Sunday, July 15, 2012

Little Hermetic Boxes: Musings on Lena Dunham's "Tiny Furniture"

So, OK, like I watched Tiny Furniture, the Lena Dunham (Girls) film that made such a splash at SXSW in 2010 and went on to IFC distribution and Criterion DVD release yesterday. Being an old fogey who has watched a lot of films in his life I just don't get it. While I found Tiny Furniture OK it reminded me a lot of the French New Wave and even the American New Wave, a link made flesh by the interview between Dunham and Nora Epron, who said she fancied herself a New York City director a la Arthur Penn and Sidney Lumet when she first started making films, and by the fact that Criterion is also among the leading American purveyors of the French New Wave and Left Bank filmmakers including Agnes Varda.

I did notice some differences between the work of Dunham and the Nouvelle Vague, however. The French New Wave was, to some extent, reacting to the composed films of its forebearers, le cinema du papa, by bringing a documentary like immediacy to the screen. Dunham seems to be reacting, in part, to mumblecore with its documentary like spontaneous attempt at realism by making a very composed film, as critic and filmmaker Paul Schrader says during a review of Tiny Furniture on the Criterion DVD of the film.

Anyway, as I watched Tiny Furniture I couldn't help but think about and compare and contrast the work of Lena Dunham to that of Agnes Varda particularly her Cleo de 5 a 7 and her Sans toit ne loi. Varda, of course, was one of the film makers of the nouvelle vague and Rive Gauche who, along with Francois Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Chabrol, Jacques Rivette, Alain Resnais, Alan Marker and others, made their mark on French and Western cinema beginning in the late 1950s. I couldn't help think how Varda's films brought a female sensitivity, if that is the phrase for it, like Dunham's Tiny Furniture, to the screen, but with a difference. Varda's films, like those of many of her male colleagues at the time, save perhaps Godard, may have been making bourgeois films but they were making bourgeois films that were "realistic" and had a social and sometimes critical conscience. I am not sure you can say that about Dunham's Tiny Furniture, a film which seems to me hermetically immersed in the upper bourgeois world of upper Manhattan, undoubtedly part of its appeal to the generation that thinks of Dunham as its oracle. Just look at the image of Mona (Sandrine Bonnaire), the vagabond character at the heart of Varda's Sans toit ne loi, and compare it to the beautiful and supposedly not so beautiful beautiful people who populate Dunham's Tiny Furniture below.

Dunham reminds me very much of other American filmmakers of the post 1970's age, the age when Hollywood managed, once again, to establish its control over the American popular culture landscape, filmmakers like David Lynch and Quentin Tarantino. Lynch who may be an American version of the surrealist European filmmaker Luis Bunuel but he is an American version of Luis Bunuel with out the sharp critical social and satirical eye of Bunuel. Tarantino used narrative manipulation to great effect in his Pulp Fiction but his narrative sophistication has nothing on Alain Resnais's L'Année dernière à Marienbad (1961), a film which played even more extensively with narrative expectations 33 years before Pulp Fiction and which still confuses those attempting to decipher its meaning or meanings. Many Americans aren't aware of either of these because most of them have so little sense of film history and the bureaucratic organisations that dominate the American film and television landscape are so parochial and xenophobic and act as stingy gatekkeepers limiting the amount of foreign cinema allowed into the United States.

I don't, by the way, have a problem with cinema that focuses on the bourgeoisie and its various discontents. I love Eric Rohmer's dissection of the French middle classes, particularly the female middle class. I didn't find Dunham's Tiny Furniture to be anywhere near as aesthetically interesting as Rohmer's "Six Moral Fables" and "Four Seasons" films, films all which focus on the contradictions and discontents of contemporary bourgeois life.

Postscript, 17 July
I finally got around to watching the four Dunham short films and her first feature, Creative Nonfiction, on the second disc of the Criterion Tiny Furniture release. I enjoyed Open the Door not because, as Phillip Lopate argues in his essay in the booklet to the Criterion Tiny Furniture release, that the film's daughter protagonist's refusal to open the door for her parents until they say their lines from the film she claims to be making before she will let them in, is a kind of fairy tale like reversal in which the daughter revels in the role reversal which allows her to take control of her parents lives just as they have had control over hers for years. There may be some of that in the film, but I liked Open the Door because I think it nicely captures the sense of entitlement of the most narcissistically inclined generation that Dunham is a part of. "It's my work", our nameless protagonist says to her nameless parents as they stand outside the locked door on the street outside their Manhattan apartment so you should do as I ask because it is my work and I am entitled to your help because I am special, one of those typically youthful self serving narcissistic tautologies.

I also enjoyed though I wouldn't say I liked the clearly documentary influenced and very mumblecorey Creative Nonfiction, Dunham's first feature length film which she made while she was still an undergraduate at Oberlin, for similar reasons and for its ability to capture what passes for intellectual life and ennui on liberal arts campuses these days. I liked the story within a story which, while it wasn't of the calibre of Jacques Rivette's brilliant Celine et Julie vont en bateau with its story within a story playfulness, was interesting and sometimes enjoyable.

One final question: is Dunham's penchant for showing her own body again and again nude or as almost nude in her films represent a narcissistic fetishistation of her own body, that she is comfortable in her own skin, something ideologically ulterior, or more than one of the above?

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