"Show business kids making movies of themselves/you know they don't give a fuck about anybody else"—Steely Dan, "Show Biz Kids," 1973
"Not an untalented man, by the way."—Christopher Lee, referring to director Jess Franco, interview with the author, 1993
"Art people are assholes."—Charlotte, played by Jemima Kirk, in Tiny Furniture, written and directed by Lena Dunham, 2010
If I at first choose to describe Lena Dunham as "not untalented" rather than "promising," it's because of my vestigial irritation with her debut feature, Tiny Furniture, a largely adroit film concerning largely insufferable people. I've got nothing against films about insufferable people, but the extent to which I engage with them more often than not is determined by the filmmaker's perspective on/distance from these characters, and while much commentary has been expended on the blurry lines Dunham draws between life and art here, those don't bother me as much as an incoherence of tone that a more seasoned, or if I wanna be stern, better artist could have avoided even while using the exact same method as Dunham. That method, in case you're not aware, includes the 22-or-so year-old writer/director Dunham casting herself in the film's lead role, that of Aura, a 22-year-old recent college graduate who, upon returning to the domestic nest, just doesn't know what to do with herself. It also includes Dunham casting her mother, artist Laurie Simmons in the role of Aura's mother, Siri, and her younger sister, Grace Dunham, in the role of Aura's high-school sister Nadine, and shooting much of Tiny Furniture in the rather enviable lower Manhattan apartment/photo studio in which the three of them, from what I understand, still reside (a portion of said apartment is seen in the still at the top of this post). You probably don't need me to point out that if this is the sort of thing that makes you throw up your hands and say "Jesus H. Christ, not another one of these...", then Tiny Furniture is likely not a film for you.
And yet... Only, wait...there's a little more equivocating before I can get to the "and yet" part. In being a certain age (in my own case, just a hiar over fifty) and dealing with material by and ostensibly for people in their uncertain twenties, one must be ever-wary of falling into the "they are scum" trap that ensnared Somerset Maugham when he assessed a seminal work by and about a then-younger generation, Kingsley Amis' Lucky Jim. One must be also mindful that there's really not much new about the type that Dunham herself represents, and she depicts in Tiny Furniture. One merely has to remember. I myself used to meet aimless overprivileged Manhattan semi-drips of this ilk all the time at the Mudd Club back in the early '80s. I think I myself might have slept with one or two of them, even. Thing was, back in the early '80s, these types weren't so much into making movies or any other kind of art, for the most part; they were mostly patrons-in-training, a.k.a. hangers-on. (For an interesting window into the kind of interactions that took place between such types and actual artists, most of whom tended to be musicians, see the sections of Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain's Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk pertaining to Duncan Hannah and Tom Verlaine.)
It is also true, however, that Tiny Furniture is not Lucky Jim. That book's title character may be Amis' representative, and certainly carries a number of what those familiar with Amis' biography will recognize as his traits, but Amis was able to create a sufficient amount of distance between himself and Jim Dixon to create a dispassionate portrait that the reader can approach with no compunction. Dunham's depiction of Aura has an insufficient amount of distance, and this is detectable, I think, even if you know nothing about Dunham or the circumstances under which she made the movie. This creates a situation in which one watches the movie not so much engaging with the characters and what they're going through, but constantly trying to second-guess the movie's own attitude towards its characters. Aura is such a weirdly lumpy sad-sack at the film's opening that one tends to take pleasure in her humiliations; for a while I was particularly delighted by the acerbic putdowns delivered to Aura by the precocious younger sister Nadine; this movie ought to be about her, I remember thinking. One also finds one rolling one's eyes at Aura's taste in men, if you can call them that (if nothing else, the film provided me with an insight as to why Dunham, in real-life interviews, tends to refer to the individuals she dates as "boys"); she's rather inexplicably drawn to a smarmy creep named Jed (Alex Karpovsky, who I hear through the grapevine is a bit of a micro-indie heartthrob, yeesh) who makes videos of himself philosophizing on a rocking horse under the rubric "The Nietschean Cowboy," and also to a sleazy self-described "chef" (David Call) who will "date" Aura if Aura can score some pills from the eclectic medicine cabinet of her glam unsupervised artist's-daughter friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirk). One is rather used to men being awful in Manhattan-set films concerning the romantic travails of young women, but man, if these two guys are really representative of the dating pool these days, ladies, you have my utmost sympathy. But within the context of the film, sympathy is not likely to emerge; one is rather more likely to ask what the hell is Aura's glitch that she's drawn to such quasi-monsters. There's a difference between observing abhorrent individuals via a prism of artful contrivance—as in, say, Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaum's—and feeling as if you're actually trapped in a room with those people. That Tiny Furniture feels too often like the latter and not often enough like the former is its biggest problem. (And incidentally, watching Karpovsky spin out Jed's pompous schtick, I was increasingly reminded of another predatory asshole character I'd seen in a film recently...who was that guy? And then when Jed told Aura he was staying in "Hell...perhaps you've heard of it?" it hit me: of course, The Erotic Connoisseur in Steven Soderbergh's The Girlfriend Experience, who as it happens asks of Sasha Grey's Chelsea: "Dubai...maybe you've heard of it?" I look forward to having a nice long talk with Mr. Karpovsky some time.)
