BY Melissa Gronlund in Profiles | 14 NOV 05
Featured in
Issue 95

The Player

Miranda July is a video and performance artist turned commercially successful filmmaker. What’s the difference?

BY Melissa Gronlund in Profiles | 14 NOV 05

In a famous episode the literary theorist Stanley Fish asked his class to analyse the following poem that was written on a blackboard: ‘Jacobs-Rosenbaum, Levin, Thorne, Hayes, Ohman (?)’. Within ten minutes the students had found significant religious imagery in the references to thorns, wood, Old Testament tribes and Jacob’s ladder. At this point, like a bad Santa, Fish told them the names were left over from the previous history class, and it was all a little joke.

In Miranda July’s film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) two contemporary art curators mistake a wayward hamburger wrapper for part of an installation. The artist, who is setting up his show, apologizes and puts the wrapper in the bin; the curators are embarrassed. Well, context is key. Fish, a controversial figure in US culture wars, uses his experiment in the 1980 essay ‘How to Recognize a Poem When You See One’ to argue that the reader does not decode a text’s meaning so much as produce it. In a literature class a list can be read as, and therefore can become, a poem. In a gallery litter can become a memento mori. These aren’t arbitrary transformations – they’re what happens in literature classes and galleries. Responses to Me and You and Everyone We Know are predicated on its position as a commercial feature film rather than art. July is a video and performance artist who has achieved a measure of success in the art world – she was included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial, has performed at the Kitchen in New York and her experimental videos have been screened at Lux in London. After being accepted onto the Sundance scriptwriting programme for feature-length films, she made Me and You and Everyone We Know, which was picked up by Film Four and IFC Films and went on to win a number of festival awards at Sundance and Cannes. The film attracted considerable media attention, lending itself to the kind of coverage that writes itself: quirky video artist makes independent film about quirky video artist. (July is also very personable and photogenic, which helps.) Reviews, though, were mixed.

July plays Christine, an artist struggling to get her work into the local contemporary art centre and, in a larger sense, to connect with people around her. Christine’s videos, and Me and You … as a whole, closely recall July’s own work. The Amateurist, for example, a video July made in 1998, depicts a ‘professional’ woman who watches an ‘amateur’ woman through a surveillance camera, interpreting her actions for the audience – a relationship similar to the one in Me and You … where Christine plays the amateur to the curator’s professional. July says the film is more accessible than her previous work, but not essentially different (‘I traded the élitism of the art world for the star system’). In fact, she describes her use of various media in almost Utopian terms. At the end of a recent interview with BOMB magazine, she said, half-jokingly: ‘I have a gigantic plan […] and it involves performance, and fiction, and radio, and the Internet, and TV and features that are both “conventional” and totally not. And when I am done with my plan, when I am very old, hopefully there will be a little more space for people living with profound doubt to tell their stories in all different media.’

I’m with her, sort of. First of all, it’s always good to go easy on profound doubt. Second, it’s true that medium-specificity – the idea that each medium is only suited to depict one sort of thing – has been pretty much discredited as needlessly prescriptive. Keeping divisions among media helps, though, to clarify the difference between separate types of moving images that might superficially resemble each other. If a Honda advert, say, looks like Fischli and Weiss’ The Way Things Go (1987), it doesn’t mean the duo have been secretly selling Japanese sedans. That meaning can be created by context is particularly pertinent to the way Me and You … has been received. Video work allows for disconnected fragments – gems of scenes or images strung together – and film privileges a formal economy and overall structure. While July’s videos have been praised for their internal coherence, reviews of the film took issue with its knowingly episodic character, which was often attributed to its ‘indie’ provenance as a Sundance film or to July’s artiness. The film was also criticized for its cloying quirkiness, but July’s videos, often similarly coy, came across as direct and emotionally affecting. Nest of Tens (2000), for instance, which was shown at the Whitney Biennial weaves together four strands of dysfunctional characters; Film Comment praised it as an example of ‘eerie emotional formalism’. In his New Yorker review, by contrast, Anthony Lane wrote that Me and You … – which similarly intertwines its offbeat characters – only succeeds when ‘it loosens up, drops the art-school archness, and starts to scout the world for casual riches’.

For July herself the medium made all the difference. The promotional tours that she engaged on may be the norm in film journalism but seem rather remarkable in the realm of art. July did interviews for ten hours a day – by phone, one-on-one and in round tables – and operated as part of a publicity machine at independent cinemas across the UK and USA. The questions she answered were nearly identical and focused on her rather than on the film. How much of you is there in Christine? Were you nervous about the Internet chatroom scene? Do you still consider yourself an artist? Eventually, she says, she developed not only stock responses but also stock mistakes, tripping up in the same places and laughing at herself as if she were mouthing a soundtrack. The fact that July is an artist became integral to the marketing of the film – though she was rarely asked to specify what kind of ‘art’ she made, and was being addressed as a filmmaker.

Fish grounds his theory of reader-produced texts by extrapolating from the fact that the systems we find ourselves in are inescapable – and therefore we always know how to interpret what is before us. However, when art and commercial film borrow freely from one another, the question becomes one less of interpretation than of evaluation. What do we like, and why?

Melissa Gronlund is a writer based in Abu Dhabi, UAE.