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August 2, 2011

Miranda July on sex and Judaism

http://www.jewishjournal.com/blog/item/miranda_july_on_sex_and_judaism_20110802/

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I had a hard time with “Me and You and Everyone We Know.” I remember walking out of the theater, which I rarely do, and not because I hated the film but because I made the mistake of seeing it with my mother and sister and they hated the film. It was too edgy and downtempo and weird. I remember strange sex scenes that made me a little bit queasy. It wasn’t just the stuff the you don’t want to watch next to your Mom, it was the stuff you don’t want to think exists. So it made perfect sense when I read the following in Katrina Onstad’s recent New York Times Magazine profile of July as journalist and muse were driving through Berekely, July’s hometown:

“That’s where I lost my virginity,” she said casually. “I was 16. He was a 27-year-old grad student at Berkeley.” This revelation seemed in line with how July uses sex in her films: as both a sudden surprise and a way to illuminate the inner lives of her characters. “I was always interested in sex, even as a kid. Sex includes shame and humiliation and fantasies and longing. It’s so dense with the kinds of things I’m interested in.”

Turns out July now lives in Silver Lake with her husband Mike Mills, the director of “Beginners,” a film I’d say I really liked, so much so that I included it in an upcoming story on Jewish actresses (French actress Melanie Laurent, last seen burning down a red velvet theatre full of Nazis in “Inglourious Basterds” plays Anna, who—you guessed it—is a Jewish actress. Of actors, and really, all public performers, she wisely says: “They’re good at looking one way and being another way”).

July figures in here because she seems to be the kind of filmmaker who is most interested in the human interior. She wants to get past the surface to the place most people try to hide. And in her view, that is often a dark place of repression and denial. It’s messy and complicated and psychologically perverted.

What I didn’t know about July was that she has some Jewish blood coursing through her veins (Ah ha! That explains the Freudian worldview). She was born Miranda Jennifer Grossinger, a name that the Times article says her father, Richard, adopted at age 9, when a shrink told him he was really a Grossinger—of Catskills fame—but after spending several summers there trying to dig up his past, he discovered he was really the product of an affair and therefore, not a Grossinger at all. Miranda changed her name from “Grossinger” to “July” when she was in her 20s. “It was part of being self-authoring,” she told Onstad. “And it was vanity.”

According to The Times, the other bit about her Jewish background is this:

Her dad was born Jewish—there was “the occasional Hanukkah candle,” she says—and her mom was raised Protestant, but the family trade was New Age. “There was no one specific belief but a kind of looser spiritual believing in just about everything,” July says. “I think there’s something spiritual in a very day-to-day, mundane existence. It’s impossible to articulate, and it’s happening now, almost like a perverse secret….That’s always sort of fascinating to me.”

 

Two things I find odd about that last graph: First, who lights the ‘occasional Hanukkah candle’? Referring to a Hanukkah candle in the singular is sort of an oxymoron, since no night of Hanukkah is celebrated with one light. I suppose what’s she’s saying is that every few years the one thing her family would do Jewishly is light the shamash? Brownie points for religious freedom; very New Age-y. Second: How can one believe in ‘everything’? Belief, by its very nature, implies a choice of some kind. Separating out that which moves you or appeals to you from the other things that don’t. If you believe in everything, what you’re really saying is that you believe in nothing. It’s like that line from “The Incredibles”: If everyone is special, than no one is special.

But Miranda July is special because the New York Times thought it factually fitting to name her “one of the most talented filmmakers of her generation.” Her next movie, “The Future,” which is only her second feature, comes out this summer. The New Yorker’s Elizabeth Minkel wrote a clever response to the piece, questioning why Miranda July is so “infuriating” as Onstad repeatedly describes her. It does seem hyperbolic when “weird” or “strange” or “bizarre” would suffice. Though Minkel admits she has not seen July’s films, she suggests that to cultivate an interest in July, one should read her short stories in which she employs techniques Minkel describes as “strange” and “indescribable.”

No, July is not exactly infuriating, but more or less amusing.

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