Miranda July's lithe frame and mass of brown curls appear briefly in the living room doorway of a fifth-floor executive suite in Toronto. Eyes averted, she just as quickly disappears into the adjacent bedroom before re-emerging, moments later, a subdued presence in a loud magenta-collared orange shirt and twill skirt. It's hard to imagine the ethereal July inspiring the harsh criticism she receives from her detractors. But the filmmaker-artist-writer's latest movie, The Future, counters their labels of style-over-substance hipsterdom with a sometimes whimsical and often dark portrait of human loneliness.
Slightly hunched over, July, 37, sits cross-legged on the edge of a plush beige couch. Her startlingly blue eyes occasionally flicker down, betraying shyness.
"You know, I kind of go between public and private," she says softly at one point. "And I'm looking forward to going back into my little cave."
Much like her films, July is candid, yet has an elusive quality about her. The Future, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this year to rave reviews, tells the story of thirtysomethings Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) who earnestly adopt a sickly stray cat to take their relationship to the next – presumably more grown-up – level.
With 30 days before Paw Paw (who narrates the film in a scratchy, high-pitched voice by July) is released from the vet, the aimless couple upend their lives in a bid to savour their last month of freedom before full-time, pet-owning responsibility sets in. The result, however, is messy. Feeling increasingly paralyzed by her fear of failure and desire to be exceptional, Sophie embarks on an affair with Marshall (David Warshofsky), a lonely, 50-year-old suburbanite who offers her an escape from herself.
This desire to forge a meaningful connection in a disconnected age is a common theme in much of July's work. Her cinematic debut, the acclaimed Me and You and Everyone We Know, follows a divorced shoe salesman and an oddball performance artist, as they struggle to make a love connection. Me and You won four awards at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival, including the Caméra d'Or for best first feature film.
"I think in that lonely world, people are making wild and daring attempts at connection, you know? Usually with strangers – in both movies. And that's me, too. That's not only my work, but kind of how I live," she says. "In general, the bold things we do come from a pretty dark place."
July's work in other media also frequently involves lonely hearts seeking a way out of their misery. Her short story Majesty depicts an older woman who has explicit sexual fantasies about Prince William, leading her to devise a plan to meet him.
It is appropriate, then, that July dedicates her time to connecting people through art. In 2002, she and artist Harrell Fletcher co-created Learning to Love You More, a website comprising work made by the public, in response to assignments given by July and Fletcher. Their aim, according to the site, was to "guide people towards their own experience." As of 2009, when the site closed, 8,000 people had participated in the project.
July's performance art, for which she first gained recognition, often incorporates audience participation as a way to engage. The Future originated from her 2006 performance Things We Don't Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About, which calls on two audience members to play the part of the woman and man in an affair.
"I think for a lot of artists, you're working alone in your own little, very self-interested world," she says. "It's tempting to create things that will invite other people in more literally – not just be your audience, but so that you can be their audience, too."
Even as a young artist in 1995, July valued collaboration, and founded Joanie 4 Jackie, a distribution network for independent woman filmmakers. Back then, the self-proclaimed feminist and former riot grrrl says she used to be a lot tougher. July recently watched a clip of one of her performances at 23, and recalls having a moment when she asked herself: "Did I lose that toughness?" But in the face of harsh criticism from people who charge that her work is too "precious," "twee" and "hipster," (there's even a 'I hate Miranda July' website) the artist says she is actually tougher now, than she was before.
"I'm never making stuff that I think is going to just be unanimously loved. I guess I've been me long enough in the world to realize some people like this stuff, some people don't care and for some people, it's really like 'get away from me,'" she says.
Like The Future's journey from performance art to film, July's goal as an artist is to evolve.
"I felt like I had done all these things for a long time, but suddenly I made a movie [ Me and You] which was seen by a lot more people, so I was just a filmmaker – and that kind of scared me. It didn't feel like me," she says. "So for the last six years, I think I was getting my book of short stories out and performing; that felt really important just to widen the space. And now it's more like just trying to go further and challenge myself more."