Miranda July Videoworks: Volume 1

Miranda July made her feature film debut as writer and director of the intelligently eccentric Me and You and Everyone We Know in 2005, and followed that up in 2011 with The Future. But she'd been making independent short films at least as far back as 1996. And thanks to a curious little outfit known as the Video Data Bank, most of them are available on DVD.

Update 4/30/20: Just a note to say that two of these shorts (The Amateurist and Nest Of Tens) have been included on Criterion's new blu-ray special edition of Me and You.  I've posted comparison shots on that page (they're not strictly identical).  But it's just the two.

So right off the bat, I should establish (warn you?) that these aren't traditional narrative films. These are more in line with, say, David Lynch's early short films, like The Alphabet, which were perhaps more intended to be seen in art exhibits than in traditional viewing environments. In fact, her shorts have played at The MoMA and Guggenheim. So if you're looking for something like her recent comedy short, Somebody, you're going to be disappointed. But if you're a huge fan of Miranda to the point that you're ready to see her early, developmental work - kinda like student films or those Cinema 16 DVDs - you're gonna love this.

The Video Data Bank seems to essentially be a distributor for mostly short and digital films by very independent filmmakers... browsing through their site, July is the one name I recognize in a very large collection. So mostly they're one of those outfits that charges exorbitant prices for DVDs to institutions with attached licensing fees, not really meant for the general public. So, you know, they'll charge several hundred dollars for a seventeen minute film on a no-frills DVD, because the real price is really meant to be for the rights to publicly screen them. But they have a very small run of "Home DVDs," which are sold to the general public at regular retail prices. And happily, Miranda July Filmworks: Volume 1 is one of those.
The menu screen.
Filmworks: Volume 1 (the only volume as of this writing) is a collection of four of her first short films, from 1996-2001. The VDB actually has five of her short films in their catalog, the last of which (2003's Haysha Royko) is only 4 minutes long, so you'd really think could've thrown it on here, too. Frankly, it feels a little cheap; but whatever. It seems like the least compelling of the five anyway - which may be why it was left out. Or maybe they're saving it for an eventual Volume 2. Anyway, let's not be negative and instead focus on the films that ARE included here.
Atlanta (1996) - 10 minutes: The wit of July's features is definitely on hand here, in a short mockumentary about a young Olympic swimmer and her aggressively supportive mother, played by July. It's basically two first person interviews (mother and daughter) edited together with some supporting footage. You can hear Miranda (in character) off-camera, reminding her daughter to say how much she loves her mother during her interview.
The Amateurist (1998) - 14 minutes: Things begin to get abstract as July plays, well, some kind of numerically obsessed expert who monitors and judges a seemingly trapped blonde woman (also July) dressed only in her underwear who she views through a small black and white television. There's definitely humor again, as Miranda struggles with insecurity while addressing the camera, but it might all be too disconnected to bring up any real laughter. Slowly, the film begins to hint at a darker, more serious meaning. 
Nest of Tens (1999) - 27 minutes: Next is the most ambitious of the bunch. Four casts of characters in separate situations are inter-cut between each other. Each set of people seem trapped in the mundanity of their lives. Miranda July is just one of the ensemble here as a woman in an airport complaining on a payphone at a coworker. Again, their are hints of humor in the characters interactions and inability to connect, but it's increasingly overshadowed by a strangeness and melancholy. The tone shifts as animation is added over the footage.
Getting Stronger Every Day (2001) - 6.30 minutes: This one feels almost like a sequel to Nest of Tens. Several characters similar to ones we met in that film are awakened from their dailies lives by visions of strange auras. It's an interesting mix of banal normalcy and a mood of transcendence.

In a way, these shorts, especially as they move forward, evoke a lot of the same feelings later found in her feature work. They may be less relatable, and they're not the thorough cinematic entertainments her features are, but you can definitely feel Miranda's hand on every frame. These feel like Miranda July films.
Everything's 4:3 and I presume accurate to the low budget way they were shot and intended to be seen. There are no extras, subtitle options or anything apart from the four films themselves, improving in quality as they go forward.

Filmworks: Volume 1 is dated 2005, so ten years later, Volume 2 isn't looking too likely. One of the short films from this set, Getting Stronger Every Day, was also released on a DVD titled Peripheral Produce - All Time Greatest Hits, but certainly for July fans, you might as well skip right over that and get this, which includes three of her other shorts. It would be an understatement to caveat that this collection is not for everybody. It's not for most people. But July fans will definitely find the value in this collection. So if that's you, check it out.

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