Thursday, April 5, 2012

Creative Common Grounds: Miranda July's "It Chooses You"

Overall, I'm likely less familiar with Miranda July's work than most people. I loved her 2005 film Me and You and Everyone We Know, and while I've read only a handful of her short stories, they affected me in similar ways. I'm not sure if her short films and performance art pieces run along the same thematic lines, but July's work manages to take universal subjects--connectivity, love, and emotional states--and explore them in unique and tender ways. I missed the theatrical run of her latest film, last year's The Future, but I found myself drawn to her latest book, written in the midst of her work on that screenplay. I merely assumed that the above-mentioned themes would be at least hinted at in It Chooses You, but I was also pleasantly surprised to discover July's intelligent takes on the creative process and the universal obstacles that writers have to overcome.

During the writing of The Future, July found herself at a personal impasse. In the solitude of her office, the temptations of mindless web browsing proved to be detrimental, and her examinations of this kind of time wasting will undoubtedly ring true for virtually all writers:

"Some of this could be justified because one of the characters in my screenplay was also trying to make something, a dance, but instead of dancing she looked up dances on YouTube. So, in a way, this procrastination was research. As if I didn't already know how it felt: like watching myself drift out to sea, too captivated by the waves to call for help. I was jealous of older writers who had gotten more of a toehold on their discipline before the web came. I had gotten to write only one script and one book before this happened (July 6-7)."

During her lunch breaks, she began reading the PennySaver ads, a classified booklet with various items listed for sale, a sort of non-web based Craigslist. I've come to realize that the PennySaver has national publications, but I was unaware of its existence until reading this book. July got the idea to contact people offering pieces for sale, and asking them to submit to interviews while she looked at the items. She received her share of refusals, but managed to get enough agreements to form It Chooses You. Along with photographer Brigitte Sire, July set out on her interviews and documentations. Had this project been undertaken by almost anyone else, there is an excellent chance that the finished work would have looked condescending or pandering. The people who take ads out in the PennySaver tend to be poorer, sicker, and have less means than people who advertise online. In the process, July tells the story of the sellers, and manages to create a work of art in a touching, intelligent manner.

The book's first interview is with Michael, an older man selling a leather jacket and undergoing a gender transformation. July's interviews are straightforward, but given the dynamics of people, the simplest questions manage to illuminate the subject's desires and mindset, whether this was intentional or not.

"We murmured admiration for the jacket, which was entirely ordinary, and I asked if I could turn on the tape recorder. Michael settled into a medical-looking chair and I perched on the couch. I glanced at my questions, but now they seemed beside the point.

Miranda: When did you begin your gender transformation?

Michael: Six months ago.

Miranda: And when did you know that you--

Michael: Oh, well, I knew it when I was a child, but I've been in the closet all my life. I came out in 1996 and then went back in the closet again, but this time I'm not going to go back in the closet. I'm going to complete the transformation.

Miranda: So the first time you came out must have been hard. You must not have had a good experience?

Michael: It wasn't hard. I just decided to do it, and I don't know why I went back in the closet. It's one of those psychological things that I'm going to a psychologist to work out (July 17)."

In the second interview, July meets Primila, a woman selling authentic Indian outfits. The woman asks July about the nature of the project, and in the process, more illuminations of the creative process come about. Just like the simple conversation with Michael shed light on his life and the layers of his goals and psyche, Primila's questions allow July to add more insights into her overall mission.

"Primila: So do you want to tell me again a little bit more about what this is for? Do you have any brochure or write-up on things that you do, or your company?

Miranda: I'm just interviewing people. I'm really interested in just getting a portrait of the person and what they're interested in, and a sense of their life story. I'm a writer and I usually write fiction, but this is--you know, I'm always curious about people. So this is a chance to--

Primila: You write fiction? Do you have any particular themes or any commission or fashion?

Miranda: They're--I mean, gosh. They're usually about people trying to connect in one way or another and the importance of that. And the different ways people sort of make that harder than it needs to be (July 30)."

As the interviews go along, two other ideas surface. In making these seemingly random connections, the palpable loneliness of the interviewees becomes universal, especially against the backdrop of our digital, social age. It can touch everyone, whether one is a likely hermit/shut-in (some of July's subjects fit this mold) or if one has a wide circle of connections.

