Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Sunday, 19 February 2012

It Chooses You


You’ve broken it wide open, Pollock – Marcia Gay Harden to Ed Harris in Pollock

If there is one thing we authors have in common, it’s people. We may write about anthropomorphic animals or aliens or the undead but strip away all the gloss and we’re writing about people: the people next door, the people down the street, the people we met last week in a bring-and-buy sale, the people who taught us English, the people who gave us life in the first place. Such a diverse bunch and yet they’re all people. They eat, sleep, poop, get sad, laugh at jokes, give in to weaknesses, get outraged for no good reason, leave us, love us. People are fascinating. And there is no end to them. No sooner has one generation died off than another is set up to fill their shoes. Mostly. Sometimes they take their shoes with them.

Times are a-changing. When I was a kid no one had a home computer. We’re still a way away from everyone having one but it wasn’t that long ago that no one had television sets and now only about 1% of the population don’t. When I was a kid one of the few periodicals my parents bought was the Exchange & Mart. Think eBay with pages. In the United States they still have something called Pennysaver which is a kind of free community periodical (typically weekly or monthly) that advertises items for sale. According to Wikipedia:

Horace Greely and Ralph St. Denny founded the Pennysaver in Ohio in 1948, followed by the Chenango Valley Pennysaver in 1949 (published continuously since then). Greely bowed out, but St. Denny stayed on to become nationally known as an innovator, mentor, a pioneer and a true original, until his retirement in 1995. A number of independent, unrelated organizations use the name Pennysaver.

That was obviously before the Internet. Nowadays people are more likely to sell their unwanted stuff on eBay or on Craigslist. And yet the paper version of the Pennysaver continues because there are sufficient people without access to—or interest in—computers to make the production a viable option. There is an online version, of course, and it’s only a matter of time before the paper version folds, but not for a while yet.

Amongst other things Miranda July is a writer. She’s a twenty-first century writer which means she spends as much time checking her Facebook page and reading other people’s blogs as she does writing, probably more. We’re all guilty of it. When I began writing there was no Internet, not as we know it today, and so I know what it’s like to sit down and just write and not feel that pull. Miranda, as she is younger, doesn’t remember that time. When we meet her in the opening pages of her new book—a work of non-fiction for once—she is busy not writing the screenplay to her new film, The Future. There’s not a huge incentive to crack on because the film business is in a bit of a slump and, as she puts it, if you don’t already have Natalie Portman lined up to star in said film then you might as well forget it. That’s the least of her problems, however, because she’s been reworking the same scenes over and over again with no success. It’s a Tuesday which is significant:

I looked forward to Tuesdays. Tuesday was the day the PennySaver booklet was delivered. It came hidden among the coupons and other junk mail. I read it while I ate lunch, and then, because I was in no hurry to get back to not writing, I usually kept reading it straight through to the real estate ads in the back. I carefully considered each item – not as a buyer, but as a curious citizen of Los Angeles. Each listing was like a very brief newspaper article. News flash: someone in LA is selling a jacket. The jacket is leather. It is also large and black. The person thinks it is worth ten dollars. But the person is not very confident about that price and is willing to consider other, lower prices. I wanted to know more things about what this leather-jacket person thought, how they were getting through the day, what they hoped, what they feared – but none of that information was listed. What was listed was the person’s phone number.

Before lunch all Miranda had to worry about was her fictional problem—something to do with a guy called Jason and some trees—but now she has a whole other real world problem: should she call the guy whose phone number is listed in the ad? The thing is, she really isn’t that interested in a man’s large leather jacket. Also, as she puts it, “[t]he implied rule of the classifieds is you call the phone number only to talk about the item on sale.” Then again America is the land of the free and all she was wanting to do was exercise that freedom and what harm would there be if she engaged the man in conversation? That said, although America is the land of the free it is also a capitalist country and people are in the habit of paying for goods and services so she decides to make the man an offer:

Actually, I was wondering if, when I come over to look at the jacket, I could interview you about your life and everything about you. Your hopes, your fears… […] Of course, I would pay you for your time. Fifty dollars. It’ll take less than an hour.

