One afternoon last May, Miranda July stood on a stage inside the Hollywood Theatre, doing what she does best: fiddling with the workings of a contraption. The apparatus in question was a mid-20th-century vintage hearing-testing kit that July, the beloved PDX performance artist-turned-Los Angeles filmmaker, had inherited from her ex-boyfriend, the musician Calvin Johnson, who has a fondness for school-supply auctions. July had repurposed the leather earphones as a kind of otherworldly line-prompt system, from which she planned to cue three men chosen at random from the audience during a live career retrospective she was hosting that evening. The lines the men repeated would hint they were zombies ruing the loss of the domestic life they once had: "It didn't seem so great at the time, but looking back, it was pretty wonderful." July, however, was concerned the monologue was not explicitly ghostly enough.
"When they're talking up there," she wondered, "that they don't have souls—does that seem plausible? Because I can rewrite it."
Every auteur communicates ideas through other people, but Miranda July is singularly, tangibly committed to ventriloquism. This may begin to explain the most off-putting conceit of her second feature film, The Future: It is narrated by a cat named Paw-Paw—or, more specifically, July doing the voice of a cat puppet, which speaks in a high-pitched singsong. It sounds a lot like the lead character of Matt McCormick's short film Sincerely, Joe P. Bear—or maybe a philosophical Alvin the Chipmunk. Paw-Paw has been left in an animal shelter and is waiting anxiously for his new owners to arrive before the euthanasia needle does. Those saviors are a couple played by July and Hamish Linklater, who have identical dandelions of hair and even frizzier existential worries triggered by the impending adoption.
Let's dispense right now with the much-bandied question of whether July is annoying. Either you find her Precious Moments eyes and deadpan earnestness annoying, or you don't. That's not an interesting debate. (It's probably true that a lot of people would find her less irritating if she were a male actor, in which case I would like to introduce you to Hamish Linklater.) The more intriguing concern is what she makes of the characters in The Future, who seem like a McSweeney's essay come to life. As the movie proceeds, it becomes clear that she both identifies with them—to an autobiographical degree—and recognizes that they're part of a generation frittering away its potential in a pan of hot narcissism. These two heroes are an American Apparel catalog of First World problems. But here's where it gets interesting: Just because your worries come from a place of frivolous privilege, does that mean you can simply stop worrying? Isn't the fact that you're in this place of frivolous privilege kind of frightening? How can you stop?
And this is exactly the point in The Future where July does something really unexpected: She starts using familiar objects in magical-realist ways, so that suddenly the inner lives of self-consciously shoddy people become almost operatically grand. She stops time, she brings a T-shirt to life, she lets the moon say its own wan goodnights. In other words, she uses puppetry and misdirection to make cinema do what only novels usually can—let us sympathize with unsympathetic characters by turning them inside out, instead of simply having them behave more agreeably. She takes the question of whether a persona is annoying and makes it irrelevant. Her artwork reveals the internal.
Back at her Hollywood Theatre show, July achieved her effect with the hearing-testing kit. Her three volunteers became a haunting chorus. It might have helped to have seen the rehearsal, just as The Future may be a movie that requires a second viewing. It didn't seem so great at the time, but looking back…well, maybe those people are pretty wonderful, and what she has to say through them is true. And they do have souls.
80 SEE IT: The Future is rated R. It opens Friday at Fox Tower.