Loose Explorations of The Future

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Miranda July's 2011 film is explained and interpreted, down to Paw-Paw the cat.

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Sahara Shrestha | December 11, 2012

The Future (2011)

Love, Love, in the man’s heart is solitude. And in the face of my naked feminity, your face is mirrored. And my love is in the sea, in dreams. And we are faced by death.
—Godard/Masculin Feminine (1966)

The Future (2011) isn’t about death but it deals with time— both making it and taking it. In dealing with time, it deals with humanity, its vulnerability and the question of its purpose. But how do you tell this tale and truth of humanity when there isn’t enough time and resource for “personal stories” of each of the billions that lives?

Upon the introduction of the characters Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) in their LA apartment, we see the couple stretched out on their couch facing each other but preoccupied. Sophie, a children’s dance instructor, is watching her coworker’s Youtube dance video with “tell me what you think” in the title. Jason, a work-from-home tech support guy, is simply on his computer. Both are thirty-five, have been together for four years, and with strikingly similar curls, look almost identical.

Jason moves, looking like he’s about to get up, but when Sophie asks for a glass of water he says he was just changing his position, as if to avoid having to do something for her. Sophie says if they had a crane, they could use it to fetch water without leaving the couch. Jason asks how she would turn the tap. Her response: she would use her mind— a shame in Jason’s eyes because her superpower is something that can be done easily with hands. If he could use his mind to do anything, he would stop time. They ask each other to prove their powers; Sophie doesn’t want to waste water so Jason counts to three before Sophie imitates him and they pretend they’re frozen in time, looking at each other with their hands somewhere in the air.

Sophie and Jason’s lives appear ordinary- almost stagnant- as does their relationship, but the movie has a surreal quality to it, even without the use of effects, thanks to July’s performance art background. The suburban backyard barbeque scene, for example, where Marshall, the guy she’s having an affair with tells her not to move because she looks “perfect” in the light while standing next to his daughter, Gaby, who’s digging a hole. Sophie is pleased and stands still, flailing her arms and leg slowly, somewhat clumsily, against the dreamy rhythm of Jon Brion’s soundtrack. Sophie looks like a swaying tree or a seaweed whirling underwater. Everything about this scene is unnatural, including the way he tells her she’s free to go play with Gaby, and the way Gaby tells Sophie to act natural and wave. In a different scene from this escapade, Sophie notices the yellow shirt she is seen fiddling with on the couch crawling on its own out on the street, making its way into this man’s house. It brings to mind the yellow sheet that the children hop under while Sophie is at work. She also submerges herself inside of the shirt when she performs her breakdown dance to Beach House’s “Master of None”, looking like a fetus writhing on the floor, until she stands up with her head still under the shirt.

Jason’s stopping of time on the couch cuts to the casting with few-second-shots of scenes from their apartment. For instance, colored stockings hanging on the wall, old pictures of dancers and photo frames, a pastel poppy painting on the wall with a quiet chandelier in the foreground, and a light fixture with one shade missing while we get a glimpse into the kitchen in the background. Another such shot frames a poster with several stairways and people in strange angles that allow multiple ways of seeing the drawing. The images resonate with the idea of stopped time where we see everyday objects as they would be: lifeless and in their natural light.

July’s book, It Chooses You, documents interviews of people she met through the Penny-saver classifieds, a paper she read while in the process of writing the script in 2009. Everyone in LA gets it with the mail but it will probably stop printing soon. Apparently, different Internet versions of the Penny-saver have been taking over. Photographs of their homes and belongings also accompany these interviews of California residents who are mostly over forty and without computer or Internet. One of them is Joe, a non-fiction character that appears in the movie. He talks about his life and shares cards and poems that he made for his wife, Carolyn, who he met at Lake Paw-Paw. This had nothing to do with July naming the cat that Jason and Sophie are going to adopt Paw Paw, however, she had thought of it before meeting him. During the interview, Joe insists on showing July around the house, and even tries to convince her to stay longer. Their walls were covered with pet photos and they had a container hanging from the ceiling on which he had pasted the names of eight puppies he had brought when they moved near the Burbank airport in 1970: “Rosie our outside cat for seventeen years, Jannie, Ginger Bonnie…”

“Joe looked misty-eyed as he read the names on the bucket,” writes July, “a rare moment of silence came over him and he glanced around the room as if looking for something else to say.” Switching to grocery lists, Joe mentions the blue jacket that once belonged to a police officer that was shot and killed. When he died, his brother gave it to Joe, asking him to wear it every time he went to the store. With the responsibility of doing groceries for seven widows and one widower, Joe counts the thousands of times he’s worn that jacket out. He also showed July his backyard where he buried his dogs and cats seven-feet under the ground. At the time of the interview, they had some cats, one of which Joe says might need to be put to sleep, as he was nineteen and in bad shape.

Another interesting interviewee is Beverly from Vista. She didn’t want her face to be photographed due to a recent accident she had had with a spade. Beverly had a lot of baby leopards she referred to as her second husband’s and her “love.” “One of them suddenly jumped in the air to the height of my face,” writes July, “Two more began wrestling, slamming each other against the wall with violent cracks. They were small but no longer seemed cute; there was a strong man inside of each one.” Beverly also had an aviary and amongst the birds was one called a bobo, “It’s black and white and has a red beak…sings like a canary in the morning,” she says.