Miranda meets Michael

Much to her surprise, I’m sure, the man, whose name she discovers is Michael, says okay. And so she goes to meet Michael and from there, Primila, Pauline and Raymond, Andrew, Beverly, Pam, Ron, Matilda and Domingo, Dina and lastly Joe and his wife Carolyn, all discovered through ads in the PennySaver. And what a motley crew they turn out to be. Few had computers and even those who did had little interest in them, and so this is a very interesting demographic to put under the microscope. Not that everyone jumped at the opportunity, even for fifty dollars, to be part of Miranda’s wee experiment, but those who did seemed more than willing to open up to her. Some were old, clearly lonely and desperate for a little company, but it was really more than that; it was the opportunity to explain themselves that they jumped at. None of them probed her about what she intended to do with the information but they happily opened up cupboards, dragged her into backyards and up stairs, plied her with food and regaled her with tales of their lives, both past and present, as well as their hopes for the future.

What started out as a distraction became a project but she had no plans to turn these interviews into a book, certainly not at the start. All Miranda could really think about is her damn screenplay that refuses to come together. But this is where the book gets interesting because I have been exactly where she was when she was struggling and getting nowhere. With me it was novels but the feeling is exactly the same and then inspiration appears from the queerest, the most unexpected of sources. And that’s what happens here. As she wanders round these people’s homes and learns of their lives she starts to realise what’s missing in her writing. It’s these people. Literally these people. She imagines who might play Dina or Ron or Domingo in her film and then realises:

The thought was offensive. No, clearly these people would have to play themselves.

Miranda meets Dina

She has this epiphany while visiting Dina and even goes as far as to screen test her sometime later but as soon as the camera is pointed at her the real Dina disappears and Miranda realises this might have been not such a good idea. Then she meets Joe, the last person she intends to interview, and that’s when everything comes together creatively for her. The book’s final chapter talks about the shooting of the film—which by now has finally received a title she can live with, The Future. Some of you may have seen it. In his review of the film in The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw writes:

What Jeff Koons does to banal objects, Miranda July does to banal situations, feelings, conversations. It's a kind of affectless sentimentalism, and a commentary on the nature of coupledom, its secular theology.


If we live our lives as intelligent, 21st-century consumers, without religion, or high culture, or a great cause – all things about which we have a well-founded and highly developed scepticism – then what do our lives look like?

I think that’s a fair comment, not only about her filmmaking but also her writing. The people we meet in this book, and whose shadows persist within the film, are, on the whole, the most ordinary and dull bunch and yet no sooner had I finished one chapter of this short book than I wanted to find out about the next person or persons. In all seriousness I could have finished the book in a single sitting and if I’d started it earlier in the afternoon I would have done. After spending several weeks—I jest not—slogging my way through Apricot Jam this was such a change of gear.

"All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life," Miranda writes. She says it better than me, far more succinctly, and yet that’s what I was getting at in the opening paragraph of this article. There is no way in hell I’d want to live like Withnail and Marwood, or Albert and Harold Steptoe or Joseph Merrick or the two Edith Beales but aren’t these people fascinating? And the great thing is that we get to observe them at a distance, through glass, or through the written word. As Miranda says of Ron: “[E]xactly the kind of man you spend your whole life being careful not to end up in the apartment of.” Ron is selling a sixty-seven-piece art set; he’s looking for $65 for it. In the course of the interview he reveals he is wearing a house-arrest anklet:

Ron: I’m going to tell you something that’s fact. An anklet can mean any one of three things. If you’re gang related, you get one on, or if you’re a threat to the community because you have more than one so-called victim, which could be business-related or –
Miranda: Right.
Ron: – a sex offender or a drug dealer. Not small-time but what they consider a dealer-dealer.
Miranda: Right.

It turns out he’s been in prison but we never do find out exactly what he was in for. Probably something “business-related”.

