Paws for Thought
Looking back on the last few months, I see that most of the really interesting and thought-provoking films that I've seen were the ones showing at the arthouse, rather than the multiplex. That shouldn't really be very surprising, I suppose: we could talk at some length about the relatively parlous state of modern mainstream cinema, but it would be neither cheering nor particularly surprising.
What may be slightly startling is the news that the really hot ticket down the local arthouse is not a screening of a movie but a selection of filmed highlights of an art exhibition. Yes, it's that Leonardo show that's currently getting all the press: 'Leonardo Live', as the filmed version entitles itself, is doing a roaring trade. Certainly the showing tonight was sold out. I know this not because I was planning on seeing it (stand down, troops) but because a group of disappointed ladies of a certain age who'd turned up for it but couldn't get in decided to make their second choice the same film I was going to see, Miranda July's The Future.
And why was I going to see this film? Well, I have to say, folks, it's been a pretty thin week for new releases, but I do enjoy going to the cinema. Machine Gun Preacher has been showing too late, and I was warned off the Tintin movie, despite the gallimaufry of talent associated with it, in no uncertain terms by a colleague who's seen it (I really should stop giving so much weight to the opinions of someone whose style guru is clearly Rastamouse). So off I went to The Future despite a few misgivings.
As the movie begins we are introduced to Jason (Hamish Linklater) and Sophie (July herself), a couple in Los Angeles. He works from home as an IT specialist, she teaches children to dance. They are clearly devoted to each other in a slightly mawkish, tooth-grindingly schmaltzy-sweet way. They are also expecting to soon adopt a cat (with a injured paw!) from their local animal shelter. However, on visiting the beast (which they christen, with grim predictability, Paw Paw), they learn that the cat's life expectancy is considerably longer than they thought would be the case – maybe even five years!
'In five years we'll be forty,' quavers Sophie, shocked at the prospect of such a commitment. 'And forty's nearly fifty. And once you're fifty...' Jason agrees that once the cat takes up residence their lives will be as good as over. And so they both quit their jobs in order to spend their final month performing acts of profound self-realisation. Jason becomes a door-to-door visitor for an environmental charity and strikes up a friendship with an octogenarian after buying a hairdrier from him. Sophie aspires to become a dancer on YouTube but ends up having a very creepy affair with a guy whose phone number she finds on a bit of paper. (Let me just reiterate: all this is only happening because they decided to adopt a cat.)
One is never allowed to forget the, er, cat-alyst of all this nonsense, as the film is narrated by Paw Paw him or herself (the cat is portrayed by July, doing a little yowly voice). Paw Paw's contributions are not especially notable but they at least perform the valuable function of making the rest of the movie seem less colossally self-indulgent and twee by comparison.
Normally I don't quote from proper film critics in this column (it's tantamount to putting up a big sign saying 'You may as well read someone else'), but Peter Bradshaw essentially described The Future as being rather like 91 minutes of fingernails-down-a-blackboard screeching and I have to say this is absolutely on the money. This is probably not the worst film I have seen recently, but it is certainly the most consistently annoying one.
It may well be that Miranda July (who in addition to directing, starring, and voicing the cat, also wrote the thing) has insights to offer into the nature of human relationships and the ways in which they fail, and how that affects the participants. But if so, they are utterly undiscernible, completely swamped by the affected and utterly pretentious tone of this movie.
The story rattles along with the pace and agility of a tranquilised slug, pausing occasionally for another update from Paw Paw, and completely omitting numerous key events – we don't see Jason actually becoming friends with the old man, nor do we see Sophie's relationship with her new lover develop: one minute she's going round to his house on a business pretext, the next she's (cover granny's eyes) bent over the sofa and bracing herself. Linklater is reasonably convincing given the lines he has to deliver, but July herself...
...sorry, I had to pause to calm down for a moment there. July's character spends the entire movie looking like she's constantly having new insights into the deepest secrets of creation, and utters every line as if she's sharing one of them with us. After a while the urge to deliver an admonitory headbutt becomes almost uncontrollable.
And all this is before we even get to the film's excursions into fantasy (sorry, it's probably meant to be 'magic realism' or something like that) in its latter stages: Jason accidentally stops time and has a heartfelt conversation with the moon about what he should do about it, while Sophie finds herself being stalked by old clothes. And so on.
Those of us watching this movie endured it fairly stoically for a bit, but a clatter of seats like a volley of gunfire about forty minutes in indicated the moment at which the Leonardo ladies gave up and walked out. Everyone else hung in there, so far as I could tell: but towards the end people were no longer bothering to stifle their derisory laughter at the banality of what was up on the screen and the seriousness with which it was being treated – a scene in which July spends what feels like minutes rolling around on the floor with a t-shirt over her head was the point at which the balloon went up and everyone appeared to concede that this film was simply not working as a piece of drama.
I know Miranda July's background is as a performance artist and she does not come to cinema with a traditional narrative sensibility. And it may be that much of the strangeness of this film is intentional, designed to make a point of some kind. But if you're going to make a narrative film, then you've surely got to stick to the ground rules and have characters who behave like recognisable human beings, and a plot that actually hangs together, doesn't go off on weird random tangents, and actually has a sense of closure come its end.
In the past I have made numerous cracks about the now-defunct UK Film Council and its impressive ability to invest serious money in deeply underwhelming films of various kinds. Its successor agency, part of the BFI, has its logo at the beginning of The Future. The legend continues...