Miranda July's teenage obsessions: 'Bikini Kill were gods'

The Kajillionaire director on the allure of dripping honey, Jane Campion and Spike Lee, sex, lies and videotape, and her brother’s woodwork

Unidentified honey artwork

I can’t cite the artist, but my parents took me to see this performance in Berkeley, California, where I grew up. It was rare that we saw art – my parents were writers, and we didn’t spend a lot of time in museums. It was a bag hanging from the ceiling, it must have been made out of resin, filled with what turned out to be honey. Picture a cow’s udder as big as your arms can stretch. And very slowly, it thinned at the bottom with the weight of the honey and then broke and the honey slowly came pouring out. It’s not abstract because it’s an actual bag of honey – but it was certainly abstract in that a lot of what I was feeling I couldn’t put into words, though it was strong and specific nonetheless. It was a kind of longing. It’s luxurious and you wanna be part of it or touch it; it reminds of you of something that makes you wanna cry. That you could communicate that way rather than intellectually, like my parents were so good at doing, was very radical to me.

At that time, I was making fanzines with my best friend in high school. They were filled with our writing, but I remember a page where we had a picture of two mountains, and we wrote our name on each one. I was like, we’ve just broken it wide open. It was a bag-of-honey-level of: who knows what we’re saying? Are we these mountains? We’re this big? I remember just beginning to touch the idea that not everything could be explained right around that time. When I think of abstraction in my own work, like the wall of bubbles in Kajillionaire, I go back to that formative bag of honey. I know that if I ask [my parents about it], they’re not gonna have the slightest idea of what I’m talking about and maybe will suggest that I’m making it up. Maybe I should just recreate this.

Jane Campion’s short films

Watch an extract from A Girl’s Own Story

I liked her longer films, too, but when I saw her early series of films – like A Girl’s Own Story – I could really relate to them as an artist. In Berkeley, there was a Blockbuster, but there was also a cool video store where I found them. They’re short and clearly made with not much money, and very deeply feminine in a complex way. They felt within the realm of the kind of thing I could do. At the time I was also inspired by independent film-making like [Spike Lee’s] She’s Gotta Have It and guys charging movies to their credit cards and then making it at Sundance. It’s not like Jane Campion was part of that, she was off in New Zealand. But I think it was those two things that formed the basis of me thinking that I wanted to be a director.

sex, lies, and videotape

Watch trailer for sex, lies and videotape

There are movies within the movie – where women talk to the camera about their early sexual experiences – that James Spader’s character makes so he can get off because he can’t come in the presence of anyone else. It’s essentially his own porn, but it’s nuanced, it’s just talking. I really loved those movies and saw the women in them as quite empowered: they’re dressed, they seem very interested in thinking about their formative sexual experiences.

The origin for Joanie 4 Jackie, my own distribution network for women film-makers, [was that] I was so desperate to see homemade movies by women – to my mind the equivalent of DIY punk movies; more intimate, less pretending to be interested in the mainstream reasons for film-making – that I thought, if they made those movies themselves then I could put them on a tape and distribute them. I was being influenced by sex, lies, and videotape even though of course it was Steven Soderbergh making them. But I’m pointing out that if you need it badly enough, you’ll get it, you’ll find it.

Robin Grossinger’s woodwork

I have an older brother, Robin, who was a child genius woodworker. He started making things out of sticks and pine cones and glue – these little creatures, little log houses for them. He made me a dollhouse with wood, and we decorated all the rooms, and then he made me a playhouse. As a teenager, he started to make fine furniture, but because he was also still a kid, he would build in intricate, secret compartments as only a child would do. People love to say to me, “Oh, your parents were writers”, and yes, my parents were writers, but maybe more importantly my brother was a woodworker. That was much more accessible to me. Two adults typing, it’s hard to do much with that, but I held things while they were gluing and I sanded things, and I watched things go from just a sketch to a thing that really existed and it was made by a fellow child. You never unlearn the idea that you can make something from start to finish, and it can be real. We still have a lot of that furniture.

A found book on sexuality and disability

I grew up a block below Telegraph Avenue, the most famous street in Berkeley. It was the home of a lot of radicalism that predated me, but what was still there was the Center for Independent Living – a hub for disabled people. It was quite radical in terms of allowing them to live independently and with full personhood. They had a free box out in front sometimes where there’d be old books. I picked up one about sex surrogates for people with disabilities. I’d thought about sex long before this, but as a formative book for an able-bodied person who was coming of age, it really brought out what was important about sex: why pleasure was a right and part of your humanness, and it is also, of course, entirely about communication. Physically, you have to be able to communicate somehow with someone who’s maybe not able to verbally speak and give their consent. This was long before any issue of consent – girls around me were being molested and raped right and left, and it was normal. So I feel grateful to that book for introducing an entirely different vocabulary and worldview. Not that I walked around openly speaking that language, but I had it within me, which was a kind of dignity that I don’t think I would have gotten anywhere else.

