Dreams and nightmares. Those are the themes of the "Midnight Party" exhibition at Walker Art Center, which Miranda July is touring on a recent visit while we tag along. The exhibition probes the depths of the subconscious and explores the fine line between the real world and the dream world.

The filmmaker, artist and writer known for creating reality-skewing work finds a lot to relate to in the show. "My father used to show me his films when I was young," she says, passing a video installation by Bruce Conner. "But I never wanted to be that experimental."

In person, July is as striking as she is in her own films -- curly-haired and doe-eyed, with an unusual sense of style, ballerina posture and captivating voice. She zeroes in on a print by photographer Arthur Tress, whose book "The Dream Collector" she had as a child. She stops to pull out a well-worn notepad to jot something down. This is an action July will repeat throughout the Walker galleries -- whenever she spots something that gives her an idea. "When I look at art, I get this little voice in my head," she says, "like the kid in 'A Chorus Line' who says, 'I can do that! I can do that!' It's weird, but that's what it's like."

That sense of whimsy and enthusiasm has become a signature for July, who first came into the greater public consciousness with her 2005 indie flick "Me and You and Everyone We Know," a quirky, intelligent romantic comedy revolving around an intertwined cast of characters. Six years later, she is on a publicity tour to promote her followup effort, "The Future," which opens Friday at Lagoon Cinema in Minneapolis.

As she takes in a screening of Joseph Cornell's creepy, fanciful 1938 silent film "Dreams/Nightmares," July ponders the distinction between fiction and documentary in her own work. "It's pretty messy in my head, what's real and what's not," she admits. Then she tells how a project for which she interviewed people she met through the PennySaver classifieds led her to cast one of those people -- an 82-year-old retired house painter named Joe Putterlik -- in "The Future."

"I was just so enthralled by him, I wrote him into the movie and I thought, he has to play himself. I just basically re-created our first meeting, except with Hamish [Linklater] playing my part."

The film revolves around a couple (played by Linklater and July) navigating the tumultuous waters of their relationship as they prepare to take in a foster cat with special needs. The film is not without July's signature sense of whimsy, dark humor and heartbreak. Oh, and there's the idea of stopping time, a dancing shirt and a talking cat (also voiced by July) thrown in for good measure. July says she was told to "cut the cat" when approaching studios to finance the film.

But she resisted. "The punk in me said, 'I'm keeping it, and it's going to be devastating,'" she remarked during a Q&A following a premiere screening of the film last month at the Walker. It's been more than a decade since July last set foot in Minneapolis, when the Walker was the setting of her live multimedia performance piece "The Swan Tool." She actually shot footage for the piece while living in Minneapolis for a month with lover-turned-collaborator Harrell Fletcher, who had been in town for an artist-in-residency.

For July, keeping the talking cat was "a kind of small achievement." She says the critical acclaim of "Me and You," which won prizes at the Cannes and Sundance festivals in 2005, made her feel freer to make her followup effort "more me," as she puts it. Conversely, she says, "Making this movie -- it just scared the hell out of me. There was a level of expectation that I hadn't experienced before. I was taking off all my clothes and throwing myself to the lions." Ø

Despite becoming known mainly as a film director, July has hardly abandoned performance. In fact, the beginnings of "The Future" can be traced to her 2006 performance piece "Things We Don't Understand and Definitely Are Not Going to Talk About," which also had a couple, a talking cat, a dancing shirt and the idea of stopping time. She retired it after a five-day run at the Kitchen in New York, realizing, "It was so hard to keep performing it, and I thought, why don't I make my second movie and this can be the starting point?"

It's a welcome turn for July's longtime fans. The world was first introduced to a 22-year-old July in 1996 with a short film project called "Big Miss Moviola" (later known as "Joanie 4 Jackie"), which compiled solicited short films by women onto videocassettes and distributed them like chain letters. Around the same time, Portland, Ore.-based indie label Kill Rock Stars had released her first EP, "Margie Ruskie Stops Time," a collection of July's audio recordings (she dislikes the term "spoken word"), backed with music by queercore band the Need. The resulting work is unlike anything out there, even 15 years later -- imagine the radio plays of the 1920s as reinterpreted by a modern-day thespian with multiple-personality disorder.

Thanks to this early work, July became something of a feminist role model for young women aspiring to get into the film industry. For July, it was serendipitous. "More than wanting to be a role model, I wanted a role model," she says. "I was just starting to make short movies myself, and I didn't know how to do that, so by gathering all these movies that other women involved had made, it made me feel like I was part of something."

Now that July has been through the Hollywood machine, she knows better. "The position I'm in now, it seems all the more important what I was doing then," she says of her "Joanie 4 Jackie" project. "I didn't give a fuck about Hollywood, so I didn't even think about the fact that there weren't a lot of women in the studio level. But now that I'm in that role, I realize how dire it is, and I think, 'What can I do?'"

But she has already come up with an idea, in a sense. She's been working to launch an online archive of the "Joanie 4 Jackie" project, which will include all the letters that young women wrote her, plus posters, photos and, of course, the movies.

As for her early recorded work, July recalls, "From the get-go it was always very cinematic." Theatricality has always been at the core of her work, as have themes of escapism, time travel, government conspiracies, medical experiments, television and her own habitual lying. After that early phase, which culminated with the 1998 album "The Binet-Simon Test," she turned her attention to full-length multimedia performance art -- or "live movies," as she likened them. "Love Diamond" in 1998 was followed by "The Swan Tool" in 2000.

July has recently found herself expanding into publishing, art installations and the Internet. In 2002, the ever-busy July co-founded the online communal arts project "Learning to Love You More," and later launched the site Your World of Text, a grid Web page on which the public can post text anywhere. She created a sculpture installation piece, "Eleven Heavy Things," for the 2009 Venice Biennale, and a 125-foot, choose-your-own-adventure-style installation titled "Hallway" in 2008 in Yokohama, Japan. She's had her short stories published by Cloverfield Press and in the New Yorker, and says she is currently working on "an attempt at a novel." Oh, and she somehow found the time to get married to director/artist Mike Mills in 2009.

Though art, film and performance tend to bleed into one another for her, July admits movies definitely have their benefits. "You labor and labor to make something," she says. "They have the power to reach so many more people."

Miranda July and "The Future" are proof that women are no longer the future of film -- they're the now.

The Future

  • What: Written, directed by and co-starring Miranda July
  • When: Opens Friday
  • Where: Lagoon Cinema, 1320 Lagoon Av., Mpls., 612-825-6006
  • Review: Read it online
  • View showtimes

Miranda July cheat sheet

  • Johanna Fateman of Le Tigre: July's best friend from high school in Berkeley, Calif. Miranda adopted her "July" surname from a character from a "girlzine" called "Snarla" that she created with Fateman.
  • Mike Mills: Film director, music video director and artist; July's husband.
  • Calvin Johnson: K Records founder, dated July in 1998; she collaborated with him in Dub Narcotic Sound System.
  • Harrell Fletcher: Multi-disciplinary artist, longtime collaborator of July's, dated briefly in 1999.
  • Sleater-Kinney: July directed the punk trio's video for "Get Up" in 1997, and was briefly in a band with drummer Toni Gogin called the CeBe Barnes Band in 1995.
  • Blonde Redhead: She directed the video for the band's "Top Ranking" in 1998.