In Miranda July’s latest film we are asked to identify with a cat in a cage that could potentially be euthanized.While many film critics cite using a cat as a narrator as another one of July’s drives toward sentimentality, I actually view this move as incredibly, unequivocally ballsy.A recent New York Times write up of July cites her as a somewhat polarizing figure, and, indeed, many reviews of July’s latest film, The Future, characterize the film as being contemplative while also imperfect and uncomfortably sentimental.

21st century American writers have been taught to avoid sentimentality at all cost. We go to readings where writers read short stories about dying spouses, existential terror and the consistently destroyed economy as if they are reading a list of items about to be purchased at the grocery store. That flat sense of disaffectedness is just as affected (if not more so) than many pieces which reflect ambivalence and longing.When I was a grad student I was given many rules to avoid being sentimental- don’t write about dreams, avoid anything cute and small, choose strong, confident details, don’t be too vulnerable.

I think it is not a coincidence that many of the things we are told to avoid as writers are those traits and characteristics used to describe writing which is ubiquitously feminine. Violence, quiet rage and destruction are all considered acceptable artistic accoutrements, viewed as edgy and bold.Alex DeLarge’s world in A Clockwork Orange is viewed as being filled with dense philosophical questions about man’s purpose and the drive for human beings to make moral choices. Indeed, we view human choice as only possible through the lens of the warrior. We find it acceptable and interesting to have heroes who are serial killers, mobsters, gang leaders, advertising executives who cheat on their wives, secretaries that give up their babies and don’t think about it afterwards. Today it is acceptable to demonstrate the ways in which the cold and unfeeling mask the vulnerable, but I am afraid that this type of art also encourages people to not look that far deep beyond the mask. I’ve written before on how I think the show Mad Men is positioned to critique the 1960’s but actually ends up fetishizing it. We excuse Don Draper’s consistent womanizing, his drinking, his bad parenting, his times of utter cruelty, because the kind of bravado he commands is ultimately considered kind of cool. We hate Betty Draper because her type of flaws are ultimately inexcusable in our current culture. And that biggest flaw is her unquenchable need to be taken care of.

I’m not arguing that we should go back to a time of unfettered sentimentality. Certainly, there are sentimental works that are not very good.What I am arguing is that the way that Miranda July demands that an audience confront sentimentality in a way that is provocative and uncomfortable is something triumphant, rather than weak. And it says something about us as a culture that we are so tempted to resist it.

There is something profoundly more troubling about the idea that we are all cats in cages, unable to control our fate, waiting, waiting, waiting with our soft little voices, with our tiny framework to understand the world around us, than the idea that we are all Don Draper, able to rise and succeed in times, regardless of how troubling those times are or how much the past still haunts us.

July is not afraid to posit that the desire for intimacy, not sex, not violence, not power, is the backbone of human experience. In her film, we meet 30 somethings Sophie and Jason, romantic partners that share an adorably twee studio apartment in Southern California. Sophie teaches dance to children. Jason works from home providing tech support. Beneath the twee exterior of Sophie and Jason’s world lies a dark current of existential crisis brought on by their desire to adopt a stray cat they find injured and nickname, “Paw-Paw” In The Future all the gentle, childlike details that are normally the backdrop of indie films take on more sinister dimensions. Nature is tender and brutal. Desires to connect and unite are continuously thwarted. July’s characters do not rise above the darkness that is the world with their gentle accoutrements of childhood. Beneath the pastel exterior of adorable creature comforts lies the truth that all of this is fading fast and we are all ultimately alone, holding on to soft security blankets to protect us from the wildness both inside and out.

This view of the world is all the more poignant as we continue to wade slowly into the 21st century with our arms crossed in front of our bodies and our thousands of technological devices to keep us safely at arms length from anything that might come too close.At the end of The Future we are left to ponder whether human connection will actually save us, or if it is merely another security blanket we crawl inside.This is brave, unflinching view of the world, that is perhaps the opposite of the kind of sentimental yarn the summer blockbuster promises us, where we are given the agency to heal and change the world, either with superhuman hero powers, or with an inspirational tale of the human heart. In The Future, time is not kind the way we want it to be. We can’t control or tame it. It arches itself like an animal just as wild as any of us, only it never ever has to stop. Up against a universe like that we are all just tiny creatures longing to be held. Throughout The Future July reinvents the sentimental in order to unpack our desire for comfort objects, memories, for our desire to be safe and our desire to be free and whether, up against an unfeeling universe, these desires really amount to much at all.

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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN is a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review, South Loop Review, The Ilanot Review and Press Play (Indie Wire). She has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story contests . She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

4 responses to “The Middle of the Beginning: Miranda July’s Push Towards Vulnerability”

  1. Art Edwards says:

    Wow, so glad I clicked through on this one, Arielle. I think you’re asking all the right questions.

    I think what we love about Draper et al. is the fact that something is definitely happening in his life. I think this is a direct result of contemporary writers not doing a very good job of plumbing the depths of their characters, a mistake which as far as I can tell always requires a counter-effect of “overshooting the runway” with the characters, making her actions more over-the-top. In Herzog by Saul Bellow, all Herzog has to do is walk across the room and our hearts are breaking. In a few “literary” novels I’ve read this year, the characters simply aren’t rendered well enough for such simple actions to be all that intriguing, so the writers have to get involved in all these soap opera-y story lines to keep the reader’s interest.

    Emily, Alone by Stewart O’Nan is one novel from this year that I think pulls off a great, deep, simple character. Most writers just aren’t good enough to make that work.

    That’s my theory anyway. I have no idea how this applies to July’s work, or if I’m a bit off-topic. If so, please ignore and thanks for posting.

  2. Henning Koch says:

    I found many of your points interesting – also those of Art Edwards. While I can agree with your view that there is something ballsy about opting for that cat, I have to say that I do find that July’s writing never quite plumbs the depths for me – and, I admit, I can’t quite figure out whether she is satirizing our superficiality/ sentimentality or elevating it. Whatever our creative writing departments tell us, in the market there is a demand for sentimentality and/or emotional simplification. These days it is hardly possible to find a Hollywood film that does not either do the euthanasia cat OR the violent homicidal prick with big muscled arms covered in tattoos. Both are caricatures. Vulnerability is something much harder to capture, which, I know, is your very point.
    I will readily admit that we must all in our own ways proceed out of our own realities. You cannot write or be something you are not. But I cannot get away from the suspicion that Miranda July, now that she has made so much dough, should travel and see the world a bit. Maybe she could apply herself to bigger things? I hate to be the moralist, but, cats aside, there are people who have real problems – i.e. things that require immediate solutions in order to by-pass death, starvation, disease, etc. They will certainly feel extremely vulnerable. Personally, I feel that in the 21st century there is no more room for artists to opt out and be airheads. Artists have to get stuck in and fight. And make a difference.

  3. tony says:

    i like miranda’s voice. she has spent years honing it. i can’t wait to see the film, i think she has a great future as a filmmaker and artist.

    her themes of loneliness are always intriguing.

  4. angela says:

    Thank you for your review. I’ve been a faithful July fan for some time (starting with Me, You and Everyone We Know). I think you nailed it in the last paragraph of your review. I’m grateful that Miranda July is getting more attention for her quirky and irresistable expression of the human condition.

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