Standing still has never been this painful: Miranda July’s ‘The Future’

“The Future” took my breath away. And when I say it took my breath away, I don’t mean to say I was enraptured by its profound insight into “frailty of the human condition,” a much loathed and overused phrase. Instead of being uplifted, I was left with a lump in my throat.  This is because “The Future” does something unprecedented for its art-house, indie-genre: Instead of making light of the characters’ loneliness, desperation and terror through off-kilter humor and oh-so-clever dialogue, it shoves their fears onto the edge of the screen and lets them hang right in front of our noses in all of their pain and discomfort. No matter how hipster or eccentric or unbearably precious Miranda July can be, she is fearless when it comes to unabashedly exposing her fears. In her latest film, July expresses her fear of what the future holds through the claustrophobic paralysis of her characters.

The film begins with a shot of Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie (July) sprawled on a couch, facing each other but looking into their respective laptops.  Jason shifts his position and Sophie asks if he could get her some water. Jason corrects her assumption that he’s getting up and says he’s just changing his position. He doesn’t offer to fetch her water. This evolves into some idiosyncratic verbal interplay between Sophie and Jason, in which they playfully spat over devices and scenarios in which one can obtain water without movement or effort. This seemingly insignificant exchange foreshadows a more profound moment. Earlier in the film, Jason and Sophie choose a song that is a secret code—when the song is played, they will remember themselves and their love for each other.  Sophie, feeling wistful and sentimental, decides that this is the perfect time to play this song and tells Jason to get his IPod.  Jason, only half-heartedly as moved as Sophie, says he’d love to play the song, but the IPod is in his car, and that she can get it if she really wants to hear it. These two people are terrified of moving; whether it’s getting up off the couch, taking an extra trip out to the car, or moving forward through time. “The Future” expresses this dread of inertia, of waiting, of uncertainty, unlike any film I have ever seen.

Jason and Sophie’s comfortable lives drift into unfamiliar territory when they decide to adopt a near-death cat, Paw-Paw. If given enough love and care, Paw-Paw will live a long a prosperous life despite its afflictions. Jason and Sophie, believing their future will be over once they adopt and devote their lives to this cat, decide to live the rest of their lives in the next month before the adoption date. They quit their jobs, turn off the internet and force themselves into feeling the freedom they are seeking. Jason becomes a solicitor for a tree-planting organization; Sophie, a former children’s dance instructor, is determined to perform thirty interpretive dances–“thirty days, thirty dances.”

Just as things seem to be progressing, Sophie and Jason begin to backslide. Inevitably, Sophie and Jason become unsatisfied with their new-found freedom, and regression and immobility take hold. Sophie is especially tormented, so much as to begin an affair with an older, affluent man in suburban Los Angeles named Marshall. Sophie was a nurturing, maternal figure with Jason; even the way they slept together suggested a mother nursing a child. With Marshall, Sophie regresses back to girlhood, and Marshall is turned-on by this girlishness. He asks that Sophie have sex with him and eat ice cream every night, causing Sophie to wake up guiltily grasping an empty ice-cream carton in an empty bed, like a little girl waking up from a sugar-induced sleepover party.

Adding to this already bizarre arrangement is the presence of Marshall’s young daughter, Gabriella. In what I consider the most surreal moment of the film—more so than the talking puppet-cat, voiced by Ms. July herself—is the image of Gabriella digging a hole in the backyard of her house. Later that night, we find her immersed in the soil so that only her curly blonde head is poking out, all smiles. Marshall, too, is all smiles, nonchalantly looking on as his daughter decides to spend the night in a grave which she has dug for herself.  Sophie, however, is unsettled; she stares at Gabriella, mystified, and reassuringly tells her that she can come inside once she gets tired of being entombed in cold dirt. And Gabriella does get tired of it, and also frightened. Sophie wakes up in the middle of the night to find Gabriella in the kitchen, covered in filth and clearly upset. Sophie’s maternal instincts resurface, and in a moment almost too genuine and tender for a quirky Miranda July film, she embraces Gabriella.

Meanwhile, Sophie is being stalked by her beloved orange t-shirt, which serves as something like a security blanket that she is seen grasping and kneading throughout the film. Every so often, Sophie glimpses it creeping through the house and down the street—not billowing or floating as if carried by the wind, but crawling, as if desperate to be reunited with its owner. Like everyone and everything else in this film, the t-shirt is struggling for movement. When the shirt finally finds Sophie in Marshall’s bedroom, she dons it, and flows into the interpretive dance she’s been waiting to perform for thirty days—thirty dances culminating into one.  Unlike Sophie’s first fledgling forced attempts with a videotape and a neck scarf resembling a lizard’s frill, this dance embodies the organic, effortless movement that’s been eluding her.  She pulls the shirt over hear head so that she is blind to her own gestures, and stretches the shirt so that it consumes her entire body, like a strained womb.

This may be a stretch (pun intended, hell yes), but Sophie’s transformation within the orange shirt—elongated, faceless, even corpse-like—eerily resembles a certain Giacometti sculpture known as “The Walking Man.” Like the characters in this film, “The Walking Man” captures the viscosity and strain of labored movement. Although its legs appear long and capable, his feet are literally blocks of bronze that are affixed to the ground on which he appears to be walking. Sophie, Jason, and even Gabriella, stuck in her dirt hole, are desperate for movement, for change in their own lives, but fear the future so much that they are stuck in a paradoxical push/pull, like “The Walking Man.” Maybe I’ll go to some kind of low-brow culture hell for comparing a Giacometti sculpture to a Miranda July film, but better to reign in a pedestrian hell than serve in an elitist, film-hipster heaven.

In “The Future’s” climactic scene, Jason has successfully stopped time to prevent Sophie from revealing her infidelity to him. He is literally stuck in one place, afraid that if he moves his position just an inch, time will resume, and his life and their relationship will change forever. Jason’s entire body is tense and rigid with the strain of holding onto Sophie, and in his most helpless moment, he turns to the moon outside his window for solace, and asks if it can give him some sort of sign about what is to come.  “I’m just a rock in the sky,” the moon genially replies. Jason and Sophie are not fixed rocks in the sky; they are mutable, even powerful, beings. The film’s ending, though bleak, at least reassures us that time has not stopped for Sophie and Jason. In the final shot, Sophie sits on her bed while Jason reads a book on the couch. For a few long minutes, they are completely still. Just as we begin to wonder whether Jason has stopped time again, he flips the page. At least it’s a relief to know that sometimes, the future and whatever it holds can be as be as ordinary and unremarkable as turning the page of a book.

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About Vanessa Graniello

Vanessa's film articles and reviews have appeared in The Moving Arts Film Journal, The Alternative Film Guide, and the newsletter for the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, NY. She is currently an adjunct lecturer in the English Department at St. Joseph's College in Patchogue, NY. View all posts by Vanessa Graniello

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