Miranda July: Some people will always react to something new with derision
The director of US high-quirk indie cinema returns with her best yet, Kajillionaire
Miranda July: it’s a real gift to be able to start a first draft without really knowing what I’m writing about. Photograph: Elizabeth Weinberg/The New York Times
There’s Miranda July in Los Angeles. Like a character from one of her tricky, off-centre films – or novels or art projects – I accidentally find myself spying on her for a minute or two. Waiting for the go-ahead on Zoom, she has her head down over notes while the administrator tweaks the settings.
“Oh, hi! I didn’t know you were there. I didn’t look up.”
That was a very modern moment.
“Yes, it was.”
July is currently engulfed in modern moments. Her latest film, Kajillionaire, has just opened in US cinemas. Following a family of eccentric grifters as they bounce from minor scam to pocket heist, the movie is in the same wheelhouse as earlier July projects such as The Future and Me and You and Everyone We Know. It’s the sort of eccentric film that opens in Los Angeles and New York before eventually – all going well – finding the odd berth in the interior. But cinemas in those two places are closed for business.
“Yeah. I just had the weirdest opening weekend ever,” she says. “I drove an hour away to where theatres are open and saw the movie in a cinema. It was a very unfull theatre – because that’s all that is allowed.”
Meanwhile, the good people of Brooklyn and West Hollywood must wait for the all-clear.
“Yeah, usually my movies would open in New York and LA and then gradually widen,” she says. “Instead it was sort of just the inverse. But there is something kind of beautiful about all these people who aren’t used to being the first audience suddenly became the tastemakers.”
If you are writing a piece on “unexpected benefits of the pandemic” you can have that for free.
Miranda July was born in a leafy part of central Vermont before moving with her parents to the San Francisco Bay Area. Her parents, both writers and teachers, founded a successful publishing house focused on spiritual issues and alternative philosophies. In the mid-1990s, Miranda dropped out of the University of California and made for Portland, Oregon. Where else? I imagine an orgy of bohemian interaction. The streets were surely running with slam poetry and art happenings.
“That was right before that. No, when I moved there, Portland was still pretty dark. There were a lot of junkies. What was there was kind of a punk scene. It was cheap and that was important to me. But it was also kind of depressing. It rains a lot and I am from California. It was small, but big enough to find people to work with.”
That punk scene – infused with the riot grrrl aesthetic – was at the heart of her influential project Joanie4Jackie. The compilation of work by female film-makers, assembled like a chain letter, ran to a series of tapes that eventually ended up in the collection of the Getty Research Institute. Performance art pieces such as Love Diamond and The Swan Tool followed. July saw these pieces, addressing the cultural pressures placed on women, as “live movies” and, happily, independent financiers were sufficiently convinced by that argument to get behind Me and You and Everyone We Know.
That debut feature, starring the director and John Hawkes as two oddballs in an off-centre universe, won raves from the right people in 2005. It took the Caméra d’Or for best first film at Cannes Festival and the special jury prize at the Sundance Film Festival. But not everybody was on board with her school of High Quirk.
“There are always going to be those people who react to something new with anger and derision,” she says. “Before I made a name for myself, I was doing all this performing and people would just be so confused that they would be actually angry. I was often in a band. There’d be, like, two bands and then me performing. It was a punk world. It was like when I was in high school.”
July started out as a performance artist. She has been a musician. She achieved indie fame as a film-maker. Now, she is as well known for her fiction as for any of her other enterprises. The First Bad Man, her debut novel, was passed around eagerly in 2015. “July’s novel is the invisible made plain: it tells us how it feels to be in the world as another person, moment to moment,” the Financial Times raved. Cartoonist Chris Ware and fellow multi-hyphenate Lena Dunham were also fans.
Still, there must, surely, have been critics who eyed her polymathic tendencies with suspicion. We often prefer artists to stick to a lane.
“We all have inside us those lanes, and so even people who don’t have any intellectual problem with it still press that upon me,” she says with no apparent bitterness. “And it’s just not relevant. I’m often having to answer the question of why it has been seven years since my last movie. And that is strange for someone who is kind of a workaholic.”
Her latest film is as pointedly unusual as its predecessors. Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins and Evan Rachel Wood play, respectively, mother, father and daughter of a family that lives by robbing mail from post offices, selling back people their own watches and fiddling airlines out of insurance money. This being a July joint, the gang resides in a scruffy building next to a bubble factory that daily leaks foam through the ceiling.
So far, so quirky. But unlike July’s earlier films, Kajillionaire is also at home to real emotional purchase. When Gina Rodriguez arrives as a relative normie (I said “relative”), the daughter of the family goes through a belated awakening. The film is funny, unsettling and surprisingly moving. It is July’s best yet.
“Visually, they came to me all at once,” she says of her oddball characters. “All I can say is they allowed me so much room to explore things that I was interested in without being super-conscious of doing so. They are the perfect characters for me because they can do all these things and be delightful and kind of messed up. But the whole time I didn’t know that I was getting into such murky territory. To me it’s a real gift to be able to start a first draft without really knowing what I’m writing about.”
By chance, July seems to have manoeuvred herself into a current arthouse genre. The last two films to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Shoplifters and Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, were both about families of creative grifters. This is an interesting structure for teasing out neoliberal hypocrisies and questioning the validity of social norms. A triple bill seems inevitable.
“I haven’t seen the Kore-eda film, but I love his work,” she says. “We were getting ready to go into production when that movie won at Cannes. I remember reading a synopsis of it and emailing my producer: ‘Oh, do you think I need to worry about this? This sounds really similar to our movie.’ But I love the film-maker. So I’m not bothered. The dynamics here are still the dynamics of a traditional family.”
Kajillionaire is out in the places where it can be out. July, who is married to the film-maker Mike Mills with one child, is now struggling with the same complexities that surround everyone else in the time of Covid. And then there is the election. So many Americans seem paralysed by the possibility of another four years of Donald Trump. I don’t imagine Miranda July has many pals who voted for him (I doubt more than a handful of supporters have watched one of her films in full). There is an awful lot of hoping going on.
“You can’t even call it a nail biter,” she says. “Because a nail biter is when you really believe that the system works. We need everyone to vote in overwhelmingly high numbers. But then there’s this deep fear that maybe that won’t be enough – like voting won’t be enough. It’s beyond a crisis. You look at the news every morning and think: what way is this going? Like this thing about his taxes. That’s the equivalent of good news these days.”
Yes. Hooray, the president’s a crook!
July nods, but she doesn’t exactly smile.
Kajillionaire is released on October 9th