Say what you like about video interviews but I’ve never begun a conversation quite so close to a famous person’s face as I do Miranda July’s. “You’re making me feel like I should put on some lipstick,” she says when she picks up the phone from her office in Los Angeles’ Echo Park, then leans in close and uses our call screen as a mirror.
As I browse the bookshelf behind her (even at a remove of almost 5,500 miles, it feels impolite to gawk), I consider how this slightly unorthodox set-up must feel like child’s play to July. For over 25 years now, she’s been putting out films, books and a jumble of genre-bending art projects that seek to upend normal social relations in favour of sweeter, weirder ways of connecting.
There was the time she made an app that encouraged users to deliver in-person messages to strangers in their vicinity. And the time she got chatting to an Uber driver on her way to interview Rihanna and ended up making a piece for the Victoria and Albert Museum about his use of technology. Even under normal circumstances, she operates on “the assumption that we are lonely and alone and that we are trying to connect,” she explains, lips now glossy. “Like, that’s already in place in my mind.”
July has a banner few months ahead of her: the publication of a self-titled monograph this week, the Criterion Collection reissue of her 2005 breakout film Me and You and Everyone We Know on April 28 and the cinema distribution (hopefully) of her third feature film Kajillionaire on June 19 in the US.
But these commitments were all made pre-pandemic, so I have to ask: is she not considering packing in the publicity drive and making art about this extraordinarily lonely moment instead?
July agrees it’s “very tempting to go there”. But, actually, the only intervention on her mind is nursing. “We won’t get into this,” she warns, “but I think I had it in February.” She starts outlining how she could get tested to see if she has Covid-19 immunity so as to volunteer in hospitals, then stops short. “It’s low priority for Miranda July to get this test so she can be a wartime nurse,” she says, her deep voice rising with laughter. “There’s a certain amount of drama to that that’s probably a good indication I should just write my novel and lay low.”
If you are thinking that there’s something studied, maybe a bit performative, about Miranda July, the answer is yes, and, yes, she knows. At one point during our conversation, she deconstructs the seemingly casual outfit she’s chosen for it: the way she’s clipped back her short curls on each side is “a little bit of, like, 1930s something”. Her large thin-rimmed glasses are “kind of ’70s”, while the blue bomber jacket suggests something “a teeny bit masculine”.
July, who is 46, says she dresses herself with the same care she would a movie character, even if she’s doing nothing more than shuttling between her office and the nearby home in Silver Lake that she shares with her husband, director Mike Mills, and their eight-year-old child Hopper. “My child has seen me hurrying to get us all in the car to take him to school, and I’ll change [my clothes],” she says. “It’s the course of the whole day I’m setting here.”
Miranda Jennifer Grossinger became Miranda July when she was 16 years old and adopted the surname of a character in a zine she made with a friend. Born in Vermont in 1974 to parents who worked in alternative publishing, and raised in Berkeley, California, she attended UC Santa Cruz then dropped out in her second year and moved to Portland.
She became embedded in the city’s booming DIY scene when in 1995 she set up Joanie 4 Jackie: a makeshift film-distribution network that solicited women’s home-made art films, compiled them on VHS videotape, and posted them back out to the community. Now that the only barrier to self-documentation is a bad internet connection, it’s hard to cast back to a time when this would have felt truly radical, but her achievement is summed up by the fact The Getty Research Institute acquired Joanie 4 Jackie’s archives in 2017.
In Portland, July also built a local reputation as an artist worth watching. She made experimental short films, radio plays and performance pieces, often consisting of mundane yet surreal conversations in which she’d voice all the parts.
It’s easy to guess at narcissism when an artist inserts themself so fully into their work, but July seems to have been grasping at something more fundamental: the desire to establish herself firmly in the world when her grip on it felt shaky. “I come from a line of people who couldn’t cope and killed themselves, often by jumping out of windows,” she says, deadpan. “Certainly, as a teenager I was like, ‘Which way is this gonna go?’ Am I gonna be one of those people who just goes so far out on a limb that she goes off the edge of it? Or am I going to be able to hold it together?”
She speaks about finding herself in “kind of scary situations” in her twenties. (In her semi-autobiographical short story “Something That Needs Nothing”, the lead character moves to Portland and starts working in a peep show after a relationship sours. When asked about this detail in other interviews, she has replied “no comment”, and I don’t repeat the question.) Either way, July says she felt she had to “eat this world” to be a part of it. “I think I had to be quite proactive and strong about that embrace, you know, because it was real up for grabs.”
