Friday, January 27, 2012

The Future (2011)

Germany/USA, 91 minutes
Director/writer: Miranda July
Photography: Nikolai von Graevenitz
Music: Jon Brion
Editor: Andrew Bird
Cast: Miranda July, Hamish Linklater, David Warshofsky, Joe Putterlik, Isabella Acres

There's a fair number of disclaimers I need to hit with this one so I will just get right to it. This is one of those pictures I would not think could ever work—even, or maybe I should say especially, after actually seeing it. But both times I have seen it now I have come away in something of a not entirely pleasurable daze. So the first disclaimer has to be the obligatory SPOILER ALERT. I think much of the impact turns on a particular plot point, which I will talk about beyond the jump, a plot point that for me was entirely unexpected, for which I was not prepared, and that utterly floored me. Yeah, it still works fine knowing it ahead of time, as I discovered looking at The Future again. But spoiler rules are spoiler rules, so there you go.

There's also a matter of director/writer Miranda July's steely determination to operate within the dimensions of a twee preciosity. The inclination was a good deal more pronounced in her 2005 debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, but it's here too. I would argue she's shrewd about the way she goes about using it, ultimately playing very hard against expectations even as she packs this full of familiar indie mumblecore-type gestures, with self-involved 20somethings (who are actually 30something, as we shortly discover) living their ironic alternative lifestyles with pluck and humor, buoyed by a stream of wide-eyed and gentle knowing sarcasm that threatens constantly to tip over into bitterness and bad temper.

Perhaps most key, one must at least have sympathies or some understanding for the impulses and various eccentricities of pet owners. There's a rescue cat here; its name is Paw Paw and it provides passages of voiceover making observations of wry wisdom. And that voice is unmistakably Miranda July, in a croaking half-whisper that is so silly I was initially quite embarrassed for her, squirming painfully as I attempted to keep riding along with wherever she might be headed. Again, the element of twee is strong with this one.

The focus is Jason and Sophie (played by Hamish Linklater and Miranda July), a comfortable couple in their mid-30s living in Los Angeles. They have decided to take on the care of a rescue cat that suffers from renal failure and is likely to die within the year. When the veterinarian tells them they will need to wait another few weeks before they can take it home, she also mentions that the cat could very well live for years with good care. The burden of this suddenly enlarged commitment weighs on the couple heavily. They do the math, realizing they could be in their 40s by the time Paw Paw dies. Almost immediately they begin to act out, quitting their McJobs to attempt more meaningful work, giving up their Internet access, and otherwise spiraling into vaguely pathetic dithers. Jason goes door to door as a volunteer soliciting for a project that works to stop global warming. Sophie starts her own YouTube channel to make videos of herself dancing.

The strange desperation only ratchets higher and higher, and suddenly the picture has notably departed from the kind of gentle quirky comedy one has been led to expect of it. Sophie drifts into an affair with a divorced middle-aged man in Tarzana who has a young daughter. The terms of their connection, unexpectedly, are raw and sexual—yet it doesn't seem entirely wrong for Sophie. At the same time Jason has made a connection with a strange and lonely old man who increasingly appears to Jason as a discomfiting future version of himself.

The last third of The Future slips into an increasingly strange phantasmagoria, right at the point when Sophie is about to tell Jason about her affair. Jason's previous whimsical declaration that he has the ability to stop time suddenly appears to be factual, albeit in a deeply flawed way that does not actually stop time. The moon begins to speak, trying to clarify the very point to him. Jason and Sophie have individually and together arrived at a crossroads.

During this juncture, in all the confusion of the stuttering slipstream of time, the couple neglects to make their appointment to get Paw Paw from the shelter, and Paw Paw is subsequently euthanized. It's left to Paw Paw to deliver this news to the audience, and the cat's shock and sadness at the turn is matched by our own. This never felt like the kind of movie where lives we cared about, even incidentally and with modicums of annoyance, would be so thoughtlessly cast aside. Suddenly the stakes have become vastly higher than we could have anticipated.

In many ways The Future operates as a self-conscious and all but barefaced allegory, with Paw Paw standing in as the ailing state of our planet and society, and the bumbling good-natured Jason and Sophie as the well-intentioned among us who seem to be powerless to change anything—including changes required within themselves.

Miranda July, in only her second feature, demonstrates a lot of poise and nerve in pulling this off. She's not afraid to cross the line into an almost saccharine preciousness because she knows how devastatingly she is going to undercut and turn the tables on it. I started this movie groaning about a couple too cute by half and their banter and indeed the totality of their silly, inconsequential, and only fleetingly charming lives. In the end, July made a mockery of my expectations, effectively reducing them, and me, to rubble.

Top 10 of 2011
I guess my first choice here makes the distinction plain enough, in case anyone was wondering, that this series is going to be yet another consideration of "favorite" as opposed to "best" or "greatest"—because if it were either of the latter The Tree of Life, currently stalking the year-end lists of nine out of 10 film critics (often at the very top), would be featured more prominently. I didn't dislike The Tree of Life, but I wasn't wild about it either—the shoe-leather stink it gave off of pious religiosity and the various indulgences it took in too-easy clichés of American-style post-'60s spirituality put me off, even as I recognized it overall as stunningly beautiful. At first I was inclined to give Malick my usual pass on a first viewing because so many of his pictures have grown better the more I look at them. This has notably been the case with The Thin Red Line. But a second and disappointing recent look at The New World has inclined me to take my time revisiting The Tree of Life.

