thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

Fearing The Future

In Film on February 4, 2013 at 5:48 am

Sarah T.

Hello?

One neat way to cope with fears of aging and mortality is to freak out preemptively. I started panicking about turning 30 when I turned 28. It was already clear that I wasn’t going to be the kind of 30-year-old I’d once imagined. I definitely wasn’t going to have a book deal. I hadn’t even written a book. Theoretically it was possible that I would meet a wonderful guy, fall in love, and establish a stable yet adventure-loving relationship in the span of two years, but I had no reason to count on it. I wouldn’t live in a shabby chic apartment near Prospect Park with a typewriter and a shaggy dog and bouquets of daffodils at the kitchen table, because first of all I couldn’t afford it and second of all I was living in Oregon. My life at 30 would be less bohemian-bright, more Annie from Bridesmaids. And even Annie had once had her own bakery, even if it went under. Really she was miles ahead.

It wasn’t the actual age of 30 that bothered me. I don’t think 30 is old; I think our culture wants very much to persuade us that it is, so that we will feel bad about ourselves until we conform to a conservative model of adulthood that ensures we behave like good obedient capitalists, keep quiet, and buy more stuff. Still, I’d had certain hopes about where my life would be when I left my twenties behind. They were not going to come true. At least, not in time.

All of which is to say that I could relate to Miranda July’s The Future, in which the prospect of official, real-deal adulthood sends the movie’s central couple spinning. Sophie (July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) are two gentle hipsters in their mid-30s with matching mops of dark brown curls. When we first see them, they’re working on their Macbooks at opposite ends of the corduroy couch, legs tangled up with one another. They’ve been together a long time. Sophie teaches dance to tiny girls in tutus. Jason has a nondescript customer support job with Verizon. As they prepare to adopt an ailing cat named Paw Paw, the veterinarian tells them that if they take good care of the cat, he might last another half-decade.

This strikes them as a kind of responsible-person jail sentence.

“We’ll be 40 in five years,” Sophie tells Jason.

“40 is basically 50,” Jason says. “And then after 50, the rest is just loose change… Not quite enough to get anything you really want.”

Together, they decide to seize the month before Paw Paw comes to live with them—turn off the Internet, quit their jobs, and start exploring. They believe it’s their last shot at making the lives they want for themselves, as opposed to the ones they’ve drifted into. The problem is, neither of them knows exactly what they’re aiming for.

There are plenty of movies about mid-life crises and quarter life crises and the crises that don’t fit into either category but happen later or sometime in-between: The Graduate, Tiny Furniture, High Fidelity, Lost in Translation, The First Wives’ Club, American Beauty, The Descendants, As Good As It Gets, Reality Bites. Comedies in particular are well suited to the subject of people having existential freak-outs. Turning your life upside down is inherently ridiculous, no matter how painful it feels from the inside, because in order to do it you have to go at least a little bit nuts.

The Future pokes fun at Sophie and Jason’s vague conviction that they’re more special than the lives they’re leading. Jason confesses that he’d imagined he’d be smarter by the time he was 35, possibly a world leader, somehow rich. Sophie fantasizes about President Obama canceling her dance class on account of her being over-qualified: “Well, he knows I’ve been gearing up to do something incredible for the past… 15 years,” she says.

But the movie sympathizes with Sophie and Jason too. It’s deeply silly to imagine that an exciting, important, fulfilling life will just magically descend upon you. But it’s also very human to feel that there’s something big inside you, if you could only find a way to let it out.

Since Sophie hasn’t ever had a specific goal in mind, she sets one for herself: a YouTube series of 30 dances in 30 days. But every time she cues up Beach House and sets her Macbook’s camera rolling, she freezes. She can’t even get past Day 1.

Her stage fright is bigger than creative block. Now she’s finally trying to do something incredible, or at least kind of cool. She’s terrified that she’ll let herself down.

Only when there are no cameras rolling can Sophie create a dance that’s much, much weirder than the one she’d imagined. Alone in a strange bedroom, she steps inside the oversized yellow t-shirt she takes with her everywhere as a kind of security blanket. With her slim legs poking through the sleeves, she draws the bottom of the t-shirt over her head and stretches her arms out so the shirt stretches and balloons like it’s come alive. The image recalls the children in her dance class giggling as they shape-shift beneath a billowing yellow parachute. In slow motion, Sophie rises and spins across the room.

“The first thing is that I’m wild,” Sophie tells Jason while she sits with him in bed, trying to choke out what’s about to change between them. They thought Paw Paw might be feral when they first found him ragged and alone on the streets. Right guess, wrong being.

***

A lot of bonds are much easier to break than they first seem. I tortured myself endlessly about breaking up with my first boyfriend; in the end it was quick and simple. He gave me a high five. When I was in graduate school, leaving my PhD program seemed insanely complicated. Once you stepped onto the doctoral assembly line, I thought, it was near-impossible to get off.  In fact, once I made up my mind, all I had to do was send a few emails and fill out a sheet of paper. My friend E. just quit his job to take a new one on the coast. For at least a year he’d been hankering for a big change. The impersonal grey walls of office life were closing in on him, and the quiet mountains, and the bathroom plumbing the landlord kept promising to fix. Now he’ll be gone in less than a month. The ties that bind are not very strong, once you decide to unknot them. The bigger problem is figuring out whether or not you should.

