Sunday, April 21, 2013

Miranda July, It Chooses You

LA is so many things, but it is also a company town – almost everyone I knew worked on movies, at least part of the time. Which made it hard, almost rude, to resist the rules and rituals of Hollywood filmmaking; I was grateful to be a part of it, in a way. And in another way, I was desperately trying to remind myself that there was no one way to make a good movie; I could actually write anything or cast anyone. I could cast ghosts or shadows, or a pineapple, or the shadow of a pineapple.

I find it increasingly difficult to discover prose that really jumps out at me. Sometimes I get lucky, but not as often as I’d like. A couple of years ago [see my post on such here], through an issue of McSweeney’s, I discovered the stories of American writer and filmmaker Miranda July, which immediately took me to her short story collection, No One Belongs Here More Than You (Scribner, 2007). A few weeks ago, I ordered her follow-up, It Chooses You (McSweeney’s, 2011), a collection of interviews she conducted with people who ran ads in the PennySaver. As the back cover writes:

In the summer of 2009, Miranda July was struggling to finish writing the screenplay for her much-anticipated second film. During her increasingly long lunch breaks, she began to obsessively read the PennySaver, the iconic classifieds booklet that reached everywhere and seemed to come from nowhere. Who was the person selling the “Large leather Jacket, $10”? It seemed important to find out—or at least it was a great distraction from the screenplay.

Who are these people July interviews? Michael, selling a leather jacket, and in the midst of gender transformation. Andrew, selling bullfrog tadpoles, who manages to do far more than his teachers have already decided he is capable of. Pam, selling photo albums of people she doesn’t know, so their lives aren’t thrown away. What strikes is the ordinariness of each of their stories, and the incredible richness of each of them, far more compelling, optimistic and heartbreaking than any fiction. What strikes is just how real these real people are, and the care in which July attempts to open and respect their stories, even if, in one case, she doesn’t entirely feel safe (each interview is conducted with photographer Brigette Sire, who has photographs throughout the book). In It Chooses You, July doesn’t think about the screenplay she’s supposed to be writing, instead focusing on painting a series of portraits, all of which include her, just inside the frame. And then there is Joe, selling Christmas card fronts:

Miranda: Are these grocery lists?

Joe: Yeah, I shop for seven different widows and one widower – they can’t get out of the house. I’ve got one jacket that I wear when I go to the store. It belonged to a policeman I knew that got shot and killed, and his brother gave me his jacket. He says, “Every time you go to the grocery story I want you to wear it.” Well, I go at least four times a week, times thirty-five, thirty-six years. I must’ve worn that to the store, oh, three or four thousand times, and my wife has had to repair it. But now it’s almost beyond repair.

I very much like the idea of a distraction project, one that you work on while you’re really supposed to be doing something else. Part of the benefit of such a project is that it allows the back of the mind to continue working on the main project in unexpected ways, without the conscious mind getting in the way. Part of what strikes about July’s strange and utterly charming prose is in just how personality-driven the work seems to be; you go along with the narrative simply because of how much you identify with the narrator, no matter what might be happening, said or thought.

Although this project is very much about other people, interviews with those whose ads she has answered, more and more of her own procrastinated project manages to seep its way into the text. There is something of the journal entry to this book, as July writes deeply intimate moments and thoughts in-between edited selections of interviews, notes she has composed as small snippets, scraps and sentences of her life, both outside and in filmmaking, mixed in with the words and lives of random strangers, each of whom are attempting to sell something through the PennySaver. There is something, too, reminiscent of Guy Maddin's collection of selected writings, From the Atelier Tovar (Coach House Books, 2003); even when you aren't working, you are still, and even constantly, working. As she writes to open the section titled “Beverly / Bengal Leopard Baby / Call for Prices / Vista”:

Movies are the only thing I make that puts me at the mercy of financiers, which is partly why I make other things too. Writing is free, and I can rehearse a performance in my living room; it may turn out that no one wants to publish the book or present the performance, but at least I’m not waiting for permission to make the thing. Having a screenplay and no money to make it would almost be worse than not having a screenplay and maintaining the dream of being wanted. At times it seemed that I was only pretending the script wasn’t finished, to save face, to give myself some sense of control. And on a more superstitious level, I secretly believed I would get financing when I had completed my vision quest, learned the thing I needed to know. The gods were at the edges of their seats, hoping I would do everything right so they could reward me.

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