Saturday 5 November 2011

Forward progress: "The Future"

With The Future, the writer, director, performer and performance artist Miranda July gives us a coming-of-age story; the gag is that the leads are both 35. Sophie (July) is a dance instructor with vague artistic ambitions; her boyfriend Jason (Hamish Linklater) a moptopped technical support guy. Together, they are the very model of a young artsy L.A. couple, childless and almost entirely impractical, spending their evenings peering over their laptop lids at one another like a pair of urchins caught up in a game of Battleships. A form of responsibility will be foisted upon them when their cat Paw-Paw falls sick and needs to be taken in to see a vet; the vet insists that, when the cat is returned to them in a month, it will need to be kept inside for the remainder of its earthly existence, which could be as long as five years.

Five years: Sophie and Jason realise - with shared alarm - that this will take them up to 40. Where others would simply buy in more Whiskas and cat litter, these two are so highly strung they're sent into a state of panic by the thought, reasoning instead that this will be their last month of free time and youth, their final thirty days in which to achieve anything truly worthwhile with their lives. In the hope of boosting productivity, they switch off their Internet connection, then set out into the world - she towards a project challenging her to learn thirty dances in thirty days, and an affair with an older man, a brawny, barbequing type (David Warshofsky) whose presence suggests Sophie has a latent desire for domesticity and creature comforts; Jason into the embrace of a global warming awareness organisation enlisting members of the public to sponsor a tree. His supervisor will tell him "you could walk across the city, going from house to house, all the way to the ocean", and you think: don't say that to a character in a Miranda July film, you'll give them ideas.

Ideas The Future has, sure enough: it's partly a treatise on how, in our rush for immediate gratification (and YouTube hits), we've kind of lost sight of the bigger picture, and it's partly a rumination on a particular generation's morbid fear of getting old, where the years beyond fifty are interpreted as "loose change", because they're not enough to get anything one truly wants. How those ideas are expressed has been, and doubtless will be, a sticking point for some: the film is narrated by Paw-Paw, seen as a pair of fluffy handmade paws, whose obs-purr-vations (cat years are much shorter than human years, and you don't see felines having existential crises) at least take the film past the solipsism of its central couple, but are nevertheless voiced by July herself in an electronically modulated ickle-kitty voice, a device I understand has sent many running for the hills.

The film operates at a high frequency, certainly, and yet those who tune into it will pick up some astute transmissions on topics ranging from creative paralysis - take the tableau that finds Sophie procrastinating before a "DAY ONE" cue card, searching for any distraction (a scratch on a floorboard, the metal clasp on a box) rather than have to commit to movement - to our inability to stop time and remain young forever, masters of our own destiny. Even the introduction of the latter sci-fi conceit - marking the point at which the film, and this relationship, decisively bifurcates - is achieved with a particularly Julyian touch: Jason discovers he can stop the clock by holding his hand to Sophie's head, only that his arm, withered by a diet of mung beans and tofu, starts to get tired in the process.

Not so July's eye, thankfully; in fact, her visual sense has never appeared sharper. A sundappled backlawn fantasy has the hazy, ominous light of a Gregory Crewdson photograph; the creepy yellow T-shirt Sophie discovers has a life of its own is too Lynchian to merely be misinterpreted as an instance of a film getting tangled up in its own imagery. The Future is peculiarly stuffed with bodies under blankets and sheets - a consequence of having characters who want nothing more than a sleepy-eyed return to the womb, perhaps, or an attempt to link these characters with Schrödinger's cat: Hamish and Sophie are caught in their own kind of existential limbo, somewhere between youth and old age, the living and the dead. Their relationship doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

If we're inclined to pull back the covers and take a peek, I think we still have to conclude the new film isn't quite as worked through as July's amusingly offbeat debut Me and You and Everyone We Know - sections of it are subject to a dropout of viewer interest, filled with the crackle of some very white noise - but it confirms its director and chief creative force as a talent, and a specifically cinematic talent, if an unruly and divisive one with that. For all July's dotty, sometimes dappy methods, The Future is broadcasting from and to a small but carefully cultivated corner of the real world, reaching, occasionally scrambling for items, ideas and images of relevance. The final scenes, in particular, have the ring of hard life experience, and the future in question is left - as it should be - unknowable.

The Future is in selected cinemas.

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