Everyone on the internet lives in different worlds. For me, on Tuesday morning, I woke up to a number of people I follow on Twitter freaking out to the latest Criterion Collection news. Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture would be included in the collection. At first this was speculation, but Dunham confirmed it later in the day.
Some people may have no idea that this is happening, others (many I’m guessing) will have never heard of the film. Though it won an award at SXSW, its Metacritic score isn’t outstanding, and even Roger Ebert gave it three stars. But Dunham has taken Hollywood by storm, and now has a TV movie/show going with Judd Apatow behind her. The LA film critics association also gave her the “New Generation Award.” She’s poised to be the next big thing.
But the response I saw reminded me of when Criterion put out The Rock on laserdisc. Fans could not believe that Criterion – whose imprint remains the seal of excellence for many – would stoop so fucking low. Even today, someone was playfully trying to justify Bay’s inclusion above Dunham’s. Let’s unpack, shall we?
“The Criterion Collection, a continuing series of important classic and contemporary films”
Okay, I’ve read that hundreds of times. And that label includes films as diverse as (from the laserdisc era on) Taxi Driver, Silverado, The Rock, The Killer, Ugestu, Tokyo Story, Trainspotting, The Darjeeling Limited, Videodrome, and Armageddon. Not to mention Citizen Kane, The Blob, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and Rules of the Game. When I look at this list the two that come across to me as least important are Silverado (by not being a paradigm shift in the Western, but simply a throwback) and The Darjeeling Limited (a likeable but arguably minor work). I say that because I know that some of you will disagree with me. “How could he say Silverado is less essential than Robinson Crusoe on Mars!” People shit on one title or another for its supposed importance, so let’s note that Criterion – by deigning a film worthy of inclusion – provokes cineastes to understand and define what they think is important. And let’s also note Criterion’s partnership with IFC has led to more recent films being included, but some that may not deserve the moniker.
But on a definitional level I have no problem with the inclusion of Tiny Furniture. Whether Dunham becomes a major artist or hack, Tiny Furniture provoked discussion, but likely not for the reasons it was meant to. And considering all the minor key low budget (typed “Mumblecore”) movies, this makes more sense than – say The Puffy Chair or the early works of Greta Gerwig. If the intelligentsia dismissed mumblecore as a copy of a copy of a copy (of Cassavettes), Dunham’s film provoked a thunderous response (again, among a circle of critics). It was a polarizing film – but (again) for a number of reasons that have nothing to do with the movie.
The problem (and it is a problem) with female filmmakers for male writers such as myself is that the internet (and life) is filled with misogyny. It makes me defensive of things that may not deserve great defense because often the reasons given for attacking it are wrong. And for the most part if a film costs less than $20 Million, it’s a fragile thing. But, to the point, Roman and Sofia Coppola both made films, and both were children of a famous director. The Virgin Suicides got more attention, and attracted more negative responses than Roman’s work CQ – which got lost in the shuffle, but has a devoted following. It’s hard not to view the reviews of the female Coppola without trying to figure out what biases go into reviewing her works as she is that divisive a figure. But then also Coppola failed publically as an actress, and flittered around for a decade before directing. But she’s got an eye. Though is her eye any greater than Roman’s? And – speaking of polarizing figures – it’s impossible to mention Diablo Cody without someone saying she’s a hack, often by someone who may give Kevin Smith a pass.
The problem is also that there’s a weird cultural shift that has led to biases being explained by a sense of victimization. Filmmakers like Diablo Cody and Sofia Coppola can be seen as threatening for whatever reason. Then again, I’ve known women who are their harshest critics. And yet a filmmaker like Kathryn Bigelow gets a pass from almost everyone, but also partly because her films are coded very masculine. She plays with the boys, which may be the reason why she’s the first female to win a best directing Oscar. Then again, she’s a great director.
Part of the problem with Lena Dunham is that she comes from a privileged background. Arguably this wouldn’t be a problem if her film didn’t star her famous mother. But then to know that is to know who the filmmaker is… Which leads me to my biggest problem with Tiny Furniture.
It’s possible to view Tiny Furniture with no baggage. Alas, Criterion is going to make this worse. And I don’t trust a filmmaker who doesn’t understand how publicity works. Not to get to semiotic about it, but… signs and meanings.
Tiny Furniture is the portrait of a young woman having recently graduated from college, and who lives with her mother and sister who would be happy for her to find her own way and out of their place. She’s a Jan Brady who both fucks up a lot, but feels unloved and ignored in a cycle that such behavior exacerbates. Having just graduated from college, she’s also the slightly less attractive friend who’s a loser and can’t get laid. She gets a job seating people at a restaurant, and hangs out with boys who won’t sleep with her. Her family go out of town, and she’s a mess-maker, emotionally and literally. The main character is played by writer/director Lena Dunham. Her mother is played by Dunham’s mother, and her sister is played by Dunham’s sister.
I wouldn’t say Dunham’s got a great eye yet, but she does have an ideology of camera, so the placement and movement is very deliberate and it keeps to that aesthetic throughout. It looks good. And there are funny and well observed things in the film.
Noting this, my problem was being unable to separate the artist and the artist. Dunham wrote, directed and starred in the film, and for me – when playing a character surrounded by her family in a no budget feature where the family of non-actors is called on to act – it complicates the truth. If your mother is a self-aware individual than likely she isn’t playing herself, because why would she allow herself to be caught? There’s a certain sort of “honesty” that becomes less honest by the very fact that it’s presented, and there’s a level of voyeurism that ultimately proves distracting.