In her late twenties, Hollywood gave July “a f**king break” and the $800,000 she needed to make her first feature film. She moved to LA, initially living in the building she now uses as her office. In Me and You and Everyone We Know, which came out in 2005, she plays a lonely performance artist who falls in love with a shoe salesman.
Because she starred in her breakout film and because her appearance is so striking (July’s eyes are the sort of blue that invites bad metaphors and she has a smile that pulls her mouth down rather than up, making her wistfulness appear almost biological), she became a figurehead for the decade’s indie boom, which birthed films such as Garden State and Juno. She also became a recognisable target for the critics who viewed the proliferation of these sweet-but-sad lo-fi dramas as unbearably twee. Writing for the BBC, Nev Pierce summed up the mood when he described Me and You as “cloyingly quirky and not even half as profound as it thinks it is”.
It would be a mistake to dismiss these criticisms entirely, especially considering July went on to narrate her second film The Future (2011) in character as a talking cat. But it seems clear with hindsight that the machismo of the film world played its part in her reception. July crafts scenarios that seem low-stakes, parochial and, yes, feminine, then laces them through with difficult topics: Me and You contains no fewer than three subplots involving the sexuality of children and teenagers. Because her films are unabashedly pretty, the fact that they are also transgressive has often been ignored.
Towards the beginning of our conversation, July told me how her current experience of isolation is triggering memories of a “very frightening time” following Hopper’s birth in 2012. An hour or so later, it becomes clearer what this means. I am asking her about a line in her 2015 novel The First Bad Man that seems like a good illustration of how she uses surreal humour. One of the characters has just given birth quite traumatically, and another speculates that the unnamed father might be blue — because the newborn currently is. I look up from reading the passage, and see July’s face is pulled tight.
“I’m having a little moment, having that line read back to me,” she says. She starts crying, then excuses herself and walks away from the screen. I look at the bookshelf and wonder how to convey empathy to an empty chair seven time zones west. A minute later, she sits back down. “I went to a certain place to be able to write that into an experience that I clearly actually had,” she says.
July wants to make clear that she is not her characters. With women who make art, she says, “it’s very easy to make it seem like everything came out of our diaries”. Still, it seems important to her that there remains something autobiographical about it all. Kajillionaire will be her first feature film in which she plays no role, ceding the leads to a big-ticket cast including Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood.
It’s a gorgeously absurd comedy about a family of low-level con artists who live off tricks like robbing PO boxes or pretending their suitcase has been lost on the airport baggage belt. It rebuts the critics who see July as stuck in a certain mould of noughties filmmaking; scammers, particularly bad ones, are a very of-the-moment cultural obsession. “If I can just say without sounding too arrogant, I’ve been there, since the early days,” she says. I presume she’s stating that her interest in con artists predates the media’s current fascination with characters such as the Russian fake heiress Anna Delvey. No, she corrects me. “That baggage heist, I’ve done that.”
It must feel strange for someone so famed as an outsider to be enjoying a run of mainstream recognition: a big-budget film that feels very accessible, a monograph that costs almost $50, a Criterion Collection release — the decisive stamp of approval for any independent film-maker. How would she respond if I described 2020 as the year Miranda July went mainstream?
“I’m sort of rising up to that,” she says, frowning. The way she sees it, she’s still doing what she’s always done, only people are more open to receiving it: she’s proved that she’s not “so unique, so esoteric” that she’s a financial loss leader. “Initially, I’m like, ‘What? No. That’s not me,’” she says of the new opportunities. “And then I’m like, ‘Oh, I love it because it’s not.’”
With her monograph in particular, she says, the idea was to create her own career milestones when others’ didn’t fit. “MoMA is not going to be like, ‘Let’s have a mid-career retrospective!’ because I’m not an artist enough, and I’m not a film-maker enough. I’m not a writer enough,” she says. “I think I realised a few years ago, ‘Huh, no one’s gonna knight you.’ ”
The book is an institution of her own making, and adheres to its own zany conventions. It’s narrated mainly through the anecdotes of friends and collaborators — Lena Dunham, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Sheila Heti among them. They paint a slightly breathless picture of July as a natural, almost guileless savant — the sort of person who would (this is true) write her first book without speech marks because she didn’t know how they worked.
Why, I wonder, did she ask contributors to focus so much on the artist, rather than the art? She has a couple of answers, but the one that seems truest is very simple. “I just thought that would be less of a good read,” she says. “I’m maybe a little different from some other artists or writers. Like, I am also a show person.”
‘Kajillionaire’ is scheduled for release in the US on June 19
‘Miranda July’ is published by Prestel, £39.99
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