"It was a relief, meeting someone whom I had anything at all in common with. Michael and Primila and Pauline had exhausted me with their openness and their quaint inefficiency, but Raymond and I were the same generation; we both knew how to click on things, we both had a version of our name with @ in it. As I left his room I said something like 'Maybe I'll see you around,' as if our generation all liked to congregate at one coffee shop.
But the moment I got back in my car I knew I would never see him again, ever. It suddenly seemed obvious to me that the whole world, and especially Los Angeles, was designed to protect me from these people I was meeting. There was no law against knowing them, but it wouldn't happen (July 56-57)."

The other idea was July's notion of casting some of the people in The Future, and while the idea of capturing non-actors in real moments was tempting, she found that it didn't quite work out. She ended up trying out Dina, a mother selling a hairdryer, but found that her style, when done for a specific purpose, became more like unnatural acting than capturing a real person in a real moment. July persisted, and found probably her most touching subject (the final interview), an old man named Joe who was selling old Christmas cards and had a penchant for dirty limericks and caring for animals. His tenderness and genuineness were touching, and her interview with him caused July to reexamine herself.

"I thought about his sixty-two years of sweet, filthy cards and something unspooled in my chest. Maybe I had miscalculated what was left of my life. Maybe it wasn't loose change. Or, actually, the whole thing was loose change, from start to finish--many, many little moments, each holiday, each Valentine, each year unbearably repetitive and yet somehow always new. You could never buy anything with it, you could never cash it in for something more valuable or more whole. It was just all these days, held together by the fragile memory of one person--or, if you were lucky, two (July 199)."

She ended up casting Joe in a small part in The Future, and he was determined to finish his job, even in the face of a cancer diagnosis. He died after filming his scenes, and the book ends with July's conversation with his widow, who was initially reluctant to participate. It's incredibly sad and beautiful at the same time, and while this wasn't July's expectation, the entire project seemed to be leading up to this moment, the realization that her act, while not providing any monetary liveliness for Joe, gave him something concrete to do, and ended up giving his last weeks an unexpected direction.

For all of July's writing skills and ability to conduct moving interviews with unlikely subjects, It Chooses You succeeds just as well because of Brigitte Sire's beautiful photography. Her camera captures the sale objects with unnerving focus, illuminating them and highlighting a weird sort of sadness at the same time. Her images of the interviewees are a deft combination of random moments and posed shots. Even the posed photographs feel like quick snapshots, since the subjects, while aware of the camera, don't seem to be trying to pose or make themselves appear differently from what/who they are. The emphasis, whether via the objects or the people, is on the details, for better or for worse. They are serious, yet occasionally playful. These combinations and varieties are perfectly aligned with the July's words, since none of the subjects were completely alike, and all of them went into the interviews with different motives and emotions. Combining words and photographs can be a slippery slope. Norman Mailer and Jon Naar, in their collaboration on The Faith of Graffiti, hit a few missteps, since the beautiful photography sometimes seemed at odds with Mailer's occasional moment of embarrassing prose. Here, however, July and Sire work together beautifully, with the words and images supporting each other without one dominating the other.

With certain books or works of art, I have a tendency to say that some pieces are above or impervious to concrete "reviews." I believe this to be true with It Chooses You, since July manages to stay true to her subjects even when she turns the focus on herself and her own artwork. I only touched upon a handful of the subjects featured in the book, and copyright page explains that there was a certain amount of editing that went into it, for clarity's sake. Even so, the entire work feels natural, and July manages to make this a work that strengthens her creative mission as well as a sociological study. Most importantly, she doesn't always give her subjects the complete benefit of the doubt: there are moments of caution and trepidation, but even in these moments, she lets them speak for themselves. Overall, this is a stunning look at how lives and objects go back and forth between the universal and the personal, and gives artists reassurance that setbacks and detours happen, but can lead down positive paths. The reader will be fascinated and sympathetic to the interview subjects, but as I mentioned above, there's no pandering or "class guilt" that goes into July's work. She wants us to see the people the way she does, and in the process makes these random folks compelling and natural storytellers.

Work Cited:
July, Miranda. It Chooses You. Copyright 2011 by Miranda July.

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