Two closing parentheses, a “less than” sign, a “greater than” sign, then two opening parentheses: ))<>((. Anyone who has seen Miranda July’s 2005 feature debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, will recognize this code at once. In the film, a soulful five-year-old boy, Robby (Brandon Ratcliff), improvises it while typing in an online chat room with a grown woman: “I’ll poop into her butthole, and then she’ll poop it back into my butthole,” he explains to his older brother, who has initiated the first conversation with her. “And then we’ll just keep doing it, back and forth, with the same poop. Forever.” To the brother’s astonishment—he’s been striving to impress her with whatever he imagines a real man might fantasize about—the woman is disarmed and turned on by this image of profound intimacy. Before long, she’s begging Robby to meet her in person.
Like much of July’s on-screen work, this story line, in which woman and child both eventually show up for their sexual assignation in a park, balances right on the edge between sweetness and repulsion, between alt-weirdness and a humanistic, rom-com–style message about connection, vulnerability, and acceptance. It works on the assumption that most of the population feels we are at heart uniquely freakish. When I first saw it in the theater, it felt thrilling, a little risky, but the recipe is precise: July had intended that “back and forth … forever” would become a huge meme, and that’s what happened. The movie cleaned up at Cannes and was a hit; a lot of people bought the T-shirt printed with ))<>((, and some even got the tattoo.
July, who usually appears in her own films, started out as a solo performance artist, often inhabiting multiple personae in the course of an hour or two, and her directorial style bears the stamp of that work—eccentric enough to hold your attention, yet not alienating enough to lose anyone in the crowd. She also spent years on a feminist video project (now called “Joanie 4 Jackie”), collecting and circulating short films, and distributing zines in which she interviewed random women on the street, asking what they’d make a film about if they had the time, money, or opportunity. Characters in her movies likewise make video pieces or sidle into sudden dance sequences. Some are artists, but that’s not why they do these things: It’s central to July’s worldview that the impulse to express, to communicate, to try something weird and see what happens, is a universal one. That’s what Robby and his career-woman paramour are each doing in the chat room. And it’s partly what Robby’s shoe-salesman father (John Hawkes) is up to when, in an early scene, during his breakup with their mother, he calls his sons away from the computer to watch him standing in the garden outside the window, having set his own arm on fire. He’d intended, he later explains to July’s character, to replicate a trick he’d seen in which alcohol flames up around an object and then burns out, doing no harm, but hadn’t fully considered the consequences of subbing in lighter fluid: “It’s OK though, it’s better this way.”
There’s nothing all that formally experimental in Me and You and Everyone We Know, a funny, sunny, neatly plotted ensemble piece, and yet by emphasizing the spontaneous make-believe games and secret rituals that people, even or especially strangers, develop with one another when no one else is looking, it creates an unpredictable, conspiratorial mood, as if the audience is being invited to embarrass ourselves as part of someone’s art project. July’s second film, The Future, though less broadly likable, as it focuses on a couple’s mid-thirties doldrums, contains many similar whimsical elements: The male lead can stop time; an emotionally significant yellow shirt crawls after July’s character under its own steam; a foster cat with an injured paw provides raspy, existentialist voice-over narration, waiting for the couple to get it together to bring her home.
In Me and You, July’s sensibility was markedly nonjudgmental, favoring freewheeling spirit over social convention. Adults are childlike, often needy, bewildered by their obligations and unready to commit to much (except the bit); children, left to their own devices, operate pretty autonomously; and, with a bit of luck, no one’s self-discovery seems to come at anyone else’s expense. The Future marked a darkening of tone, and July’s new film, Kajillionaire, though livelier, explores the disturbing notion that just as games have losers, experiments have subjects—and their side effects may vary. At its heart is one of the central problems of maturity—the trade-off between freedom and responsibility. Not quite a critique of the adorable whimsy of her early work, Kajillionaire is a head-on encounter with the psychic tensions that always undergirded it.