A good deal of the film's content that's supposed to be commendably frank is merely vaguely unsettling, as in the "art" video or YouTube piece—it's so hard to tell the difference these days—of a bikini-clad Aura not-quite cavorting by a fountain—that generates a lot of "user comments" about how unattractive and dumpy Aura is. Of which Charlotte says "you can't possibly take that seriously." Right. (For myself, I was reminded of Robert Christgau's rejoinder to the complaint of Janis Ian in her hit song "At Seventeen," about being picked last in gym class by those "choosing sides for basketball:" "Face it, Ms. Ian—you're short." The critic Amy Taubin, who's a longtime habitué of the New York art world that Dunham's film unfolds on the periphery of, dug further into certain of the film's tendencies to articulate her suspicions about it: "[...] stickier still, [Dunham] courts our rejection by walking around the house in nothing more than a T-shirt, flaunting her ass and thighs for anyone who’s looking—and we can’t help but look—as if daring us to pass judgment on her body. It’s a game I dislike being roped into, just as I dislike being roped into speculating about whether Simmons knew she was playing an art-world Mommie Dearest, and whether she worried that her daughter really thought she was a monster, or whether the audience would think that, and was this movie meant to be a satire or a psychodrama." Game or no game aside, Taubin's concerns also tie in to the fact that Dunham herself gives arguably the weakest performance in a picture that's filled with what are undeniably, erm, vivid characterizations. And this tends to undercut her sometimes excellent dialogue. At one point Aura explains to a nosy neighbor that her college boyfriend dumped her to hie to the Burning Man festival: "Something about having to build a shrine to his ancestors out of an ancient tree." That's a great absurdist line, real Woody Allen stuff (Allen's an acknowledged influence here, as Jed is often seen reading the former's collection Without Feathers, and not laughing) but Dunham's reading of the line really undersells it. Of course it could just be that she distrusts the notion of actually going for a big laugh line. But why would she?
And yet: I think Taubin's being a bit stingy, because there are scene in which Tiny Furniture comes close to succeeding as both satire and psychodrama. A scene in which Aura and Charlotte childishly usurp a loft party Nadine throws for a raftful of her younger friends is at first funny, then painful, then painfully funny; it's almost as good as a similar generational-clash party scene in Noah Baumbach's Greenberg. And the picture has a fleet, fluent visual style; one is tempted to ascribe this quality to the protean young cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes (who shot the thing in digital video with a Canon7D camera, a rig that would seem to have very fine optics indeed) and editor Lance Edmands; but of course part of being a good filmmaker, and particularly a good indie filmmaker, is recognizing talented people and getting them to work with you, so Dunham ought not be slighted in this respect. As I mentioned before, the writing is quite good; I don't know to what extent the dialogue was improvised, but the slight story has a pretty tight structure and Dunham seems to have a knack for purposefully deploying conventional devices of dramaturgy; there's a little sub-theme here involving Aura discovering and reading her mother's journal from when the mother was Aura's age that Dunham makes just enough of; it works. And even at its most queasy-making, Tiny Furniture never registers as genuinely hateful in the way that gets cranks such as myself so worked up about when we're faced with what we take as blinkered hipster solipsism; rather, I sensed that Dunham herself is too young and too confused to be able to distinguish between showing compassion for her characters and slathering her own self with masochistic love. Tiny Furniture finally shows sufficient promise to make me hope she grows out of that.
On a side note: I saw this film with an L.A.-based pal who was interested in checking it out because, as he put it, "We don't have mumblecore in Hollywood." Looking at the running time in the press notes and seeing it was 98 minutes, I joked, "I bet about eight of those minutes will be taken up with the 'Special Thanks' in the end credits." It wasn't eight minutes, but it's not as if I didn't have a point. (And what's with that Early McSweeney's credit design, anyway?) Oh, the predictability.