I doggedly asked each PennySaver seller if they used a computer. […] I began to feel that I was asking the question just to remind myself that I was in a place where computers didn't really matter, just to prompt my appreciation for this. As if I feared the scope of what I could feel and imagine was being quietly limited by the world within a world, the internet. [. . .} I don't mean that I really thought this, out loud; it was just happening, like time, like geography. The web seemed so inherently endless that it didn't occur to me what wasn't there.
— from It Chooses You
IN THE SUMMER of 2009, Miranda July was working on the screenplay for her long-awaited second feature film, The Future, but was mired in writer's block — the kind that besieges most of us who are daily distracted by the internet's shiny boxes. Looking for a different form of distraction, July took to reading the PennySaver, a circular of classified ads that arrived each Tuesday with her junk mail. The advertised items ranged from hairdryers to baby jaguars, but there was little information about the sellers — aside from their phone numbers. Fascinated by the mysterious people behind these random objects, she decided to traverse Los Angeles and interview a selection of sellers about their lives, their hopes, their dreams and fears. It was a fantastical procrastination project, one that she secretly hoped would reveal to her the answer for how to finish her screenplay. These interviews became the book It Chooses You, a collection of narratives, interviews, and personal essays reflecting the various Los Angeleses within the city. (The block quotes below are from the book, released in paperback earlier this month.)
Miranda July: The second you step out of the usual ways that you connect, you become self-aware of connecting, and so maybe it becomes more of a topic. The idea of class, and different L.A.s inside L.A., was sort of unavoidable, and I wasn't trying to avoid it. I was going straight towards it. Craigslist vs. the PennySaver was an obvious way to talk about that and think about it. That's familiar to everyone. I'm interested in forcing myself to not just critique what's there but to try and see what's not there. The internet is what it is, and we each have our own struggle with it. But since this moment is pretty ephemeral, this particular time where not everyone is on it, but most of us are, it's a real harsh dividing line. When you stop on the other side of it, it's like you're in another era. It's like living without a phone.
If there's any theme of my process, it's generally to go towards what's uncomfortable, or things that I'm not even certain are there, or are anything at all.
The door opened and there was Michael, a man in his late sixties, burly, broad-shouldered, a bulbous nose, a magenta blouse, boobs, pink lipstick. Before he opened the door completely he quietly stated that he was going through a gender transformation.
Miranda: When did you begin your gender transformation?
Michael: Six months ago.
Miranda: And when did you know that you —
Michael: Oh well, I knew it when I was a child, but I've been in the closet all my life. I came out in 1996 and then went back in the closet again, but this time I'm not going back in the closet. I'm going to complete the transformation.
Miranda: What was your life like before you came out?
Michael: I was trying to be the same as every other man, and hiding the fact that inside I felt like a woman. I knew that when I was a child, but I had this strong fear of coming out for a long time. The movement for gay people helped me realize that I shouldn't do that.
MJ: Some transgender pronoun savvy people have pointed out, “Why are you calling him, 'he' when he's a woman?” And it's true. I should have thought about that more. But I wasn't really sure what the right term was. So I just called him “him.” And I learned that he now goes by Suzette, and is a “she.” That's really different from when we met. So it made me feel like I sort of caught him at the end of his “he” pronoun. It wouldn't be appropriate now to reflect who he is, but it makes sense for the book, and there's a footnote now in the softcover edition.
Of course the truth wouldn't be sweetly concealed in a motto, because I wasn't Hansel or Gretel. My inquiry was open-ended, but it wasn't pretend, I wasn't in a fairytale or a fable. I shut my eyes and absorbed the silent whoomp that always accompanies this revelation. It's the sound of the real world, gigantic and impossible, replacing the smaller version of reality that I wear like a bonnet, clutched tightly under my chin.
MJ: I go to estate sales, which I often find through the PennySaver. Often, those take you somewhere really far away. I sometimes say, “Okay, let's say you have to eat here. What is your best option?” And even though I eat really healthily in my normal life, where I have a lot of control over everything, I actually really enjoy the feeling of being forced to eat some weird meal in a place I've never been before. That's the feeling that makes you feel like you're far away. And maybe it's actually weirdly delicious just because of the different standards.
The feeling of dislocation is liberating because you're not in your usual place. You don't have to have your usual anxieties. You're not procrastinating on your usual things. And that's the relief. That's what's liberating to me. [In Los Angeles], it's so easy to get the feeling that you went somewhere far away, just by exploring. And that's a thing my husband and I do: “Let's just go in that direction!” I do so much associate that with L.A.
