Books

28 Years of Miranda July, Master of Self-Fashioning

Titled simply Miranda July, Prestel’s excellent new “mid-career retrospective” of the artist highlights July’s enduring interest in the very darkest aspects of human existence.

July, pictured in Miranda July (Prestel, 2020) (© Miranda July, all images courtesy Prestel)

Miranda July is having a moment. Last month, her breakout film Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005) was reissued by the Criterion Collection. Next month — pandemic permitting — her third feature film, Kajillionaire, will have its theatrical release. And to top it all off, Prestel has published a monograph on her work, marketed as her “mid-career retrospective” and titled, simply, Miranda July.

The cover of Miranda July © 2020 by Miranda July (Prestel)

The title is appropriate: Miranda July is a phenomenon unto herself. The blurb describes her as a “Filmmaker. Author. Performer. Shopkeeper.” To that you could add: Artist. Actress. Musician. Screenwriter. Publisher. Producer. App Designer. She is multidisciplinary in the true sense of the word. She is also the type of artist who inspires a cult-like devotion. Dozens of her fans have tattooed themselves with the computer symbol )) <> ((, a reference to a plot line from Me and You, and now a kind of Miranda July stamp.

July is a master of self-fashioning. Born Miranda Grossinger in 1974, she adopted the name of a character from the feminist fanzine she created with her friend aged 18. Her personal style, simultaneously feminine and androgynous, is highly distinctive: hot-pink tights, ruffle blouses and 70s-style blazers, accompanied by her mop of dark curly hair and a deer-in-headlights expression. She speaks in a wobbling, almost childlike voice and it’s never quite clear whether or not she’s being ironic.

Miranda July, © The School of Life, London
An excerpt from Miranda July © 2020 by Miranda July

It’s precisely July’s mix of artifice and apparent sincerity which many people find cloying. For every impassioned devotee of July’s, there’s an equally impassioned detractor. So incensed are her critics that a headline in The New Yorker a few years ago asked: “What’s So Infuriating About Miranda July?” She has endlessly been described as “quirky” and “twee” — labels which, when applied to her male equivalents like Wes Anderson and David Shrigley, seem to have a more forgiving tone.

What such critiques often overlook is July’s enduring interest in the very darkest aspects of human existence. Beneath her stylized veneer lies a disturbing world, populated by strange, sad people and their often perverse desires. Presented with 28 years of July’s artistic output, as we are in Prestel’s excellent new publication, we realize that she has consistently focused on hard-hitting themes like crime, loneliness, desperation and sexual transgression.

An excerpt from Miranda July © 2020 by Miranda July (Prestel, 2020)

July’s earliest work, a sixty-minute play called The Lifers (1992) which she wrote and directed while still in high school, is based on her two-year correspondence with an inmate serving a life sentence for murder. Her most recent work, the movie Kajillionaire (2020), follows the story of a family of con artists and their low-grade escapades. Like in fairy tales, the backdrops to her stories are vague, but things — a bandage or a cat face mug or a chestnut-colored wig — take on an outsized, symbolic importance.

Her monograph is full of such things. Since childhood, July has been a compulsive hoarder (perhaps “Archivist” could be added to her list of descriptors). For this reason, the book is abundantly illustrated with journal pages, sketches, posters, photographs, stills, scripts and props. Even the tape-letters from July’s prison pen-pal, labelled “Letter to Mir” with a little star over the “i”, make an appearance. Next to these are accounts by her fellow travelers, from collaborators to curators to ex-lovers, which paint a fragmented but vivid portrait of July — an artist who, in the words of her friend Summer Mastous, is “just totally her own person.”

Miranda July performing The Swan Tool, pictured on page 81 of Miranda July (Prestel, 2020)

Miranda July (Prestel, 2020), by Miranda July with an introduction by Julia Bryan-Wilson, is now available on Bookshop.

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