July was struggling to find a convincing middle for the beginning and end of the script she already had. There was Sophie, a woman who is going to fail herself, and there was Jason. Jason loves the world and he’s going to try to stop global warming in spite of believing it’s already too late. For him, this is the moment where everything is still, right after the “wrecking ball” has hit the building. July also says that the movie was transforming into something about “faith,” or the “nightmare of not having it.”

Sophie brings a sick cat home, deciding that she and Jason are going to adopt him. This talking cat only has a few months while the couple has a month before they can bring him back from the vet where Jason meets Gaby. Gaby is sad that they’re taking back the drawing her father made of her holding a puppy because no one wants it. Jason jumps to the rescue claiming that it’s his “cup of tea.” If he didn’t want it he could call the number on the back of the drawing to return it.

Paw-Paw has an injured paw. When we hear him speak, we only see his hands, his bowl and the newspaper lining the floor of his cage. This talking cat proved problematic when it came to financiers so in terms of including one in the movie, July says in an interview with A.V Club that she always fought to not have him canceled out, “it just seemed to me like we needed a break from Sophie and Jason, and needed someone who was completely honest and direct and reliable, in a way.” Inside his cage, the cat wonders how long thirty days is, “Outside there was no time, no hours, just a life, or not a life, or bird. Now there was this new thing, waiting. Waiting for them to come get me. Waiting for my real life to begin. I learned to count the seconds. Now. Now. Now.”

Sophie and Jason wonder what they would do if they only had a month to live. Without much thought, they quit their jobs. Holding hands, the couple walks excitedly and hurriedly. Jason jokes about trying to listen for a sign that will guide him to his next plan and they come across a man who asks if they want to stop global warming. He is all by himself with a table and clipboards like a kid selling lemonade in his yard. Sophie isn’t interested but Jason stops and takes a few steps back. The next thing you know, Jason is going to sell trees and Sophie is looking at him like she doesn’t know him, or didn’t know this side of him. She decides to unplug the Internet and choreograph dances to post one video a day but to no avail. Their roles have reversed in a way; Jason is outside a lot, in constant but failed first hand human contact before coming home to Sophie who is stuck with her dance. Jason goes back to the man he signed up with to quit but he’s convinced to keep trying, “we’re about to witness a massive shift in consciousness…you get to walk across this entire city, house to house all the way to the ocean.”

Communication between Jason and Sophie is flawed and the loudness of the hair dryer he gets for her only makes talking worse. Neither is aware of what the other wants. Sophie, on the other hand, discovers the phone number in the back of the drawing, leading to her encounter with Marshall from San Fernando Valley. Her short curls are strangely straight and when she’s with him her outfits appear primmer.

While in his car, Jason picks up a Penny saver, leading to his meeting with Joe who, in the movie, is selling a hair dryer. In reality, the hair dryer aspect of this is inspired by Dina, a tattooed and pierced single mom who was selling a hair dryer she had had since Junior-high or so. She and her daughter, Lenette had just moved into one of the community houses in Sun Valley and was trying to get rid of old things. Amongst the old things she kept was a scrapbook from her teenage years where she glued magazine cutouts to create “pretend sisters.” Amongst her new things was a shiny inflatable couch, “a five-in-one,” says Dina. A couch. A bed. “Maybe it floats, so it’s a boat,” says July. July had gone back with hopes of doing a reenactment with Dina and Lenette, who had sung Miley Cyrus’ The Climb in their living room, but Dina, in her attempt to sound proper, no longer spoke the way she did, and Lenette had decided to do a rap she had written instead. July had to scrap the idea because the reenactment would no longer be real.

By meeting Joe, Jason has in a way visited the future. Returning home after talking and having lunch with him, he notices they have the same collection of hippos, the same couch, and the same poster with the staircases. Jason is optimistic, at least in terms of having more time, and of it getting better. But Sophie does the unspeakable; she cheats on him with someone who asks her if she believes in soul mates. When she tries to talk to Jason he stops time to stop her from telling him. With his hand on Sophie’s head, he is stuck at 3:14 am for days; the same way the cat stops the yarn from rolling with its bandaged paw while we see him playing in the living room.

Meanwhile, Jason consults the moon outside the window of his room. An interesting point to note: the only other character that the couple see out their window is the “lonely spinster” who’s always combing her long white hair in hers. The moon man, a version of Joe, tells Jason freezing time and avoiding the truth isn’t the answer. He also says he can’t tell him what’s going to happen at 3:15 am because nobody knows. But Jason knows Sophie is going to be gone when he removes his hand. She isn’t going to be there to say “hi person” in the morning. Time has stopped for so long that it’s already Paw Paw’s pick up day but it’s too late in the day.

In the dark, Jason stands still in front of the ocean with nothing but the moon in the sky. Everything is quiet and the sea is motionless until he lifts his hands. He pulls and pushes the waves as if they were metallic chunks of rock or ice. When he opens his eyes, it’s early morning and the ocean isn’t frozen.

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