Miranda meets Ron

Ron is the scariest person Miranda gets to interview. For my money the saddest—although it’s a tough call—would have to be Domingo, Matilda’s brother who lives with her. Above his bed is “an elaborate collage of women and babies” but that’s not what piques Miranda’s curiosity:


He’s not there when she calls to see his sister but when Miranda gets home and looks over some of the photos of the visit she can’t stand it; she telephones and arranges to call to see Domingo a few weeks later. Eventually she gets round to the subject of the collage, which has changed since her previous visit:

Miranda: So tell me about these pictures on the wall.
Domingo: I have, like, fantasies and stuff, like I pretend I’m an officer, you know, a deputy sheriff, things like that.
Miranda: When did you start collecting?
Domingo: I’ve had quite a few years doing this. Actually, I started after I graduated from high school. I was never able to become a police officer or a deputy sheriff or anything like that. And what happened there is that I built a fantasy that I’m a judge, that I’m a police officer, that I’m a deputy-sheriff, and then I investigate – I call and see what their working shifts are like. I’m going through some psychological, psychiatric treatment as well, and so I tell this to my therapist. He said, well, if it’s something that doesn’t take you away from doing other things, it’s okay to have fantasies, as long as you don’t go and tell people that you are what you say you are in your mind. And it is all in my mind. And then I put pictures on the wall that I’m a judge, that I have a family, that I have a cat, things like that. I have to have them on the wall for it to come true in my head. Because if I don’t put it on the wall –
Miranda: You can’t see it.
Domingo: I can’t focus it in my mind. So it’s got to be something that I, um…
Miranda: You can look at a picture.
Domingo: I can look at it and I have it there itself. I go to the librarian, my friend, and she’s the one that finds all these pictures for me. She knows what I have them for, so she knows that I never collect anything that’s, um, you know… naked pictures or anything like that.
Miranda: It’s family life.
Domingo: Yeah, with kids and things like that. You know, I’ve been doing this for years, and I usually change my pictures around when I feel like I need to change, to be somebody different.

In another life Domingo would be a writer or a filmmaker.

I cannot imagine what people do who don’t create. I can understand someone not being a writer as long as they’re a composer or a photographer or a sculptor or something. But what do the other people do? It’s the same with computers. Who doesn’t have a computer these days? Carrie and I now have nine working computers in this flat and I use four of my five every day. Miranda describes people standing in queues clicking away on their smartphones, interacting with, being with their true friends to the exclusion of the so-called real world and yet she admits:

Domingo’s blog was one of the best I’ve ever read, but I had to drive to him to get in, he had to tell me with his whole self, and there was no easy way to search for him. He could only be found accidentally.

Scientifically, my interviews were pretty feeble … but one day soon there would be no more computerless people in Los Angeles and this exercise wouldn’t be possible. Most of life is offline, and I think it always will be: eating and aching and sleeping and loving happen in the body. But it is not impossible to imagine losing my appetite for those things; they aren’t always easy, and they take so much time. In twenty years I’d be interviewing air and water and heat just to remember they mattered.

This is a fascinating book and one I wholeheartedly recommend. To writers especially but to the rest of you too. The New Yorker reproduced five chapters from the book including some of the photographs that are included that really make this thing come to life. The opening chapter is here but that only really talks about where she was when she got the idea. Here are the other four chapters:

It Chooses You is published in the UK by Canongate in hardback which gives it the feel, slightly, of a coffee table book but it is much more than that. My only fear is that having read the book this will spoil the film for me. In his review in The Financial Times Lionel Shriver wrote that, [d]ismayingly, [he] liked The Future less after reading this book.” We’ll just have to see.

Postscript – The Future

FutureI managed to see the film a wee while after reading the book and I have to disagree with Shriver. I enjoyed the film immensely and I particularly enjoyed seeing things that I could identify from the book in exactly the same way as I enjoyed identifying where I recognised her co-star from. (He was the brother in The New Adventures of Old Christine.)

This is not a film for everyone. I’m not sure there’s such a thing but I suspect this will polarise opinion more than Mary Poppins. The story, such as there is one, is simple enough: Sophie, played by Miranda July herself, and Jason are thirty-five—he provides online tech support from home and she teaches little girls how to dance, although, when asked, she is at pains to point out that she is a dance instructor and not a dancer. They have decided to adopt a stray cat they have seen injured, who they name Paw Paw (and who serves as the film’s narrator). Paw Paw, they have been told, may not have long to live—six months, perhaps, but longer (anything up to five years) if they take care of him—but it will be a month before they can collect him from the vet and their new life can begin together. Which means in a month their old life—life as they knew it—will stop. Paw Paw will need constant attention and so one of them will always have to be in the flat. This realisation, especially the fact that if they do their job well this state might drag on for years, triggers a kind of midlife crisis in the couple:

Sophie: We’ll be forty in five years.
Jason: Forty is basically fifty. And then after fifty, the rest is just loose change.