If someone lets you in to their home, or lets a camera crew into their homes, then it takes a while for the camera to be forgotten (if ever). Films are always a balance between fantasy and truth by the nature of narratives. And I find this sort of blending ultimately distracting. For Dunham’s mother to be playing herself being mean to her own daughter on film, there’s a level to which it’s not cinema we’re watching, but then if it is a performance it makes the reality of the narrative shake and shimmy, because we know it is the mother. Sure, Martin Sheen or Jon Voight have played on-screen fathers to their children, but in films that had more distance than this. If Dunham is presenting a version of herself, could her family play themselves honestly? With a film like this it’s not as if Dunham’s appropriating a period or a character or tropes or etc. She’s playing a character who seems modeled on her own life, with her mother playing an artist. If you know these things, it becomes atonal, partly because the narrative is lesser.
One of the great films that Criterion put out on laserdisc is David Holzman’s Diary, which paints a young filmmaker as a serial narcisist who ends up recording his life – but has nothing to say. There is no level to the director commenting on the actor in that way, as this sort of film is part and parcel with the student/low budget film set. Or does it? Is the limited camera supposed to give us some ironic distance? But what does that achieve but a sense that the filmmaker knows that her character is unpleasant?
“But she’s mean to her character!” Yeah, I get that, but I also get that there’s nothing more narcissistic than flagellating yourself in a feature length narrative. This week The Lonely Island released a song called “We’re Back” where everyone in the band talked about having small, limp dicks. It wouldn’t be funny if they said they had large penises. All stories or comedy have to create some level of empathy or conflict. Comic characters usually start from a place of underdog, so I see no honesty in portraying a main character as – say – having a hard time having sex. You don’t have a film without it. It’s a default setting. Dunham’s character comes from a house of privilege inherent in where she lives and her attitude toward work. It’s too bad she can’t get laid, and she may express a truth of the upper class, but as it comes from a place of options, it does not offer empathy. This may be an honest portrait of this world, but then it’s showcases a generation of wastrels nearly two decades after Slacker, etc. Director Todd Solonz made his first feature in a similar fashion. Of course, very few people have heard of it or seen it. This doesn’t seem penetrating enough to forgive these faults, or its truths don’t speak in such a fashion that isn’t self-evident early on. The novel twist is that it’s a woman who’s the loser, which is a sort loser we haven’t seen on screen played by women who don’t eventually turn into Rachel Leigh Cook.
And because we don’t know Dunham – again – the idea of her playing this character is troubling because there’s no distance. Some have called it a naked performance (and she does have a shower scene), but I don’t know Dunham, so I have no idea how revealing it is, but then she cast her family. Perhaps future projects will make this more or less revealing. Which brings up the Woody Allen defense. “But Woody did it!” But Woody did it (if you’re going to say Annie Hall) after having established himself as a comic persona. You can say that about a number of films by the likes of Albert Brooks etc. These were also people too well known to play much else. Welles was not playing Kane as an extension of himself, even if there are some interesting parallels (but those parallels are interesting because he wasn’t playing a variation on himself).
Low budget filmmaking is terribly difficult. And perhaps Dunham could only count on people she knew. But it makes it terribly hard to judge what she’s doing when it’s couched in a truth that is confused by the author’s presence. But more than that, I’ve seen the film, and regardless of how deep the rabbit hole goes, I didn’t find her narrative compelling, or all that different from a lot of films like it. But the very act of filming herself and her family as characters makes it less real, and yet way more fascinating. I feel like I know the character, but I don’t see the storyteller, nor the point. Perhaps the point was to get noticed. If so, it worked. Noah Baumbach is supposedly mentoring Joe Swanberg, Steven Spielberg took a number of filmmakers under his wing, like (Bring it home) Michael Bay. She’s got Judd Apatow.
There are funny and well observed things in the movie, but it comes across like a number of films championed because it represents a minority viewpoint that are obviously flawed. It is a complete work, and a competent work. But it also raises the question: is it patronizing to be nice to this film? Tiny Furniture covers similar ground to The Graduate, but that dealt with a certain ennui that had to do with the upper class as well. But it had a much more challenging and transgressive central premise. Would anyone like Tiny Furniture if it was written, directed and starred a male? And is that a fair comparison? I would say yes, and I would say the film would be completely insufferable. And that’s the problem with identity politics – if the art offers a viewpoint (however banal) that seems on the outside, it does deserve a greater discussion, but one that acknowledges the flaws. It’s troubling to think of females as having a minority viewpoint, but in cinema that is inarguable. Male directors are legion. Between Penny Marshall and Sofia Coppola, there’s slim fucking pickings.
I’ve heard that Dunham is a hit with women in Hollywood because she writes for women, and I get that. And there may be a truth expressed in having a film starring a woman who both wants sex, but is made completely unattractive by the film-making that is rare. It’s also important to cultivate different voices in the system, and perhaps this will be viewed differently when she has a body of work. Can a male give this a feminist or post-feminist treatment without opening themselves up to questions of understanding/not understanding women or women’s cinema or different viewpoints? I think it’s a minor work. But there’s undeniably a lack of female voices behind the camera. Yet we’ve seen in minority cinema for every Spike Lee there’s a Matty Rich (and maybe more Matty Riches than Lee’s). For every Todd Haynes or Gus Van Sant there’s a film like Better than Chocolate.
At the same time Dunham’s ascendency has mostly been inside baseball. Middle America got little chance to give her work a look. Criterion giving her film a release will expose her work to more people. The question is if that’s good or bad for her career. I feel that it’s a bad thing. It’s one thing if your first film is Bottle Rocket, it’s another if it’s the work of an undefined voice that may yet prove great or hacky.