Comedy evolves. We long ago bid adieu to the physical acrobatics of Buster Keaton, the wisecracks of Bob Hope, the witty repartee of Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. The now-reigning comedy of embarrassment, seen in the films of Judd Apatow and the Farrelly Brothers and all the loss-of-virginity farces, seems particularly appealing to younger viewers, who can relate to the awkward silences of crushes, being stuck with someone who is clearly physically undesirable, or being oneself the nerdy companion of some repulsed hottie, that power imbalance being the kernel of the jest—though by the final credits, said nerd usually ends up with said hottie. Lena Dunham’s work is related to this mainstream comedy of embarrassment, but she takes it one bold step further, producing a much more subtle and sophisticated comedy of chagrin. And in Dunham’s world, there is no happy ending, only an enlightened realism.
When Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, which won the South by Southwest Film Festival award for best narrative feature, premiered in 2010, it was hailed as a remarkably assured debut. Actually, the twenty-four-year-old filmmaker had been honing her sensibility, during college, via a dozen inventive shorts and a first feature, Creative Nonfiction, which is both poignantly hilarious and excruciatingly painful. Playing her own protagonists, in narratives that dwell on humiliation, sexual rejection, immaturity, and general floundering, Dunham has put herself out there, defiantly and without the usual safeguards that male comics employ. Her only protection is her self-aware artistry, which is formidable.
Dunham’s films have so far focused on the dilemma of being young, in that transitional stage before becoming a full-fledged adult. Our culture flatters the young, holding them up as the standard of beauty and insouciance. But Dunham shows the other side: what it’s like to be powerless, at sea, lonely, forced into low-paying, soul-destroying jobs that have nothing to do with one’s intended lifework, and not nearly as sexually liberated as envious elders would like to believe. (In the words of a Philip Larkin poem, “Everyone young going down the long slide / To happiness, endlessly.”) At the same time, in Tiny Furniture, she exposes with wry detachment the maddening self-pity and entitlement of Aura, her protagonist. It is both a privilege and a curse to be able to drift and mooch off one’s parents, and to feel sorry for oneself in the bargain. In the film, the mother asks Charlotte, Aura’s friend: “Do you have as much sense of entitlement as my daughter?” Charlotte answers: “Oh, believe me, mine is much worse.”
Aura and Charlotte are the children of artists. Dunham’s parents, as she makes clear in her films, are both artists: her father, Carroll Dunham, is famous for his shock-value paintings with barnyard animals and exposed genitalia; her mother, Laurie Simmons, is known for her sculptural miniatures and uneasy-making photographs, including a series on a day in the life of a Japanese love doll. These kids of downtown New York are in certain respects quite jaded, at home with talk of transgender issues, blow jobs, and film theory; in other respects naive, with the provincial narrowness that comes of being raised in a permissively protective liberal environment. Growing up underfoot at gallery openings and poetry readings, watching their parents being fawned over, what is left for the children of avant-garde rebels but to be more torpid, more cautious, more skeptical, more uncertain? James Mangold, the filmmaker son of two fine painters, went Hollywood; Azazel Jacobs made a movie, Momma’s Man (2008), about retreating to the womblike loft of his filmmaker parents. Lena Dunham, whose own films chart her flight to a Midwestern liberal arts college and her return after graduation, dramatizes how difficult it is to leave the Manhattan bohemian nest.
Tiny Furniture begins with the prodigal daughter coming home from college to a less than warm welcome. Her mother is distracted with art-making; her younger sister is studying for the SATs and, in any case, is disdainfully competitive with Aura. (Both parts are played well by Dunham’s actual mother and sister.) The white-walled, book-lined duplex loft, clinically dissected by the camera, appears elegant but chilly—anything but homey. Charlotte’s judgment is witheringly dismissive: “Our people are assholes.” Aura is more loyal to her upbringing, though her artist mother comes across as self-absorbed (the way creative people often are), distracted, coolly reserved, or maybe just tired.
While the film at first seems to be about the protagonist’s testing the romantic and vocational waters of her new, postcollege life, I view it as at heart a mother-daughter story. Aura keeps trying to show her mother that she doesn’t know how to be self-sufficient, that she still needs her warm guidance. Jealous of the access her younger sister and her mother’s assistant have to the older woman, Aura reads the diaries her mother kept when she was her age, as a way to bond secretly with her and reassure herself that her own lack of direction is normal. The only way she can think to get a maternal response is by breaking the rules of the household and making her mother angry. Meanwhile, she rejects the college friend who was planning to be her roommate, saying she can’t move in with her because she has to stay at home—her mother “needs” her too much. This is the opposite of the truth, but very much an expression of her fantasy. All through the movie, Aura asks for permission to sleep in her mother’s bed, and in the last sequence, this privilege is granted. They have a quiet, communicating catch-up talk. “I just want to be as successful as you are,” Aura admits. Her mother reassures her that she will. She gives her mother a massage. She has finally managed to return to the comfort of her mother’s body. But her mother is still tense, racked by back pain, and annoyed by the ticking of a clock nearby. Aura is at last able to feel that her mother needs her, if only for a brief moment.
