When regression into childhood becomes a turn-on, nostalgia turns into a dirty word. Consider the following proposition from Miranda July’s new film, Me and You and Everyone We Know: “I’ll poop into your butthole and then you’ll poop it back into my butt and we’ll keep doing it back and forth with the same poop forever.” Disregarding issues of feasibility and hygiene, this sounds less transgressive than it does tedious. (Of course the same might be said of most sex acts.) But its author is a seven-year-old boy engaging an unwitting middle-aged woman in an anonymous sex chat, and so we cannot help but laugh when she responds, “You’re making me very hot.”
As an onscreen gag, this is irresistible; as cultural reportage, it’s romance as regression. July’s film is idiosyncratic and highly personal, yet it quivers with her generation’s anxieties. Are we—those of us in our late twenties and early thirties—already too old and jaded to fall in love, again or at all? Does it matter that we hold dead-end jobs and harbor dwindling expectations for our frustrated aspirations? Who will comfort us in our encroaching old age? Will we remain lonely, obscure, and bored through prolonged life support and into death? Is the world run by assholes?
It makes sense that critics and audiences have embraced this indie—and its vision of love as a salve—during a month when the romantic comedy at the top of the box office charts, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, locates love in ultraprofessional homicidal violence. Angelina Jolie is as voluptuous as Miranda July (also the star) is flat-chested. While the cineplex revels in bosom, brawn, and blowing stuff up, the art house preens its emaciation and wants to stay safe and warm. July plays opposite the Buscemi-esque John Hawkes, and they would make an attractively weird-looking couple—if he would only call her back.
Opening glimpses reveal the cruel world hasn’t stripped these aging hipsters of their faith in the promise of love. July’s Christine Jesperson is a video performance artist who makes a living driving elderly people around town. Her art simulates couples making vows to each other against chintzy sunset imagery. There’s a willful corniness to it, a desperate and contrived grasping at adolescent sentiment. The same holds true for Michael (Hector Elias), the septuagenarian Latino she chauffeurs to and from the mall. He exhibits a schoolboy’s glee about a blossoming affair with a fellow nursing home inmate: “I spent most of my life with someone I didn’t even really like.” As Porno for Pyros told us, elderlies are like children. In the movie’s most excruciatingly maudlin scene, Christine and Michael spot a goldfish in a bag on the roof of a speeding SUV. “I didn’t know you,” Christine says to the fish, “but I want you to die knowing you were loved. I love you.”
Such treacle infects the rest of the film and undercuts its most edgy moments, so we seek out the smart among the sappy. Hawkes’s Richard Swersey enters the movie dousing his hand in lighter fluid and igniting it. It’s an arresting shot, even if reminiscent of the cover of Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here. The act is a vain protest at Richard’s impending separation and an attempt to get the attention of his two cyber-addicted sons. Richard holds an appropriately emasculating dead-end job minding a department store’s shoe racks. At work he tells his chubby fratboy co-clerk Doug (James Kayten) that he is “ready for amazing things to happen.” The impulse is as passive as it is naïve, but perhaps it’s better for Richard not to take things into his own charred hands. Soon enough Christine shows up with Michael and a wisp of a romantic comedy ensues. Richard spots abrasions on her ankles and tells her she doesn’t deserve to live in pain, then sells her a pair of pink pumps. She swoons for his moppy hair, beady laugh-lined eyes, and service-industry philosophizing. So much so that she keeps coming back to the shoe rack—a stalker.
They share only a handful of scenes thereafter, cutely self-conscious exchanges about the future of their yet-unrealized relationship. Their flirting is innuendo-free; both are less interested in sex than in “having a life together.” When Richard tells Doug about the early days of his former marriage, when the couple “spent every minute together,” Doug plays the vulgarian: “yeah, a real fuck-a-thon.” Not so, says Richard: “Yes, we had sex, but mostly we just slept. We just loved to sleep all day long.” This disavowal of eros takes a lot of the fun out of watching Richard and Christine stumble into love. Like Christine’s video performance pieces—one involving the pink pumps, tagged “ME” and “YOU,” bumping against each other and then pulling away—there’s an exasperatingly prepubescent aspect to their courtship. When at last they do connect, Christine—rather than, say, kissing him—leans against Richard’s back and places her hand on his stomach.
The kids, meanwhile, are the ones getting all the action. They are not yet damaged enough to want only comfort from the opposite sex. Seven-year-old Robby charms guilelessly on the Internet, while his older brother Peter submits to two female classmates intent on testing empirically which of them is better at administering a “jimmy ha-ha.” The teenage sex satire here is delightful; the scenarios are inventive and the kid actors are made to squirm. They ultimately overwhelm Richard and Christine’s romance. July—who lives in Portland, the city that tamed Stephen Malkmus—also writes fiction (two of her stories have appeared in The Paris Review), and there has displayed similar savvy about high schoolers and their hang-ups about hooking up. Her grown-ups, however, are in retreat. Richard and Christine’s book of love includes chapters on poop, tummy-touching, and sleeping the day away, but the pages about actual adult sex have been ripped out. “After the kiss comes the impulse to throttle,” wrote Auden; if you never kiss, July hints, love can last forever. If that’s what you’re into.
Me and You and Everyone We Know is a frustrating movie about frustration. New York moviegoers who want to see it—and for all my misgivings I do recommend the movie—have faced a disheartening problem. The film is showing at the reopened Waverly Theater in the West Village. The house now has three screens, one of them very large, all equipped to show high-definition video films like July’s. The Waverly has been infelicitously rechristened the IFC Center and will highlight, among revivals and other first-runs, Independent Film Channel productions. This makes for a weirdly corporate art house experience, but that’s not the worst of it. The IFC Center has so far declined to make a deal with the city’s projectionist union, who are now picketing it. Ticket-buyers who cross the line hear shouts of “Pass this theater by!”; “The IFC Center is a sham!”; and best of all, “Fake liberals!” The picketers are absolutely right, and if the IFC hopes to maintain a shred of indie credibility, it would do well to make peace with them.