By Isaac Butler
(1) Damn. That Lena Dunham can frame a shot. There are very few stills on the internet that really do this skill justice, as part of what's impressive about Tiny Furniture is the length of its takes and how long each shot holds up, but you can tell that she pays pretty careful attention to staging, camera placement, design, etc. This sets this early film apart from the Whit Stillman of Metropolitan or anything by Noah Baumbach, who both seem to me (along with Nicole Holofcener) her clearest influences. It is also far, far better directed than anything made by Judd Apatow, who is, of course, the Godfather of her television show.
(2) It seems to me that the biggest difference between Girls (or what I've seen of it-- the first two episodes-- and read about it, which is way too much) and Tiny Furniture is the level of sympathy for its protagonist. Hannah-- and please, readers, correct me if I'm wrong here-- is largely painted as delusional about her abilities and potential as a writer. Her artistic ambitions are held up for ridicule, as a kind of Millenial (ach how I hate that word) "I'm A Precious Little Snowflake" pretention waiting to be taken down. Hannah, for example, has a twitter account in the show where almost no one followers her, despite her incessant tweeting, and she absurdly calls herself the "voice of a generation" in the first ep. Aura-- Dunham's character in Tiny Furniture-- is actually talented. While we see little of her work, everyone who has encountered it likes it and compliments it, and the one piece we see some of (The Fountain Video) is an actual early YouTube video by Dunham herself.
The end result of this is that we feel a bit more for Aura, and for what clearly seems to be the acute depression she's going through. Hannah is an intense mix of self-loathing and self-aggrandizement, Aura on the other hand seems to think she's worthless, as demonstrated by a number of increasingly despearate acts performend simply to get people-- including her own mother and sister-- to notice her. These acts, particularly a tantrum that hilariously, horribly, seems to stretch forever as Aura's sister tries to surpress laughter, are not viewed uncritically within the film, but we are still invited to sympathize with her.
(Of course I also worry that the first couple of episodes of Girls are setting up the Apatow formula that i find so exhausting and that ends up being the outline of pretty much every film he's involved in from The 40 Year Old Virgin through Bridesmaids where a character's problems are painted in such an extreme light early on the film that the redemption at the end feels tacked on, unearned and, in Knocked Up's case, actually impossible (quick refresher: Seth Rogan's character is established as an illegal immigrant early in the film yet easily finds an office job and rents an apartment large enough for him to live in with his girlfriend and their child during a thrity second montage) but I'll have to watch the rest of the season and the next when it airs to see if my worries are unfounded or not.)
(3) Or maybe I sympathize with her because I had a girlfriend named Aura in high school and we're no longer on speaking terms and she was kind of depressed. Or maybe because I too come from privilege and had a horrible first year out of college, which included 9/11, getting married to my first wife too early, and getting so depressed that leaving the house felt like a victory, as did getting through a day without crying. I wouldn't mention these autobiographical factors except that everything about Dunham's work feels oddly connected to autobiography, both hers and that of her viewers, whether they be admirers or detractors. The work feels-- and is received in a fashion that is undeniably-- deeply personal, which might explain (along with our economic moment, it's all-white cast and, you know, sexism) some of the bewildering vitriol that greeted Girls after its premiere.
(4) Autobiography is a tricky beast. There is something in us that yearns to know the "real life story" behind the shows we watch, the books we read, the plays we attend, the films at which we stare. That real life story could simply be how the thing was made, or on-set gossip, but our desire for an autobiographical truth reaches past the work-- or rather through the work-- and slips towards its creator. I am deeply, deeply suspicious of biographical readings of works, a suspicion that has only deepened as I've come to know more artists and been able to spot, in ways that the public cannot, where their life and their work intersect. In general, biographical readings of books, paintings, films, television shows, tend to shrink rather than enlarge the subject. It does not matter that our protagonist's two week bout of stomach flu was written right after a novelist had a week long struggle with the same illness, what matters is what the illness means within the text.
Dunham courts this kind of biographical fallacy with such abandon that it might not, in her case, be called a fallacy. Tiny Furniture is filmed in her parents' apartment (where, until recently, she lives, and I am almost angry that I know that and angirer that I wanted to). Her real life mother plays her mother in the film, and her real life sister plays her sister. Tiny Furniture and Girls have nearly identical premises (after college, a smart woman who is good at talking and terrible at life tries to sponge off her parents rather than enter the real world) that feel autobiographical, even if they are not. Dunham, of course, has a hit show on HBO which I have to imagine is a fairly full-time job and, given her show runner/director/co-producer/star role, is far more capable than either of the women she writes or portrays. And Dunham has proven-- and I mean this as a compliment-- naturally gifted at courting and charming the press, who in turn deliver to us the delicious autobiographical nuggets that in part sub in for actual evaluation of a work's intrinsic quality or interestingness. (This is not a slam on either Girls or Tiny Furniture; I'm quite taken with both).
(5) In other words, it's actually hard to watch anything Lena Dunham does on its own terms and within the context of itself. It's hard to treat Tiny Furniture-- which, despite the similar premises and casts and concerns, actually is quite different from Girls-- as anything other than a rough draft for the tv show, much the way that The American President feels like a rough draft for The West Wing. It's hard to just talk about the movie as a movie. But it's not a rough draft for a TV show. It's a movie, goddamnit. And it's a pretty good one.
