Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Caitlin's Review of The Future

Scare Quote Scare by Caitlin Murphy

I don’t love Miranda July’s films. In fact, I’m not even sure I really like them. But I’m bloody glad she makes them. If female protagonists are despairingly rare at the local googleplex, female writer/directors are almost nowhere to be seen. Though July’s recent outing, The Future, has lots to offer, ultimately it plays its emotional cards too close.

Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are about to adopt a cat that supposedly only has a month to live: altruism with an expiry date = perfect. Upon learning that Paw-Paw could actually live several years though, the couple does the math (unique to self-absorbed thirty-somethings), and realizes that life as they know it will end with animal ownership. Thus they devote the next 30 days to finally, fully, really living their lives, for real. This means that Sophie has to give up her voyeuristic internet addiction and demeaning job teaching dance to toddlers, and Jason has to unplug from numbing tech-support-from-home work and find a more meaningful role in the universe.

The Future is most compelling in its focus on the vacuous, aimless day-to-day living that modern technologies have encouraged. In a brilliant scene, Jason and Sophie, knowing their internet is about to be cut off, frantically try to think of things to look up that can only be discovered online. It’s a perfect picture of the hungry ghosts that we’ve become. Similarly, Sophie obsessively watches youtube videos of dancing rivals, and the self-torture is palpable – consumer’s passivity leads to creative paralysis. It’s with these insights that July’s script resonates most: we are losing our ability to be present and our inclination to act or connect – this predicament is real and soul-sucking. After these initial highlights though, The Future sloshes into muddier ground where the stakes become obscured and the story, less rewarding.

What’s frustrating about the narrative is this: we’re set up with these two independently-disgruntled characters in a claustrophobic, albeit charming, relationship; so consumed with their own lives, they’re scared to extend caring to any creature beyond themselves. That’s our explicit premise. And it’s developed beyond the Paw-Paw problem: we’re shown that Sophie and Jason are full of ideas about the neighbour they spy on, but never meet; that they largely treat other people as flattering or frustrating mirrors of themselves; that Sophie actively avoids her own friends. The rewarding movement from such an insular place would logically be an outward one, even subtly outward (I so wanted them to run into that neighbour!); but by film’s end the cat has conveniently died, and so has any real need to extend outward, and try to view others as entities unto themselves, not just performers in our puppet shows. There were enough substantial, relatable problems that July set up, but we wind up in the ashes of a new, largely unrelated issue (Sophie has a rather random affair that is revealed and the couple almost breaks up) which only forces a deeper inward turning. In short, there was a much bigger and better pay off available in this story, and the one that was offered instead didn’t feel quite earned.

Though it may sound unfair – like semantic hair-splitting perhaps – July strikes me as more of an artist than a filmmaker. Her other film, Me You and Everyone We Know (2005), was rightfully lauded as a striking debut feature, but often I find her characters speak or behave too similarly, and her personae generally bleeds out too much. As a result, the world of the film often feels one-note, monochromatic, lacking shading. I can’t help but feel that an artist’s sense of aesthetics and a story-teller’s sense of architecture are perhaps overlapping, but ultimately differing, gifts. July also has a tendency to over-write, and sometimes you wish she’d pull back more. For instance, repeated scenes of Paw-Paw, the cat, (voiced by July herself) sharing its perspective on the story, aren’t substantive or compelling enough to add much. And talking animals are just too twee. (Strangely I had the same complaint about a sub-titled dog in the recent flick Beginners, written and directed by Mike Mills, who is Mirdanda July’s boyfriend. Hmm.)

Over the last few generations, expectations of what ‘adulthood’ should look like have dramatically widened. This has ushered in greater freedoms, of course, but also a lot of existential meandering, some of it meaningful, some of it decadent. You wonder if perhaps what comes with the subdued insistence that “we’re not gonna have big, old-fashioned things like lavish weddings, 60 year anniversaries, or a bunch of kids” is the sad sense that big things simply aren’t part of life anymore. That life and living are not meant to be epic. I appreciate July’s intention to reinvigorate life with a sense of the magical in response to the mundane, I really do. But something about the ironic tone of the film and the insularity of the story keeps this message from coming fully up to the surface and getting its needed breath.

It’s an unfortunate trend in comedic film of late: characters written as though they know they’re funny (or at least suspect it). It’s weird and off-putting. Humour’s greatest strength, I would argue, is its ability to show us those moments in which people are too overwhelmed by life to notice how silly, fun and absurd it all is. We get to notice it for them. And in recognizing the obliviousness of others, we partially come to terms with our own. When characters are too knowingly zany, whimsical, quirky or clever, the audience can feel shut out, like it doesn’t have much to do. It’s difficult to connect to a character that always sees it coming.

I once had a friend who liked to talk in euphemisms. Even about serious, life-altering issues, like possibly having a “bun in the oven.” It was hard to take her seriously; more distressingly, it was hard to tell if she took herself seriously; euphemisms are explicitly used for emotional distancing. When characters can’t seem to decide whether they have a problem, or a quote unquote problem, audiences can’t be expected to care whether it – whichever it is – gets solved.

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