Hugo probably makes more sense as my #1—I loved it top to bottom, it's from one of my perennial favorite directors, Martin Scorsese, it's an exciting departure from his usual fare, and it's a glorious paean to the pleasures of movies at many, many levels. But The Future is the movie I haven't been able to stop thinking about.

Otherwise, at a point notably lacking in perspective, it seems to me that 2011 was, as many are claiming, a pretty good year for movies, probably the best since 2007. On the other hand, as I will get into next time, I don't think 2010 was as bad as many thought, not least because many of the movies people are mentioning for 2011 I will be listing under 2010. This is always a tricky issue, so I may as well clarify my position here and now, at the outset. My guideline is going to be IMDb, which tends to date from first public screenings (which often means festival screenings) rather than when a picture goes into wide release in the U.S. Just so you know.
1. The Future
2. Hugo
3. Drive
4. Trollhunter
5. We Need to Talk About Kevin
6. Meek's Cutoff
7. Super 8
8. The Descendants
9. Beginners
10. Paul

Didn't like so much: Captain America, Margin Call, Melancholia, The Skin I Live In, The Tree of Life

Gaps: The Artist, A Dangerous Method, A Separation, This Is Not a Film, War Horse

And, because I would like to make a habit of these categories, here's my best of oldies seen this past year....
Best seen first: Cache, The Devil and Daniel Webster, Eyes Wide Shut, Grave of the Fireflies, Oldboy, Orchestra Wives, The Spirit of the Beehive, Union Pacific, The Wages of Fear, World on a Wire

Best seen again: A.I. Artificial Intelligence; Boogie Nights; Dogfight; Enter the Dragon; The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Ikiru; The King of Comedy; Run Lola Run; A Simple Plan; Velvet Goldmine


  1. Thanks for all the great tips, I just added a bunch to my netflix queue. Peace.

  2. I saw the trailers for Me and You and Everyone We Know and had what might be called an allergic reaction. I've still managed to avoid it. But goddamit, The Future sounds fascinating. I'm glad I ignored your spoiler warning and forged on; if anything I want to see it more than I would have otherwise.

    other thoughts:

    I sympathize with you somewhat on Tree of Life. I did not see it as being quite as innovative as stunning as others did.

    I'd love to hear more on your disappointment with The New World. Care to elaborate?

    Heard great things about Trollhunter.

    Interesting you were a fan of Super 8. I felt it unsuccessfully mixed two very different types of Spielberg films: the sensitive/humanist/filled-with-wonder stories and the rather glibly ruthless kinda mean-spirited spectacles. I wrote about it in my "Films Seen in 2012" post recently on my blog.

    I actually did like Melancholia quite a bit, though I probably preferred Antichrist (at least its stunning prologue).

    This is Not a Film is great. Haven't seen A Separation. Haven't taken up War Horse yet - I thought the trailer looked kind of embarrassing. The Artist is mildly pleasant and enjoyable, but not a Best Picture. I can't wait to see A Dangerous Method, but I am waiting because I want to read the book first which - after months of trying to get to it - I've finally begun.

    Some great "first seens" there - including Devil and Daniel Webster (I first saw that in '11 as well, and promptly bought a copy), World on a Wire (also first saw in '11 although ironically in a less-than-stellar-taped-off-British-TV copy, before the Criterion DVD), Eyes Wide Shut, Grave of the Fireflies, Spirit of the Beehive. I saw Oldboy on a first (and last date). That was kind of awkward, especially since the girl picked the movie. And had already seen it...

    Dogfight is one I saw for the first time last year too. I liked it a lot, one of those great small little human dramas you can sink into.

  3. I felt a little strange dissing Malick -- I know some of it is this damnable impulse I have to be contrarian, and all of that way, way over-the-top praise for The Tree of Life set me up for that. I looked at The New World shortly after. I liked it the first time and hoped it would balance my reaction to Tree, but it actually went the other way. It seemed gauze and spongy, mostly surface dazzle, asserting the heaviosity it insists on rather than earning it. But, honestly, I'm nothing if not fickle. I wouldn't be surprised to find myself in love with them on future viewings, so at least one more of each will happen.

    I didn't see von Trier's Melancholia under ideal circumstances and suspect it's better than I thought -- it's definitely got a fine cast -- but I did have a bad reaction to Antichrist when I finally got around to it so I'm not hurrying back any time soon. I also didn't like Dogville because it seemed strained and artificial. I think with von Trier, I need to go all the way back to Breaking the Waves and Dancer in the Dark, both of which I liked quite a bit when they were new. I'm not so sure about that anymore.

    Will be interested to hear what you think of The Future. I'm a little uneasy with the pick, because of the twee qualities I discuss, but I have to admit it really worked on me.

    I love the Oldboy story -- what a date movie!