Miranda July at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.
Nobody really recognized Miranda July when she came outside the Ukrainian Federation. This is strange when you consider that she writes, directs and stars in her own movies—Me and You and Everyone We Know and, most recently, The Future—and that everyone in line was waiting in line to see her speak. We may have owned dog-eared copies of her short-story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You, or watched her countless videos of tips for the easily distracted or how to make a button. July's seven-year-long web project, Learning to Love You More, in which she proposed self-improvement "assignments," managed to draw over 8,000 submissions. But despite all this, on November 14, she just wandered through the crowd of Montrealers greeting everybody, almost unnoticed.
Thirty-seven-year-old July, with her endless string of creative projects, is often described as the epitome of the DIY indie girl, with what some have dubbed the perfect face-to-bangs ratio: 50 percent bangs, 50 percent face. But the elitism this label implies is at odds with her output. The Los Angeles artist's body of work feels like a constant attempt to bring people together, born out of a desperate need to connect. She often uses the words "you" and "we" in her titles. Her focus is always on the person she's speaking to.
Writer and former Maisonneuve columnist Sheila Heti, who introduced July at the Montreal talk, described her as "an artist who was born at the right time, and even if she was born in some other time, she'd use all the tools and technologies at her disposal to make contact with us." July has often connected and collaborated with other artists and the public online. But she found the inspiration for It Chooses You, her newest book, after cutting herself off from the internet. (She was finding it too distracting.) She was struggling to finish the script for The Future when she started procrastinating by reading the free classifieds paper PennySaver, which July described as "junk mail you're really supposed to throw out." She found herself becoming more interested in the sellers more than the items being sold. "I was like 'Oh, you know, that guy is selling a leather jacket...I wonder what's up there?'" she remembered, explaining that the temptation to meet the sellers soon became too much to resist. "Unlike all these other kinds of distractions, they actually wanted me to call them. Now!"
It Chooses You is a collection of interviews with those people, and July's first work of non-fiction. It doesn't have the same twee spirit as her books and movies; many of the individuals she meets are down on their luck, and no comic spin can change that. Take, for instance, Ron, whose story July read first at her Montreal event; he was selling a sixty-seven-piece art set, and when July arrived, she found that he was under house arrest. Instead of trying to make light of the situation, July said she "took extra-special care with [Ron's] interview." "I realized that I don't actually want to understand this kind of man," she explained. "I just want him to feel understood because I fear what will happen if I'm thought of as yet another person who doesn't believe him."
In typical style, July found a way to involve her Montreal audience. Before beginning her talk, she took down the names of audience members, then filmed others giving those people—total strangers—"the compliment they've always wanted to receive themselves." Between readings, July aired the videos she had just made. "If you hear your name being spoken, just stand up and just face the video, because it's for you," July quickly announced.
"Kent Waters, you have really good taste in sweaters," said one guy.
"Melissa Thompson, I feel like you're a magical process," said another person. "Like you crystallize around me, but you don't necessarily become or do what is obvious. But you just kind of take the right form for everything you do. You're always dissolving then becoming and then taking that away and that's just really impressed me. It really makes me feel like everyone can do the right thing. That's all."
The evening wasn't just a collaboration between July and the audience, but a reenactment of how and why we meet people. "All I ever really want to know is how people are making it through life: where do they put their body hour by hour, and how do they cope inside it," the writer professed.
On the internet, telling all can stand in for emotional honesty, and divulging is free and easy to do; in real life, that kind of trust can take time to build, which is why bonding and getting to know someone is so rewarding. A formal interview—structured, artificial and at times, awkward—can be just as problematic as an online confessional: it's difficult to decipher what is sincere.
In It Chooses You, it could seem as though July is selling out her subjects. She reveals very personal details about their lives, without giving them the means to defend themselves. July said that none of her subjects seemed to use the internet at all, but they were still willing to connect with her. And in order to do that, they had to share—a founding principle of social-networking sites, although in this case, it was on a much smaller scale. July admitted that the internet is "so inherently endless that it didn't occur to me what wasn't there." Google results pale in comparison to real-life surprises. Consider the people July filmed for her Montreal talk. How many of the people in those videos met each other afterwards? Was it weird? Sure, they might see each other around—but will they speak? Or will they turn to Facebook stalking instead?
Conversation relies on mutual leap-taking: two people meet and exchange stories. In most interviews—as for July's book—they are strangers, and one of them must be trusted to retell the other's stories as truthfully as possible. When meeting in person, both participants push each other, focusing on minute details, or going off on wild tangents. Heti said of July, "She is not afraid to make the first move." When July took questions at the end of her talk, she ruled some personal questions off-limits. But when one audience member asked how she avoided taking herself too seriously, she remembered something that had happened seventeen years ago, when she was twenty.
"I was probably at the height of taking myself seriously," she admitted, "but I remember overhearing this woman—this friend's girlfriend who I didn't really know—just talking about something she was doing, and then she went 'Ugh—me, me, me!' And it's like, you're in your twenties and you're just figuring out who you are and how to be, and I had just never heard anyone say that.
"And so, just on a whim, a couple of days later, I was talking about myself for awhile, as I...you know. I was talking to this person I had just started dating, then I suddenly stopped and I went 'Ugh—me, me, me!' And my new girlfriend at the time said 'That's what I love about you. Here I think you're so gone on your own thing, and then you just stop and laugh about yourself.' Like, whoa—that was a close one! I just learned that two days ago!
"I wouldn't talk about this if I was around anyone I knew because I still say that, and it's always very real. But that is sort of to say that I think these things are just learned," she concluded. "As time goes on, and you fuck up and it's not that funny, your sense of humour expands."
Miranda July's latest book, It Chooses You, was recently published by McSweeney's.
Photo by Yvan Rodic.
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