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The Age of the Selfie

It Chooses You

by Miranda July

McSweeny's, July 2012

So, answer me this. Do you like to look at people looking at themselves? I do not. But watching people stare at themselves is a large part of what the internet is. Consider, for instance, Facebook, which is in many respects a hall of mirrors in which you examine others only as they desire to be seen, and by which you create and maintain meticulously, like a little bonsai homunculus, your ideal image of yourself. It is entirely imaginary, as in “of or related to the image.”

This is not necessarily bad, and the word “narcissistic” is not always pejorative. Our images are extremely important in our lives. It would do no good to join the legions of people who feel guilty about sitting in front of their computers for too long, or about spending too much money on clothes, and rail against humanity’s vanity. When I was a child, I saw on a lamppost on upper Ashland Avenue a sticker that said, “Style is fickle; be microscopic.” No.

But an unexamined selfishness does not make for very good art. Consider It Chooses You by Miranda July, which is very good most of the time and not as good for the rest. It is a beautifully published collection of interviews with 12 people who have advertised items for sale in the PennySaver. Accompanying the text are some really quite extraordinary photographs by Brigitte Sire of the sellers, their homes, and their lives in all their humanity and pathos.

July’s PennySaver project is couched in the larger narrative of her life while she was struggling to finish the screenplay for what would become her second feature length film, The Future (2011). This struggle is difficult even for a fellow writer to sympathize with because of its deeply unsympathetic protagonist. The reader is asked to follow July through her lameness and paralysis, her fears of death, and her inability to tear herself away from the YouTube videos and the news aggregators. She writes, “The blogs of strangers had to be read daily, and people nearby who had no web presence were becoming almost cartoonlike, as if they were missing a dimension.” No sooner does she say this than she disavows it in the following sentence, however: “I don’t mean that I really thought this, out loud; it was just happening, like time, like geography.” What? Does July really think that her changing perceptions of people she doesn’t even know, her preemptive judgments of people without computers, are as universal as, to use her word, time? It’s hard not to see her here as hopelessly stuck among the ranks of the blindered bourgeoisie.

It is a strange issue because most of what July says in It Chooses You sounds correct. Sort of like how it sounds correct when people say the world is ending because, you know, global warming, Michael Jackson died, the Depression, why are gas prices so high, also oh my God the weather has been so hot for like two months now. How could I possibly maintain that it isn’t a huge problem that the internet is so ubiquitous?! After all, even the simple act of defecation now involves Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds! It all sounds correct because July is expressing and bemoaning those same things we all feel guilty about: wasting time, staring at ourselves, doing nothing. But in July’s world what she perceives as her personal failings are writ large as signs that the seventh seal has been opened.

Miranda July (photo by RJ Shaughnessy)

This is not to mention The Future, the film she struggled with writing. Have you seen it? I watched it in preparation for this review and it is not very good. The two main characters, Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater), look and act like caricatures out of Portlandia, with more matted hair between them than a bichon frise. But the biggest problem with The Future is its only barely questioned self-seriousness, as if the problems of these two boring, unkempt, mumbling balls of quirk are really a metaphor for the obstacles we all face. And we are asked to gasp at the sincere profundity of it all when she unplugs her computer, or when she tries and fails to do some weird stilted dance alone in her apartment, or when he reignites the passage of time by pushing out the frozen waves on the beach. (Whatever, just watch the movie.)

I mention all of this because it is what stands in the way between the reader and the finally very moving project that generated It Chooses You. The people July meets immediately appear in all their ambivalent humanity, each with his or her own bizarre and endearing eccentricities, each pleasant in a way that surprised me and made me think of that part in Bowling for Columbine when Michael Moore discovers that apparently no one in Canada locks his door. July shows herself in these interviews to be someone who, despite what her detractors may claim, shares very little with all things twee and hipster. She reminds me of Annie Clark, better known by her stage name St. Vincent, and not just because they look alike. They both pursue their art with a refreshing and unflinching femininity, and they do it well.

But lest the reader feel too moved, the author throws a hipcheck at the beginning and end of each chapter just to remind us that yes, she is still having trouble writing her screenplay and yes, that’s the reason she even conducted the interviews in the first place. “I’ve been trying for so long now,” she writes, “for decades, to lift the lid a little bit, to see under the edge of life and somehow catch it in the act—‘it’ being not God (because the word God asks a question and then answers it before there is any chance to wonder) but something along those lines.” Despite the casual and unnecessary antitheism, July’s head looks like it’s in a right-seeming place. It Chooses You does exactly that: It catches people living their lives with what appears to be the unbridled honesty for which life is so famous.

The final story, of Joe Putterlik and his wife Carolyn, is a tearjerker, devastating and gorgeous, and it at last seems to draw July’s attention away from her own life, which by comparison is significantly less interesting. She recognizes this on some level but seems often to forget to do what she knows she ought: “I thought I would be taken more seriously as a director if I didn’t also act in it—something I keep forgetting these days.” I know, right? The writing is not especially great, (e.g. “I nodded but shrugged, to suggest that my reasons for coming were ever-evolving and expanding”), but it mostly serves its purpose. It Chooses You is visibly in crisis when it comes to what its purpose actually is, but that uncertainty diminishes next to the twelve stunning stories and the timeless photographs of the storytellers.

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