Culture Rover

#72 - Me and Myself and I? Me and You and Everyone We Know?

Does Miranda July's new film, Me and You and Everyone We Know identify new possibilities for empathy in a contemporary American culture of isolation? Does it hint at pinpricks of connection poking light and air holes through suffocating sealants of alienation?

The film is so casual in its presentation, but the mood it establishes is haunting. Dialogues become richly metaphorical, as when the two main characters experience an entire lifetime together while walking down one block. Details become symbolic -- shoes, mirrors, cars, t-shirts, photographs, computer games, park benches, kitchen appliances, fire -- but quietly so. The film is a strange melange of commonality and spectacularity, humility and profundity.

One of the strange qualities of the film is its coolness. Coolness not as in hipness, but as in a kind of calm gaze. You catch this on the faces of the characters, especially July's Christine Jersperson and John Hawkes' Richard Swersey, whose faces and eyes convey richly complex internal lives masked by guarded hyper-self-awareness. You catch it also in the taboo places the film is willing to explore not for prurient or sensationalized reasons but almost out of a level-headed, unagitated curiosity. Most obviously, July tiptoes toward daring questions about child and adolescent sexuality. More subtly, she also investigates the disappointments and deep loneliness of adulthood.

All of this occurs at a pace that is stately and graceful without being slow and ponderous. The film refuses so many of the cinematic tropes that signal "emotional experience" that there is almost a lack of affect. We sense tumultuous inner lives within these characters, but concealed behind screens, windows, plates, masks, mirrors of external coolness. The film is poignant without being distressing; it is deadpan, but not for comic effect; it tingles, but like a limb that has fallen asleep, at once part of the body and alien from it.

Are July's intimations of a mode of connection and interaction within a landscape of cool affectlessness why critics puzzle over the film's surprising relevance? The film is telling us something about the emotional dimensions of our current time, but noone seems quite able to describe this new terrain. Is it about the weirdly paradoxical eroticism of affectlessness? Is it about a kind of culture shock -- and attempts to locate magic within this traumatized space? Is it just a plain old romantic comedy with some bizarre plot twists and side stories? The film articulates something you feel like you already know, but you can never quite articulate what this knowledge is. It feels so recognizable yet so foreign.

What is this mood, then? It's not quite wonder so much as desires felt through a daze. July registers a kind of cultural paralysis, a numb lostness, a stifling self-consciousness. The characters, the objects, the pace, the very color palette render her film like a song coming in through static on the radio: it gets inside your head, it is inside your head, but it is also remote, alien, distant, dreamlike.

In some respects, July's film merely registers a bourgeois/bohemian ennui that has been around since the industrial revolution. But the film does not rail or even wring its hands over this sense of futility. It attempts to run its hands over the surface of these feelings of self-alienation. And the film communicates that as paralyzed, isolated, or lonely as many of us might feel, there is still something like intimacy and connection out there. It is still possible even in a world where the old modes of feeling don't quite cut through anymore. Community is still available despite the cool irony, the distancing gaze, the narcissistic embeddedness, the fearful isolationism in which we now house, encase, and protect our senses of self and individuality.

I think. But that could just be me. Or you. Or everyone we know.

4 August 2005

Addendum #1(17 August 2005):

In the June 27th issue of The New Yorker (Sorry, I'm just getting caught up now!), Anthony Lane notices (and disapproves of) the affectlessness in Me and You and Everyone We Know.

Lane's comments made me think about how Miranda July's film is somehow similar in tone (oddly deadened yet vivid and bursting at the seams) to Zach Braff's Garden State. More about this in a future post.

Addendum #2 (18 August 2005):

For another perspective on the film, comparing it (favorably) to Paul Thomas Anderson and Todd Solondz, see Jessica Hopper's comments from March, 2005.

Back to #71

Go to #73