People who don’t act like me and you
August 22, 2005
Given how much freedom we are afforded in this American life, it is strange and somewhat disturbing how similar most of us are. Our actions, the things we buy and make, the jobs we do, are predictable to the point that anyone veering even a little from the norm is the subject of scrutiny, gossip and calls to the cops.”Me and You and Everyone We Know,” the first film by performance-artist-turned-filmmaker-and-actress Miranda July, celebrates the oddball. None of the characters in “Me and You … ” lives his or her life in the expected fashion, or makes the routine utterance. Even the way they walk around the shabby, small-city neighborhood that is the film’s setting would tip off the average person that these are people to be watched, preferably from a distance and with caution.Virtually everyone who falls in front of July’s skillful gaze is some kind of curiosity. The title seems to imply that every one of us has some inner eccentric.The two mixed-race brothers, 6-year-old Robby (Brandon Ratcliff) and the young teen Peter (Miles Thompson), engage in perverse instant-messaging exchanges toward supposed romantic ends. A grown-up neighbor uses a more direct and old-fashioned method for his fantasy encounters: He places handwritten notes in his window, directed at the two teenage girls, dripping with sexual adventurousness, who hang around the neighborhood. In the film’s opening scene, Richard (John Hawkes), a shoe salesman and the hapless father of Robby and Peter, responds to the breakup of his marriage by lighting his hand on fire.July herself plays Christine, an obscure video artist whose medium is herself. Christine’s videos revolve around Christine. In one very effective scene, Christine uses a videotaped piece to communicate to the owner of a cutting-edge local gallery. Beyond her work, July makes Christine’s daily existence a piece of performance art. When she becomes attracted to Richard, she doesn’t subtly flirt or aggressively demand attention. She invents a relationship game, using the street blocks and signs as a metaphor for their romance.
The question at the heart of “Me and You … ” seems to be whether July is, in fact, celebrating these abnormal beings. As in Todd Solondz’s “Happiness,” or Terry Zwigoff’s “Ghost World” – both better movies, but not by that much – July is presenting characters whose behavior is, by and large, unsavory. But she goes to pains to reserve judgment on their out-of-the-mainstream souls. She leaves us to wrestle with the issue of whether to despise these people because of their actions or to have compassion for their admittedly off-kilter struggle to find happiness and meaning.While July tries to hide her hand, it is obvious what she thinks. All of her characters, especially Richard, walk around with a bewildered look, as if they were stunned to find themselves part of this world of normalcy and expectations. July finds in them a sincere innocence. And while most of the characters flirt with despicable behavior, they back off from the really bad stuff. Usually. And July, as a performance artist, must be sympathetic to people whose behavior draws puzzled looks.For all the quirkiness of its characters, “Me and You … ” is built on solid cinematic ground. The acting, led by Hawkes’ illuminating performance, is great. Even the look of the film conveys an optimism that is a reflection of July’s perspective. And July is wise not to layer her story of oddball humans with even odder structures and cinematography; she strikes a balance between the loopy dialogue and the fundamentally grounded technique. “Me and You … ” earned the Special Jury Prize at Sundance, and the award for best first film at Cannes.The core theme of the film – the ways human beings try to stave off loneliness – will be most familiar to avid fans of independent moviemaking. But July has put a fresh, charming stamp on the issue. “Me and You and Everyone We Know” makes me hope that July leaves the world of performance art, where audiences expect the bizarre, and focuses her talents on film, which could use more idiosyncratic visions.”Me and You and Everyone We Know” shows at the Wheeler Opera House Thursday through Sunday, Sept. 1-4.
Steven Hurlburt, director of “Dreadheads,” a documentary about the subculture of the dreadlocked, was in my office the other day. He asked me to watch his film, but didn’t push too hard: “You can turn it off after 10 minutes if you think it sucks.”I assured him that making it through “Dreadheads” wouldn’t be a problem.In the past few years, I’ve watched documentaries on the corporation Enron (“The Smartest Guys in the Room”) and on corporations generally (“The Corporation”); on the Middle East TV station Al-Jazeera (“Control Room”) and the American TV station Fox News (“Outfoxed”); on big-wave surfing (“Riding Giants”), a doomed South American climbing expedition (“Touching the Void”), marijuana (“Grass”), the modern wine industry (“Mondovino”) and Calcutta’s red-light district (“Born Into Brothels”). I’ve watched films about a guy who devotes his life to getting a date with Drew Barrymore (“My Date with Drew”), about a guy who eats nothing but McDonald’s for a month (“Super-Size Me”), about a guy with a most disturbing childhood (“Tarnation”), about guys who pass themselves off as representatives of the World Trade Organization (“The Yes Men”), and about a bunch of guys – and girls – who relive past glories on a float trip (“The Same River Twice”). I’ve seen profiles of architect Louis Kahn (“My Architect”) and comedian Phyllis Diller (“Goodnight, We Love You”). I’ve watched Michael Moore bash Bush (“Fahrenheit 9/11”) and America’s thirst for guns (“Bowling for Columbine”).I’ve watched each film to the end, and discovered that I can watch a documentary on virtually anything and find it worth my while.Which explains how I made it through “Short Cut to Nirvana,” a documentary by Maurizio Benazzo and Nick Day. The film is amateurishly shot, scattered and unfocused in the extreme, and, at least in the hands of these filmmakers, better suited to a 20-minute short than the full 85 minutes it gets.But I’ve seen numerous documentaries that had a far less enticing subject than “Short Cut to Nirvana.” The film introduced me to the Kumbh Mela, a pilgrimage to the confluence of India’s Ganges and Yamuna River that draws millions the every 12 years that it is held. (Estimates in the film of the precise number of millions vary from 20 to 70.) The festival, anchored by a quest for spiritual elevation but massive enough to include elements of music, theater and circus sideshow, is made up of thousands of contiguous tent camps, each containing a different subculture.
The seekers range from the showy to the subtle. Representing the former are a man who walks on shoes of nails and the group of men who wrap their penises around long sticks, step over the sticks and pull objects with the contraption. More inner-focused is Swami Krishnanand, a young guru who is not so quiet that he doesn’t jump at the chance to serve as the film’s quasi-tour guide. The camera hears from a variety of wise beings, all talking about their paths toward a higher spiritual consciousness. A recurring subtheme is that the Western world, so much more obsessed with material things, is missing out on the bigger picture.Getting to the heart of such matters is probably beyond the grasp of any movie. “Short Cut to Nirvana” comes reasonably close; several of the gurus who appear are persuasive examples that there is something to their search. But it is disappointing how devoid of context the film is, how scattershot its aims. There is a segment of people having their eyes rubbed with some kind of ointment; there is no explanation at all of the practice. Another scene shows a child, lost in the crowd, reunited with her mother; the scene ends with a group of people telling the girl to wave to the camera. The history of the Kumbh Mela is disposed of in a minute or so; apparently, it has been around for millennia.No doubt, Benazzo and Day succeeded in at least one of the documentarian’s goals, to pique interest in their subject. I’d now love to see a well-made documentary about the Kumbh Mela. But then again, I’m a documentary freak.However, “Short Cut to Nirvana” is not the road to enlightenment.”Short Cut to Nirvana” shows Sunday, Aug. 28 at the Wheeler Opera House.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org