***

Sophie falls into an affair with a single dad who lives in the Valley, a sign-maker who wears a gold chain around his neck. “It’s kind of sleazy,” she tells him reluctantly, when he asks her opinion.

“That’s good,” he says, “then you’re receiving the message.”

“What message?” she asks.

“That I’m ready to fuck,” he says.

But messages are really more Jason’s thing. He’s preoccupied with the idea that if he pays more attention, he’ll notice the signals the universe is trying to send him—coincidences and mistakes, strangers trying to give him things, flashes of light. He ends up a door-to-door environmentalist because he happens to pass one on the street, and spends an afternoon with an old man who might be a future version of himself because he happens to buy a hairdryer from him.

Part of the reason Jason and Sophie hit the rocks is that they’re actually having two simultaneous but different kinds of crises. Jason wants to be more receptive to the world around him. The change he wants for himself works from the outside in. Sophie is more desperately dissatisfied, and also an artist, which may be two ways of saying the same thing. She wants to show the world what’s inside her. Jason’s approach is more passive, but it’s also less likely to result in widespread destruction.

To each his own.

***

Freaking out about your life can be a gift. Sure, your friends and family may whisper over coffee that, as it turns out, you’re completely coocoo for cocopuffs. You may have to break your lease and move into a buddy’s screened-in porch or take a job as a dog walker to make ends meet or carry an extra pair of sunglasses because you keep bursting into tears on the subway every Tuesday afternoon. You may hurt people you love, or disappoint them. But sometimes, having a major crisis is the only way to leave behind the things that aren’t working for you, and make room for things that will.

(Unless you are thinking about deserting your children. Don’t desert your children! Never a good move.)

Sophie and Jason don’t seem unhappy when The Future begins. But clearly all wasn’t right with them. They were sleepwalking peacefully through sunny L.A., and it took Paw Paw to wake them up to the fact that they had a finite amount of time to do something with their lives.

But it’s also true that they may have been too quick to feel disappointed with what they had. That’s the message Jason takes home from his possible future self. It turns out that after four years together, they’re still only at the beginning, he tells Sophie. The beginning is the hardest part. Word on the street is things just keep getting better from there.

What he doesn’t realize is that Sophie’s hardly listening. She’s cleaning the kitchen counter and imagining that the man with the gold chain is watching her work, thinking about the things she’ll tell him tomorrow.

It’s not clear, by the movie’s end, whether Sophie and Jason are any better off for having broken from the everyday staidness of their lives. They changed things, but how much, and what for? What would have happened if they’d simply waited on the couch and let the future come to them?

The truth is, they couldn’t have waited. Change took on its own momentum the moment they thought to check the clock.

 ***

Having taken an absurdly long amount of time to prepare myself for turning 30, I’m now mostly okay with it. By this time I’ve watched more friends pass the landmark; they all seem fine. Also, freaking out preemptively really did help. I got to work through all the agonizing beforehand, and reconcile myself to the fact that I’m not going to be one of those accomplished, super-together 30-year-olds of my dreams.

Being an Annie type isn’t so bad anyway. It’s true that she works at a so-so job for bubkes and dates unsuitable men and has a roommate who mistakes her private journal for a very sad handwritten book. But she’s got people who love her, and the unsuitable men sometimes look like Jon Hamm, and she sure knows her way around a piping bag. She’s on a downward swing, at the particular time we catch her, but she’s still unmistakably the heroine of her own story.

And the older I get, the more I think adulthood has less to do with having everything you want and more to do with having the grace and good humor and common sense to handle low moments and recognize the high ones. I’ve had some good examples. I’m thinking of the summer I was 28, when my friends Jeni and Jeremy got married on a mountaintop in Colorado. It was a hot, bright day in August. Many of the guests carried sun umbrellas, which were really just regular umbrellas we were using in the sun.

When the ceremony began, the wedding party walked down the aisle to songs streaming from an iPod. But as Jeni emerged in her white dress, tan and beaming, to the tune of “The Gambler,” the song started skipping.

For a while a wedding guest fiddled with the iPod while Jeni—a comedian by training and by nature—called up her performing past and goofed around, kicking out her feet in stops and starts in time with the music. The track was definitively jammed. And at some point, the crowd spontaneously decided to just go ahead and pick up the tune. “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,” we sang, earnestly and out of key, “know when to fold ‘em.” Jeni sailed down the aisle toward Jeremy, lit up like a Christmas tree. You could see from the grins on their faces that it didn’t matter to them one bit that things weren’t going according to plan. They were with their loved ones and with one another; they’d known when to hold. The future was nothing to fear. It was something to sing in. To usher down.

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  1. This is such a great post, Sarah!!!!

  2. I think “Keep Quiet, Buy Stuff” should exist as the Americanized version of the “Keep Calm, Carry On” meme that’s been pervading our culture lately.

  3. I love this SO much. And you know, I watched that movie and didn’t care for it, despite being a Hamish fan — but I appreciate it now so much more.

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