bandaged front leg, the physical manifestation of a mysterious injury that, once Sophie and Jason adopt her and following Paw-Paw’s thirty days recuperation at an animal shelter, will require round-the-clock care for the remainder of her life. July’s protagonists receive this information with a combination of dread and fortitude that should look familiar to anyone who has ever contemplated, you know, the future. They will soon be responsible for a living thing. Naturally, their response is to quit their jobs (Jason does tech-support from home, Sophie teaches dance classes for little kids) and set out to accomplish stuff. Sophie decides to conquer the bloodsport-world of youtube dance videos while Jason, faced with a month in which to discover his purpose in life, shrewdly decides to sit tight. “You know, basically, I’m just going to keep an eye out for coincidences, doubles, any bright lights …” The universe accommodates him almost immediately and Jason is there after inundated with instructions, these arriving in guises as varied as an old man selling a used hair-dryer and a talking moon. Everything talks in The Future, both figuratively and literally. Household objects buzz and drone. A suburban dad explains that his gold chain lets women know he is “down to fuck.” The distance between signifier and signified, between what something does and what it means, shrinks to nothing. Everything just is what it means. In case you missed it, this is also the basis of narrative storytelling.
For all the mystical whimsy and twee tiger-traps lurking in this plot synopses, The Future watches like a pretty low-tech production. Unlike certain other recent films about hesitating protagonists and their invisible signs, the world July constructs here retains the familiar physicality of our own, relying on inspired set- and prop-design and insightful cinematography to remind viewers that the world we live in is, itself, already pretty otherwordly. Sophie and Jason’s apartment, for instance, looks like an art installation about entropy at the same time that it looks like an actual, dirty, afghan-strewn apartment. Paw-Paw’s two front legs (the only part of her we see) look like real, weight-having, kneading, grasping paws. Concerning July’s second performance in the film as the voice of Paw-Paw, listening to a cat intermittently pontificate about the difference between Outside and Inside goes way better than it has any right to.
At the Q&A following the screening we attended, an audience-member questioned the casting wisdom of directors starring in their own films. July responded that the guy had it backwards and that, considering her one-woman, performance-art past, casting other actors in her work was a relatively new phase of her career. “I auditioned like forty different people to do Paw-Paw,” she said, “but I just kept making more and more notes until it would have been mean to make anyone else but me play the part.” It’s an interesting lens through which to view July’s films. Early work like her Love Diamond performances or even her old Kill Rock Stars 7”s succeed by building familiar worlds out of avant garde materials. Her live shows often involve some variation of her in front a projection-screen, alternating different characters’ voices into a big, homely, head-set microphone, the same kind Jason wears for his tech-support job. That the avant garde can be homely is part of its power, I think. The dance videos July makes and attributes to Sophie’s youtube-competitors are beautiful and the reason they are beautiful is because they synthesize homeliness so effortlessly.
In a jacket-blurb for the equally divisive Tao Lin, July offered that Lin “writes from moods that less radical writers would let pass … [a]nd it turns out that his report from these places is moving and necessary.” It’s hard not to read a little bit of kinship in that line. Characters like Sophie and Jason are easily and rightly mocked for their self-absorption, but I think July manages something better than mocking, something gifted filmmakers accused of the same crimes - the Wes Andersons and Noah Baumbachs of the world - rarely manage to pull off: she holds her characters responsible. It would be easy to make too much of the the body count that The Future quietly takes on in its third act, but you can’t ignore it, either. The bedrock assumption of art is that our experiences change us, mundane though they may be, that our actions have consequences, and at heart I think that is an optimistic assumption. What are the consequences of adopting a stray cat, July asks, of cheating on your boyfriend or haphazardly picking up your laptop, of making art or freezing time? How are you different from the person you used to be? What remains the same? What’s your favorite Beach House song? Let the whole thing play out and have faith that others will find it moving and necessary.