On her website Miranda explains how this affects the two of them:

Jason responds to this predicament like an artist should; he isn’t making anything, but his decision to be led by mistakes and coincidences is the creative process. He’s not without doubt, but he keeps his faith, which leads him somewhere new. I wanted to show the side of creativity that is spiritual, even a bit mystical, and more about surviving life than about performance or production.

Meanwhile, with no less determination, my character, Sophie, attempts to create a YouTube dance – this is the other end of creativity, the entirely goal-oriented desire for attention. […] The Internet has both exposed and created a more acute awareness of our need to be reacted to. You only have to unplug it and bam – you are in a profound crisis, facing the empty void without distractions.

They quit their jobs. Jason signs up to sell trees for charity and wanders round the neighbourhood with a clipboard; Sophie cancels their Internet subscription and they both set about living this month as if it was their last, as if their lives will grind to an abrupt halt once they take on the responsibility of this injured stray cat. They are, I have to say, an odd couple but nowhere near as entertaining as Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau: funny-weird rather than funny-ha-ha; they are a melancholy pair to say the least, clearly a little lost and weighed down by life even though all they have is each other. We see the film in microcosm when Jason returns home to be told that they will lose their Internet connection within the next hour and they both sit there frantically looking up things one can only find on the Internet.

At the start of the film, if you discount the fact that it’s being narrated by a stray cat, it’s a perfectly realistic film, everything happens in real time to real people, ordinary people who aren’t spies on the side or anything like that. But as the film progresses weird stuff starts to happen and this is where some people will start to get lost when time stops and her favourite shirt begins following Sophie along the street and the man in the moon engages Jason in conversation. Miranda explains her use of magical realism in an interview on where she says she uses it for "things that are so excruciating that words fail, reality fails." On her blog she writes:

My character, Sophie, has a security blanket that’s a yellow shirt named “Shirty”. This shirt is based on my actual, real life security blanket – a much older, paler yellow shirt named, “Nightie”.

I’ve had Nightie my whole life, and if I were to ever forsake my soul, as Sophie does, I know Nightie would come crawling after me. I used to be ashamed of it and hope I would outgrow it, but instead I outgrew my shame.

The scene where Jason stops time is also heartbreaking because he realises that time is still moving at its normal speed outside of his little area of stasis. So in fact, only Jason is stopped, while the rest of the world keeps moving forward and as soon as he releases his control he will suddenly snap forward to the correct point in time. This makes so much sense to me because that’s what often happens to people following a breakup or a loss of some sort; for them time stands still and then one day—unexpectedly and inexplicably—they suddenly find themselves caught up with the rest of the world.

I liked this film very much. I liked Joe’s cameos. I liked that it didn’t feel the need to explain everything for me. I liked its poetry and I absolutely loved Paw Paw but then I’m a cat person. I can see people enjoying the book and not getting the film but I would be surprised if anyone who enjoyed the film didn’t also appreciate the very different side of Miranda July you get to see in the book. Let me leave you with the trailer:


seymourblogger said...

I love everything Miranda July does. She touches me in a way no one else does. And I love your writing about writing. And I am reading you instead of writing what I intended to write today.

There was something else important I wanted to say to you but I forget what it was.

seymourblogger said...

Now I remember it was about Darter, the artist who lived all alone in a rooming house and drew those pictures of little naked girls, some with guns, all very perverse and so touching. And when he died his landlady cleaned out the room and saved them. Bless her, bless her, bless her three times. And I think now in these times if they had found him doing that they would have jailed him. They jail someone for just looking on a computer, not fror doing anything, just looking. Thought crimes. Orwell.

Jim Murdoch said...

What puzzles me, Seymour, is that many people look down on writing about writing—especially poems about poetry—and, for the life of me, I have no idea why. I find hearing about other people’s processes fascinating and I love to see people struggle to describe this thing we do; even great writers seem to have a hard time putting it into words.

As for what you had to say about Darter I set out two write a book about getting to know someone based on the things he had left behind after his death but it never panned out. I think anyone going into any of the houses July talks about here would see their imaginations catch fire. I’ve always enjoyed going into other people’s houses and seeing how they choose to live. Usually can’t root around to my heart’s desire but given half a chance I would.

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