I met Lena Dunham at the Sarasota Film Festival when she premiered herfilm Tiny Furniture in 2011. We talked about Oberlin College, the Canon 7D—a remarkably, reasonably well-priced DSLR camera with HD video qualities—and we took a picture “for the blog.” I was riding the high of having thoroughly enjoyed a film for which I’d had no expectations. We had heard more hype around The Myth of the American Sleepover than Tiny Furniture, and surprise surprise… it was indeed a myth. The film was lackluster, with pretensions to something it was not—a chic retrospect, a nostalgic Americana style-as-life that did not exist anywhere except in the universe of a Lana del Rey music video. Thankfully, we had decided to go see Dunham’s film afterwards.
Tiny Furniture was raw, yet possessed of a cinematic clarity that I hadn’t seen before. The setting was chic: a swanky Chelsea apartment with slick cabinetry and shiny floors. But on these mirrored surfaces its protagonist appeared before the camera in all her naked honesty, her insecurity and her fumbling. She was, in what has become a tired and tiresome description of Dunham the actress, not your typical Hollywood beauty. Neither confident in her skin nor so self-conscious as to stay in oversized, bulky clothes, the protagonist/Dunham bared almost all in her underwear. And I loved her for it. While I hate to reiterate that old sexist type shtick, it is undeniable that cinema as a visual medium will always deal with issues of aesthetics symptomatic of the society from which they have come—the society that has produced a film and the society that receives it.
This is was what stuck with me from the film—a beautifully ‘normal’ character, a woman trying to fit in her skin and her society—a person beginning. Too often these tales of transition neglect to detail the void: the in-betweens of the BIG EVENTS that you could call ‘real life’, due to some (misguided) preference for Narrative Arc and Action. We watched Aura, an amateur filmmaker, learn to navigate anew in an old space after her return home from college, engage in awkward and degrading sex, laze around her apartment, fight with her spoiled sister, and essentially: fall and pick herself back up again… sort of. The film took life as its subject matter and re-presented it to us as something worth taking note of—worth filming. I personally had seen few movies like this before Tiny Furniture premiered…..
……So you can imagine my excitement when, a few years later, I heard that Dunham was commandeering a show called GIRLS on HBO. I was ecstatic about a female writer/director/actor/auteur. I was excited it was set in New York again. I was even glad that many of the same actors were in it, since they had all been Dunham’s friends back in the low-budget Oberlin days. Then I watched the first few episodes. What had been new and novel in the film became trite and overplayed in the space of a half hour. Lena, aka “Aura” in Tiny Furniture, aka “Hannah Horvath”, an upstart writer in GIRLS, was up to her old shit again: having awkward and terrible sex with assholes, chattering ad nauseum about #richwhitegirlproblems and running her whiny, narcissistic yarn by anyone who’d listen—to said friends with similar limitations on self-awareness but who would willingly tell her often enough that she was, in fact, incredibly egotistical.
—–I will mention here that, had Hannah been a boy, her egotism would perhaps be received as ambition. But this character is initially loathsome because of her paradox: a particular brand of whiny and wanting that no one wants to invest in. As Hannah asserts “You cannot hate me more than I hate myself.” She outdoes everyone in the race to self-loathing and loathsome—even those who never wanted to compete. It took me two false starts to finally run with her: I got through 7 episodes before I had to stop watching and started again a year later, and it took me two seasons before THE EPISODE.
Here they all were, in their closed circuit tableau: neurotic, modelesque Marnie, the vapid and vacuous JAP caricature Shoshana, repellently egotistic Ray, absent and animalistic Adam, and wild, devil-may-care covergirl Jessa. Season 1 could have been a concurrent version of or a sequel to Tiny Furniture. Then, with very little warning, S2EP8 found me glued to the screen, watching Hannah as her only-aforementioned OCD makes an unwelcome comeback when the pressure builds for a new e-book deal. The end of the episode tracks Adam running towards her apartment, his eyes only for the compulsively-ticking, shorn-haired Hannah on the Facetime screen of his phone. “Stay with me Hannah!” He yells, and at that moment, tears streaming down my face, I realized I was with her too, until the end.
The brilliance of the show is this: everyone speaks their mind. They are the Ids unleashed- the motormouths, the no filters on the Instagram pics, and all the hashtags. They are the “celebrities just like us” section of a hipster Brooklyn version of US Weekly—or an adolescent Sex and the City (though I won’t go too far with that comparison). Plenty already have: http://hbowatch.com/girls-vs-sex-and-the-city-does-it-measure-up/
Don’t get me wrong. This show is incredibly problematic in some acute ways; its lack of diversity received a critical lash-back that resulted in the first character of color…and he lasted for about two episodes before his anomalous conservative views became fodder for Hannah’s painfully inside-out political correctness, in what appeared to be a very self-conscious plot device that pointed angrily to its own contrivance. Even the title denotes some kind of misguided essentialism that clearly spans no farther than the swanky part of Bushwick to Manhattan. The characters retain essential traits into Season 3. Hannah’s ego-centrism drives her to drive Adam away when he gets a part in a Broadway play, and her announcement on his opening night of her own Big News, though perhaps good-hearted, is still rooted in a tit-for-tat mentality.
⇒TL;DR: Hannah remains Hannah… but don’t we all? As much as we want to go from point A to Z in a nano-second, a nano-season, life doesn’t usually work like that. Most of the time, it’s in small yet poignant increments, and certainly not evenly across the whole physical-spiritual-mental-emotional board.
Still, at the close of this season, each character has progressed in their own way. We witness Hannah and Adam’s relationship go from non-existent to facebook official to “I love you.” Marnie is still somewhat in freefall from an opposite character arc, while motormouth Shoshana evinces a stunningly sincere attempt to get Ray back, and fae Jessa faces a sobering choice between life and death. Hannah, who has gone from writing drippy essays to attempting a cocaine-fueled, arrested e-book memoir, found herself excelling in the writerly circle of hell, the “advertorial” section at Condé Nast and was forced to examine her priorities. And at the end of Season 3, her validation as a “real writer” comes in the form of an acceptance letter to the prestigious Iowa Writers Workshop.
As I said, I’m in it for the long haul
as long as they stick to half hour marathons.