You will have to experience Miranda July’s Me and You and Everyone We Know for yourself in order to (I hope) appreciate my subject line, but that’s just the minor motivation: the film is an uneven but worthy expansion of July’s ongoing fascination with and investigation of the transparent oddness of “normal” life. Though the separate stories do intersect, it seems probable to me that they were conceived quite independently of each other and subsequently linked; it’s the links and the several concessions to relationship-storyline sappiness that mar the film, which is otherwise a real step forward for July, both as an author and as a performer. If she has forgone her arch edges of old and replaced them with “quirkiness” (quotes necessitated by the intermittently forced/applied feel of the quirks), she has still come out ahead.

The film attempts to capture the lives of people whose roiling, contradictory humanity cannot be masked by the mundaneness of their home lives, jobs, and/or vocations-- it’s most refreshing the way July has self-deprecatingly drawn her own autobiographical character, a struggling performance artist/part-time “Eldercab” driver, as no smarter, cooler, or less mundane than the others; nor does she depict the act of making art to be a job any less frequently silly, dispiriting, or demeaning than any other. There’s also the separated shoe store clerk and father of two (John Hawkes) who becomes July’s character’s love interest, his two kids (Miles Thompson and Brandon Ratcliff), a precociously domestic-minded neighbor girl (Carlie Westerman), and two teenage flirts (Natsha Slayton and Najarra Townsend) who sexually antagonize the shoe salesman’s elder boy and, more dangerously and therefore more thrillingly, explore their ability to provoke his well-meaning bohunk of a co-worker/neighbor (Brad Henke).

The bits with the children are honest and lovely, avoiding any loud sentimentality, as are those involving July’s character and the elderly couple she chauffeurs/befriends. The weakest link is the romance between the shoe salesman and July’s character. Some of it comes off well enough, but it is the film’s repository for any forced quirkiness July may have felt the need to include, and as with most filler-quirkiness, these little wooing-moments come to seem cutesy and extraneous at best, and at work risk dragging down the rest of the film. Me and You and Everyone We Know is well worth seeing, though, if only for the kids; July’s gift is that of an observation objective, stoic, and nonjudgmental enough (or, as Catherine Breillat would put it, a gift for the “entomological,” though July is able to muster much more warmth for her study subjects than Breillat usually is for hers) to see the real charm, beauty, and danger in American lives, lives that-- and this obviously is what gives July hope-- somehow innately resist homogenization.

I remember, in the summer of 1996 when I still lived in the Portland area, going on long late-evening walks with selected tracks from Sleater-Kinney’s second album, Call the Doctor, on my headphones (my picks were the title track, “Little Mouth,” “Anonymous,” “I’m Not Waiting,” and of course “I Wanna Be Yr Joey Ramone,” which even now sounds like one for the pop ages). At that point they seemed like a very small local band I’d somehow accidentally discovered, picking up their very small independent release at Ozone Records. They were the last of the Evergreen State College riot-grrl squad that had earlier given birth to Bratmobile and Bikini Kill; but if those bands were frequently able to get themselves across in the old-fashioned punk way (i.e., on sheer force and often convincing polemicizing), this later batch of rock ‘n roll Women’s-Studies groupies seemed to have a healthy interest in developing the words, sounds, and melodies that might most effectively insinuate their proudly politicized exhortations into the heads of those of us with pop-weaned ears.

Four progressively more accomplished albums and nearly ten years on, Sleater-Kinney’s latest (and their first release on a comparitively “major” label, Seattle’s Nirvana-famous Sub Pop) hasn’t a trace of the hesitancy, crudeness, or mustered-scrappiness upon which Call the Doctor relied for its considerable charm.

Instead, The Woods-- which was just released to predictably unanimous acclaim, but on a more massive scale than any prior Sleater-Kinney record (a large, rather pallid-looking drawing depicting the visages of Sleater-Kinney vocalists/guitarists Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker and drummer Janet Weiss accompanied a lengthy Sleater-Kinney story that recently appeared on the front of The Seattle Times’ “Northwest Life” section)-- is the band’s most confident, accomplished, and (paradoxically) least accessible effort to date. The process of recording The Woods with producer David Friedmann (he’s also produced Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips) was apparently a painful experience of stretching outside their comfort zone, and it is true that the record sounds like nothing they’ve ever done before. It’s feedback-heavy and very, very loud-- I mean intense, needle-wobbling, Raw Power loud-- and leaves in its dust the unassuming, girlish, Olympia-style “look-mom-I-made-this-myself” charm of yore. This is a mixed blessing: Tucker’s voice has deepened to a rich soulfulness, something more or less verboten in the schoolmarm-strict independent-rock scene from whence Sleater-Kinney sprang, while Brownstein’s vocals, which have previously adhered to a uniform schoolgirl sing-song, have come a long, long way, furthering the experiments and advancements she flirted with on the last album, 2002’s One Beat; she sounds downright impassioned on “Entertain.”

On the other hand, The Woods lacks a certain punchiness; after the alternating whimsy and politically driven anger and defiance of One Beat, The Woods is post-2004-election despondent. The fast songs (“Wilderness,” “What’s Mine is Yours,” “Jumpers”) don’t feel nearly so fast-- by which I mean upbeat-- as the rave-ups on One Beat, and the slow ones sometimes seem to be merely wallowing, like so much bad Northwest rock, in the slough of despond. Still, there is some anger (“Entertain”) and whimsy (“Rollercoaster” and-- kind of-- the creepy, feedback-drenched children’s storybook fable “The Fox”) left, and the only really unredeemable idea is the way the okay “Let’s Call it Love” turns into a never-ending, random guitar jam (jam songs are always a bad idea).

What finally redeems The Woods-- what saves it from being just a draggy, Soundgarden/Mudhoney/Pearl Jam-style sludgy-riff-a-thon and lends the fuzzy, palpable layers of guitar noise a Sonic Youth sense of play-- is the simple fact of the songwriting. So many other bands of Sleater-Kinney’s ilk have dug themselves into ruts (recent Bratmobile seems more dogged than fresh), navel-gazed themselves into nonexistence (Stephen Malkmus’s insular Pavement became Stephen Malkmus’s unbearably insular solo career), or simply taken the natural course of drifting apart (Kathleen Hanna disbanded the short-and-sweet Bikini Kill to form the very different neo-new wave group Le Tigre). That they’ve played their particular kind of media-shy, celebrity-dodging indie-cred game for this long, developed such an expansive, varied, and worthwhile back-catalog, and come out at this end willing to thwart fan and critical expectations (not to mention the surely more pressing than ever before commercial pressures) with something like The Woods is, at the very least, a sign of real creative urge and artistic integrity that no amount of lip service, posturing, or protestation (and there has been plenty of both from the Sleater-Kinney camp over the years) could ever have signified.

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