No Future in Miranda July’s *The Future*

[image nicked from http://www.studio360.org/2011/jul/29/miranda-july-sees-future/%5D

This feels, for a while, like a typical mumblecore kind of movie: an arty, hipster L.A. couple, affectionate but not passionate, unfulfilled by work, hanging around their apartment, moving towards the big step of adopting a cat… But then things splinter into various forms of fantastical, sci-fi, & dreamlike modes that reminded me of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (M. July is very Michel Gondryesque as a filmmaker).  I liked it a lot.

The following does not really contain any spoilers.

The most audacious and potentially off-putting (but IMO brilliant) element of the movie is its narration by the above-mentioned cat, Paw-Paw (a nod to the best-known track from the Shaggs’ Philosophy of the World, “My Pal Foot-Foot”?).  Paw-Paw is an injured shelter cat (he burned his paw) whom Sophie and Jason (above-mentioned hanging-around-the-apartment hipsters) plan to adopt.  Turns out Paw-Paw needs a month’s recuperation time before coming home with them.  They decide that their carefree youth will in effect be concluded once they take on this responsibility (they are 35), so the movie plays out in this final month before “the future” arrives — whatever that will bring.

I realize I’m echoing similar points I made about the Mike Leigh movie (idee fixe?)… but I read the movie as being about care-taking and responsibility and the fear that one is unable to care for another — ideas that get extended in somewhat dizzying ways to environmentalist thoughts & feelings about care for the earth.  These underemployed slackers can barely hold down a job, and so the thought of adopting an injured and possibly traumatized cat frightens them (to be fair, I remember having thoughts like this when we got Figgy circa 1999 — ah, callow, childless youth!  How little we knew of what we could or could not, but must, take care of).  Also, the shelter will apparently give them no more than a one-day grace period, once this month is up, before euthanizing Paw-Paw (seems like a pretty harsh policy, but this is L.A.), so this month, the movie’s chronotope, becomes potentially either a period of healing and movement towards life or one towards abrupt termination of life.

The movie posits several different what we could call “objects of care” or of responsibility.  First, there’s Paw-Paw, our narrator who occasionally breaks in from his cage at the pound to explain his excitement and difficulty in waiting for his adoptive parents to take him home.  (Paw-Paw is narrated by Miranda July herself in baby-voice with the help of some crude prosthetic paws).  Then, there are the baby trees that Jason ends up “selling” in his job as a door-to-door solicitor for an environmentalist group called “Tree to Tree” that aims to re-forest L.A.  (A few of these are delivered to their apartment at one point, their roots wrapped in burlap; they seem like babies dropped off at the entrance to an orphanage.) There is also a child, someone’s nine year old girl, who ends up (in one of the movie’s various increasingly surreal/fantastical moments) in effect planting herself like a baby tree in the back yard.  (Is this akin to self-burial or suicide?  Or an attempt at self-care?)

Finally, at a more cosmic level, there’s the earth itself (as “object of care”).  In his depression, Jason at one point remarks to an uninterested customer something like, “you’re right.  It’s too late anyway.  You know that moment when the wrecking ball has hit the building, and for one moment, the building is perfectly still before it collapses?  That’s us, we’re like that building.”  When the guy asks why, if this is true, Jason is even bothering, Jason says (this is very approximate) “I don’t know.  I just liked it, you know?  Not just the trees and the birds and stuff, but the houses, cars, t.v., coffee shops… I liked the whole thing.”

[If we're looking for keynotes of the art and culture of our moment, surely one major one will turn out to be moments like this, when a character articulates a frighteningly apocalyptic vision of environmental collapse.  E.g. the character in Franzen's Freedom who loses it and screams at a news conference: “WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!  WE ARE A CANCER ON THE PLANET!”]

So the movie ends up drawing a parallel between Jason and Sophie’s desire to adopt an injured cat, and their perhaps well-founded fear that they will not be able to care for it properly, to our more general desire to care for our injured & traumatized planet.  (And along the way a few other objects of care: the baby trees, the self-planting little girl.)

The movie’s big question is, at various levels, is it too late?  Is there “a future” at all?– for this relationship, for Paw-Paw, for the girl who plants herself in the ground as if to try to care for or raise herself on her own, for the planet?

So I don’t agree with those who dismiss July as a twee, self-regarding slacker… She uses the materials & aesthetics of that kind of lifestyle/ attitude (Etsy crafts, self-documenting or curating, underemployment, found objects & texts, lost pets, obsession with youth and old age/ evasion of adulthood) but turns them into something pretty deep.

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