In one of Dunham’s very funny conceptual shorts, Open the Door, her parents buzz the building intercom to be let in, having forgotten their keys. Lena “directs” them with lines they must say before she will grant them entry, meanwhile filming their bewildered, increasingly annoyed faces in the video intercom hookup. It is a fairy-tale reversal: the child now has control over the family domain; the parents must beg to be let in. In Tiny Furniture, the child, no longer a child, seems desperate to return home; but permission is granted only provisionally, obligatorily, and reluctantly.
Who controls the domestic realm, and what sleeping privileges accrue thereby? In both of Dunham’s features, the protagonist takes in a young man who needs a place to sleep, with the tacit hope that he will make love to her. And he, being a narcissistic jerk, not attracted to her, doesn’t. And both films follow this pattern: the boy who won’t make love to her, though he abuses her hospitality, and the boy who will, though the sex is crude, without a shred of tenderness, and changes nothing.
The Dunham character is consistent, in that she is always thrusting herself on people and situations, courting rejection and, though basically shy, demanding that she be seen. She parades her somewhat overweight, tattooed body on camera like an exhibitionist’s dare: Look at me. One of the most cringe-worthy scenes in Tiny Furniture has Aura walking pantsless through the high school party of her younger sister. Her sister meanly accuses her of being willing to do anything to get attention, but there is some truth to that. In Dunham’s short The Fountain (2007), her ex-boyfriend draws a distinction between her disrobing and a stripper’s, asking her why she wants to show her body to people who may not want to see it. (The Fountain, by the way, is the very same short that we see Aura agreeing to exhibit at a group art show in Tiny Furniture.) Is her exposure of her zaftig flesh intended as a feminist statement? Or is she simply saying, This is what ordinary people look like, not movie stars?
Dunham keeps growing as a filmmaker: formally, she has come a long way from the cheerfully low-tech, low-resolution images of her early work. Those shorts belong to a YouTube aesthetic that proclaims that anyone can be a filmmaker. Dunham parodies that do-it-yourself élan and distances herself from it in Tiny Furniture via the character of the narcissistic jerk, who calls himself the “Nietschian Cowboy,” “kind of a big deal on YouTube.” The narcissistic jerk makes himself at home, interestingly, by reading her mother’s paperback copy of Woody Allen’s Without Feathers in bed. Allen would seem to be both a major influence for Dunham and a cautionary contrast, the embodiment of the guarded male auteur. She has adopted his strategy of being the performer of one’s own self-mocking material; she uses the streets of New York City in a similarly emptied-out way; and the loft scenes, with their wide angles bisected by wall verticals, seem to quote Gordon Willis’s interior cinematography in Manhattan (1979). However, the difference is that Allen’s early films were built around much more exaggerated situations, and in all his starring roles, he contrived to give the wittiest lines to his own character—there was something smug about his enactment of self. In Dunham’s case, we have a comedic filmmaker who bravely admits—no, insists—in interviews that the humbling situations on-screen more or less happened to her. What we are witnessing is the Awful Truth.
The title of her first feature, Creative Nonfiction, draws deliberate attention to the narrative’s personal sources. Dunham, a creative writing major in college, is a highly literate filmmaker: She writes stunning dialogues, like the all-too-real argument between mother and daughter where Aura tries to evade blame for her misdeeds by casting a wide net of past recriminations. She scatters literary references about (the sous-chef reads Sebald and Cormac McCarthy). For all her candor, it is important to remember that Dunham has sifted and shaped this material to achieve its compelling dramatic form and psychological richness. Like all autobiographical artists, this filmmaker has decocted a persona that is drawn from her but is not her. (One suspects that, in contrast to the inertial, fetal-seeking Aura, Dunham herself is a much more dynamic, driven personality—she has managed to direct her own features while barely over twenty, after all.) She is also, though rarely given the credit, a gifted actress, able to register every shade of perplexity, pride, and pain. If she is “only” acting a convincing replica of herself, that alone is no mean feat. In Tiny Furniture, she proves herself a deft director of other actors too, both nonprofessional and professional. The cloak of the amateur no longer fits her, however much it may have helped her achieve this particular level of freedom and accomplishment. Of late, she has been preparing a television series for HBO, writing scripts, and acting in other people’s productions. Lena Dunham is shaping up to be a force to be reckoned with, and is already a supremely engaging talent.
Phillip Lopate’s most recent books are Two Marriages (fiction), Notes on Sontag (nonfiction), and At the End of the Day (poems). He directs the MFA Nonfiction Program at Columbia University.