Bikini Kill

Listen to Bikini Kill: Rebel Girl

I knew Kathleen [Hanna] and yet they were still gods. More than any other band for me at that time, they managed to do what we would now think of as branding: their brand was so tight aesthetically. Kathleen is also a visual artist, and everything from writing “slut” on her tummy to her hair, her clothes – it was all just so edible, it could go straight into your veins. And they’re loud, and they’re singing “revolution girl-style now” – really yelling it – and she’s beautiful. There were bands that were much more radical that I was also a fan of – Tribe 8 was a band of lesbians and Lynn Breedlove [who has since transitioned] would sing with his shirt off and his breasts swinging around, kind of droopy, amazing bag-of-honey breasts. But there’s something to be said for Bikini Kill’s perfect confection of radicalism. Like the Sex Pistols, there are certain bands that for all their defiance manage to convey their message pretty accessibly.

  • Kajillionaire is in UK cinemas from 9 October


Interview by Laura Snapes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Aaron Eckhart’s teenage obsessions: ‘Pink Floyd saved my life’
The Hollywood star recalls his childhood in San Jose, Sydney and Walton-on-Thames, falling for Grease and Macbeth – and his enduring love for The Young Ones

As told to Rich Pelley

22, Jul, 2021 @12:00 PM

Article image
Steven Berkoff’s teenage obsessions: ‘I became very adept at jive'
The actor and playwright on the magic of Italian, French and American cinema, dressing up to go dancing and falling in love with mime

Interview by Rich Pelley

06, Nov, 2020 @10:00 AM

Article image
Anthony Head’s teenage obsessions: ‘The Rocky Horror Show ignited something in my core’
The Buffy and Gold Blend actor, who stars in the new film School’s Out Forever, on his love for Judi Dench, Lord of the Flies – and playing Dr Frank-N-Furter

As told to Rich Pelley

21, Jan, 2021 @4:00 PM

Article image
Timothy Spall’s teenage obsessions: ‘For my art A-level I nailed up apples covered in pubic hair’
The actor on studying with the Sex Pistols, being in a Bowie tribute act, the appeal of Roxy Music, the help of teachers and the power of surrealism

As told to Rich Pelley

02, Sep, 2021 @1:17 PM

Article image
Carla Bruni's teenage obsessions: 'Francis Bacon shows our confusion, desire, madness'
As she returns with a new album, the French chanteuse recalls the genius of the Clash and Henry James, plus encounters with Balearic naturists

Interview by Dave Simpson

16, Oct, 2020 @9:00 AM

Article image
Ciarán Hinds' teenage obsessions: 'Van Morrison took music into a different dimension'
Our series in which stars recall cultural highlights of their youth continues with the Belfast-born actor remembering Van the Man, Midnight Cowboy and the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association

Interview by Rich Pelley

10, Sep, 2020 @1:26 PM

Article image
Dave Grohl's teenage obsessions: 'I learned drums by arranging pillows on my floor'
Ahead of the 10th Foo Fighters album, their frontman recalls the music and scenes that made him – from punk gigs in Chicago to sleeping on floors in Italian squats

As told to Dave Simpson

14, Jan, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Michael Smiley’s teenage obsessions: ‘I heard the Beat and came back to Belfast a rude boy’
The comedian and actor on dancing with his mother to Ray Charles, the power of Seamus Heaney’s poetry and how Richard Pryor showed him his future

As told to Tom Seymour

19, Aug, 2021 @1:09 PM

Article image
J Mascis of Dinosaur Jr's teenage obsessions: 'When I turned 13, I felt I had to drop out of society'
As he prepares to release Dinosaur Jr’s 12th studio album, the slacker icon discusses his conflicted attitude towards hippies and his unlikely affection for Harold and Maude and All My Children

As told to Dave Simpson

25, Mar, 2021 @3:00 PM

Article image
Edgar Wright’s teenage obsessions: ‘Vic and Bob changed my life’
The Sparks Brothers and Shaun of the Dead director on working in Gateway, getting rejected by Viz and appearing on Going Live!

As told to Rich Pelley

05, Aug, 2021 @3:00 PM