It's almost embarrassing that I still think the PennySaver is cool. I didn't get over it. On Valentine's Day, they always do this thing where they run people's messages. They're all different but they're all kind of heartbreaking just by virtue of the fact that they're not ironic; each one of these people thought it was the most romantic thing in the world to put their message in the PennySaver. Mothers to children, husbands and wives, new love, all different kinds of messages. I went through it and whited out all the names and replaced them with my name and my husband's names. So all the different kinds of love are between us. It was part of his valentine. I was like, “Yeah, I know. The PennySaver. Again!” Still finding creative ways to make use of it.
All my time was spent measuring time. While I listened to strangers and tried patiently to have faith in the unknown, I was also wondering how long this would take, and if any of it really mattered compared to having a baby. Word on the street was that it did not. Nothing mattered compared to having a baby. . . The only thing between me and death was this child. If I delayed having the child, then I could also delay death, sort of. So I was in a hurry to step across the void so I could make the movie so I could have a child before it was too late — and I was also, secretly, not in a hurry.
MJ: When I found out I was pregnant, all those thoughts went out the window. Now my thoughts about time have to do with days and weeks. I think the anxiety is sort of a larger anxiety about being a working woman and having a kind of work that appears almost selfish and is, therefore, fragile. This has been a very happy time. I wouldn't have missed this for the world. I don't know what's coming, but this particular last bunch of months has been the first time in my life where I have just mostly felt okay.
This part is not particularly intellectual, which is nice. I think I'm normally so “in my head,” and [during pregnancy] your blood literally isn't there. So I still do my work but I realize that that's not what's being prioritized in my body. So I have to just go with that. It would be weird to resist that.
People like to talk about how pregnancy is such a creative time! You can't just use that word! Just because I'm “creating” doesn't mean I'm being creative. I think the highs and lows and passions and obsessions and longings and sadnesses that make you want to write are kind of intellectual. So if that's not where you are. . . . I mean, I'm writing a lot, working on a novel, but it's a better time for structure and story, than for the kind of thing that connects us all. So I'm doing the things that seem to come easily at this time, that are not what I associate with writing.
When you're writing fiction, you're always trying to “show, don't tell,” but when you're writing a movie, you're just showing: “What's the most interesting way to show this thing?” And they're all basically short stories. You don't really have to concern yourself with the vast world of the novel. The writing doesn't need to be good in the same way. Or it's a different kind of good, you know? It needs to move in a certain way. Pacing is important in fiction too, but it's so much the blood of a movie. It really is. It's so different.
The only thing that's the same is that with both, you're trying to feel free. You're trying to do things in a way you haven't done before, and a way you haven't seen before, but it's coming from something you've actually felt, at least on some current of realness. But as hard as it is writing fiction, and a whole different task discipline-wise, I do enjoy the fact that you can do anything. Especially because I make these low budget movies where the limitations are the main thing. It's nice to not be thinking about any of that and to feel like this could be as good as I am capable of. If it fails, it's completely because of me, and not because I hired the wrong person or I didn't have enough days. I mean, a movie fails also because of me, if it does, but I secretly know a bunch of things that would have helped. [Writing fiction] is kind of liberating.
Trying to see things that are invisible but nearby has always been alluring to me. It feels like a real cause, something to fight for, and yet so abstract that the fight has to be similarly subtle. When I was in my early twenties, making performances and fanzines and trying to conceive of myself as a filmmaker, I felt certain that this task was harder not simply because there were so few movies made by women, but because this felt normal, even to me.
MJ: Someone just asked me for my address so she could send me a 'zine. It's been a long time since someone asked me that but it was really sweet. My 'zine was called Snarla, written with my best friend from high school. We were very literary in a way, but we weren't “cool.” The 'zines weren't about bands. They were just about our feelings and learning how to write. I look back on that and see how it isn't that far removed from what I ended up doing. You can see the beginnings.
Through subtle, quirky insights and understated humor, Miranda July's oeuvre has always explored the ways humans connect, or sometimes fail to connect. In everything she creates, she seems most concerned with reaching out while simultaneously reaching in; all three of her books have the word “you” in the title: No One Belongs Here More Than You, Learning to Love You More, and now, It Chooses You. In this last book, she explains, “All I ever really want to know is how other people are making it through life — where do they put their body, hour by hour, and how do they cope inside of it?” It is this drive that makes July’s work — whether in film, fiction, or personal narrative — so compelling.
— Lauren Eggert-Crowe