(6) I found myself most fascinated by Aura's relationship with her mother. The biggest surprise for me in the film is that the mother is kind of a jerk-- distant and secretly as needy as her daughter-- without being painted as a monster. There are real moments of tenderness between Aura and her mother, but there's also a door there that's been slammed shut, that Aura's constant entireties for verbal recognition and physical affection cannot breach. Aura comes home from college and her mother barely notices, she gets a job and her mother barely seems to care until prodded to such a point that nothing she says could possibly suffice. Most of the times we see her, she is not so much repremanding Aura-- which she has plenty good cause to do-- as denigrating her.
And yet we also get sequences where Aura reads her mother's diary and discovers that at her own age her mother was just as fucked up, just as depressed and strange and vulnerable and striving and depressed as she. The real insight of the film is its recognition that, despite Aura's similarities to the discarded, earlier self of the mother, the possibilities for connection between the two women are limited. That past is a country that can only be recalled; return is impossible. Yet within that recolleciton lies the one extended moment of real tenderness between the two women.
(6) The film's other big moment is the aforementioned tantrum sequence, where Aura begins by getting upset with her mother and sister for reasons that are completely valid, but as the scene goes on (and, hilariously, on and on) it slips into utter absurdity. It's a complicated moment with deft tonal shifts that relies in part on its length to work. It reminds me most of the work of Alexander Payne, who is a master of stretching moments until their emotional texture changes, generally from serious to comic, but sometimes in the other direction. Think here of Judy Greer's hospital bedside monologue from The Descendants.
(7) I am less confidant in Dunham's abilities as a director to coach meaningful performances from actors. She's quite good at writing people roles that play to people's strengths but in Girls the scenes between the four leads often feel like the characters might be in two or three different styles of television show simultaneously. Dunham's hyper-real deadpan, for example, does not feel of the same world as Zosia Mamet's more sitcommish overindication. In both projects, Dunham's own performance is at its weakest when we see reaction shots of her during other people's dialogue. She has what in rehearsal I call the "I'm Listening" face, which is where you do a little something with your forehead that feels attentive while acutally speaking your scene partner's lines in your head. I don't know if she's really doing that or not, but were I both writing and directing the scene that I was in, I'd probably do that, and since autobiography is, again, a perfectly valid-- maybe even the only valid-- way to watch or critique anything anymore, I feel comfortable asserting that I'm right.
(8) The men in Tiny Furniture are total assholes in a way that feels both individuated for each character are true. I double checked this with my wife who has been, at an earlier time in her life, a single woman in her twenties in a cool part of New York (Williamsburg, specifically) and she verified this.
(9) Of course, another question presents itself: Is Aura deserving of, worthy of, our sympathy? Given her privilege-- which is immense-- should we care about her struggles or that she's depressed or in pain? Well, I suppose to me the question is this: Do we want to grant a work its fundmental premise or not? Because one of Tiny Furniture's fundamental premises is that Aura is a worthy protagonist, just as, say, in A Midsummer Night's Dream fairies are real. If you can't accept that, there's sort of no point in your watching the thing.
(This, btw, is why I don't see biographical features about the Royal Family. I am incapable of granting these films their premises, of taking as a given that the struggles of this particular group of people are worthy of documenting or sympathizing with. Fictional royals I have no beef with. But if you really want to enrage me, strap me down in that Clockwork Orange eye dropper torture chair and force me to watch The Queen on a loop. (Oh my God! The Queen's approval rating has slipped five percentage points! THE HORROR!!!!!!))
And this returns us to our economic moment. It's a moment in which middle and working class people are struggling, and struggling in particular ways, and in which their stories are not really being told. They're not being told much in our big theaters or on television and they seem totally absent from the multiplex. In fact, the only major release about the struggles of working people to come out this summer is Magic Mike, which is essentially about a man who must turn himself into an object so that he can accrue enough capital to control the means of production in the age of mechanical reproduction but is constantly thwarted by management. It sits in theaters alongside Beasts of the Southern Wild, which appears to be the high-quality art-house rural poverty film of this year, as Winter's Bone was before it. But still, we're talking two movies here.
This is a really big problem. In the peculiar way that responses to Dunahm's work seem to be about anything other than the work itself, there's been a certain amount of anger at Girls (and, to a lesser extent, Tiny Furnture) for existing in the first place. I guess I'm with Ta-Nehesi, writing about Girls and race, on this one:
There has been a lot of talk, this week about Lena Dunham's responsibility, but significantly less about the the people who sign her checks. My question is not "Why are there no black women on Girls," but "How many black show-runners are employed by HBO?" This is about systemic change, not individual attacks.
It is not so wrong to craft an exclusively white world--certainly a significant portion of America lives in one. What is wrong is for power-brokers to pretend that no other worlds exists. Across the country there are black writers and black directors toiling to bring those worlds to the screen. If HBO does not see fit to have a relationship with those writers, then those of us concerned should assess our relationship with HBO.