Is Lena Dunham an exhibitionist by nature or does she just play one on TV (and in her movie and on YouTube)? By this, I mean, does Lena Dunham just like showing herself off or does she think boldly putting her self in self-expression is the best way of achieving her artist’s vision? Weirdo or a hero? You decide, but all appearances point to the latter.
Not that it matters, I suppose. Her work is her work, no matter its motivation (great fiction is not created just by the pure of heart). Nevertheless, it’s tough not to speculate when, in her first movie, Tiny Furniture, Lena casts her mother as her mother and her sister as her sister. Lena herself plays, of course, the star, Aura, a wannabe film-major daughter of an artist (guess what Lena’s mom does for a living).
This seeming autobiographical mode poses a problem: How do you play yourself sympathetically if you’re staggeringly successful at an extremely young age, if you know you’re absurdly privileged, if your subject is “how hard and weird it is to be alive even if you’re middle class and your parents were pretty loving”*? By being absolutely vicious to yourself, Dunham answers. Dunham the director portrays Dunham the actress in the least attractive manner possible: without makeup, in various stages of unattractive undress, having sex doggie-style in a metal tube on the streets of New York, etc.. Dunham’s not really fat but, flouting actorly norms, she consistently makes herself look fat by broadcast standard. She makes Aura in Tiny Furniture as unappealing as possible: she’s whiny, entitled, dishonest, and unwise. One would say Aura’s unlucky in love but that would imply some possibility that her choices might work out better than they do. An audience could be forgiven for giving up hope in her, but she seems too immature to even be a lost cause.
Yet Aura comes wrapped in a nice, earnest, Lena-Dunham-shaped bow meant to maintain a hold on our good graces, and as you watch the movie you don’t notice the unlikeable details piling up. This triumph, such as it is, is perhaps enabled by a reversal of typical indie-movie structure. Usually, such movies start by making their protagonist unlikeable as possible and then steadily softening them up throughout the film. Tiny Furniture flips the script, backlogging Aura’s self-destruction mostly till the end. We grant our love at first sight; it’s only later events that force us to question our sympathies.
This unconventional plot structure slots Tiny Furniture into the category of character-centric mood piece in the vein of Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces or Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson. Like those movies, Furniture denies us the opiate of conclusion delivered by the climax of more conventional works. Here there is no climax. Such dramatic satisfaction as we receive must be awkwardly tantric: a prolonged awareness of mood and character that fades only as we move on from the movie to other things. I find this feeling unpleasant, and I suspect many audience-members will enjoy Furniture’s beginning more than its end, the pleasures of its initial uber-realistic dialogue over its finale’s quiet, contemplative emptiness.
But are we being fair to decry this a weakness? Isn’t the demand for conventional dramatic structure a sacrifice of art for entertainment’s sake? After all, real life doesn’t always provide resolutions, and certain experiences may require a wider palette to be successfully painted. The condition of being no longer a girl but not yet a woman** doesn’t need to be one that ends triumphantly. This of course begs the obvious question of why Dunham couldn’t have pushed her character a little further, couldn’t have ended her movie with Aura achieving for herself some steps towards the successful adulthood where she seems to be heading?
We could look at stopping short as a weakness on Dunham’s part, but I prefer to project a little, use my imagination, and take it as an occasion to admire her honesty as an artist: She was 22 when she made this work; she may just not have felt ready to successfully portray her character’s successful ascent to responsibility. Now, many directors in that situation would have just shrugged and jammed a happy ending in anyway. It’d be easy enough to write: you just switch a few plot details towards the finale to put the movie on an upbeat trend rather than an ambiguous one; problem solved. Who’d know the difference?
Dunham would, for one. She’d know that some of the movie was good and reflected her best expression of what she felt was true about the world and some of it was just meant to make other people like it. And maybe the audience wouldn’t know per se; maybe, in fact, they’d enjoy the movie a little more, but the ideas they’d get from the film, what they’d perceive about their own lives as a result, would be hopelessly tarnished: the message of post-college adolescent angst muffled by a smiley-face of everything’s-always-going-to-be-ok.
I remember watching the James Bond movie, GoldenEye, when I was thirteen. Spoiler alert, James gets the girl in the end. As I watched he and Natalya rolling idyllically through the grass, so in love after the world (or a football-sized-satellite dish) had exploded around them, I wondered what her fate would be after the movie was over. Did they remain in love and get married? Even then, I knew better, but one of the reasons that GoldenEye, while a tremendously fun movie, wasn’t exactly a serious contender to win Best Picture in the 1995 Academy Awards is that it was fundamentally a fantasy, its romances imitating real romance with an aim not to reveal something true but to obscure something fake. We never see James drunkenly stopping by Natalya’s Moscow apartment a few times and then failing to return her calls. The movie wouldn’t be better for doing so, but that’s just because it’s not exactly all that deep.
Even for very good movies that aim to do more than pleasantly imitate, the temptation to cut corners and succumb to easy sentimentalism is often too strong to resist. Dunham deserves credit for abstaining from this easy satisfaction, praise for the maturity to tell the best story she was capable of, admiration for making something not as satisfying as we would have wanted her to create.
* a quote from another HBO show, not Girls. Two points to any reader who got the reference.