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
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
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
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
“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.