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June 10, 2010


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The First Bill C

What I would give to hear James Mason take her down in character. She would inspire quite the monologue indeed.

I will not be seeing this twit's film.

Kiss Me, Son of God

Yeah...she seems like a nice enough girl, and everyone seems to like her movie, but those comments are pretty indefensible.

I could tell that Glenn was actually restraining himself when he wrote this post, as unkind as it is.

That said, I stand firm by the policy of separating the art from the artist, so I'll probably check out the movie. She wouldn't be the first philistine/hater/dumbass to make something of quality, would she?

Tom S

I don't really know how you can reconcile "I can only watch performances where the acting is invisible" with "I'm a total movie geek" unless all you ever watch is neo-realism, mumblecore, documentaries, and maybe the occasional Jim Jarmusch movie for when you're feeling extra high spirited.

The Jake Leg Kid

"Total movie geek" sounds like someone who watches Jennifer Aniston marathons while eating a half-pint of ice cream. And a Tribeca loft? Sheesh! Couldn't the woman at least pretend to be a hobo?


oh to be young and feted for a film about being young and not feted! the agony is blistering!


She does come off as somewhat vapid in that article, but I have to be honest and say I take the Orson Welles view of Ray (except for THEY LIVE BY NIGHT and IN A LONELY PLACE, though I don't rank that as high as others do).

Russ H

In all fairness her film is quite good, if never great: the camera is deliberate, the jokes are funny, and its pseudo-honesty, which can be just as irksome as Swanberg's dick-in-hand worst, is ultimately successful and--eek--moving.

Splashing her with destain ("Philistine!""Dumbass!") at this point in her career is unfortunate, methinks.

Kiss Me, Son of God

Well in my defense, as the one who used the words philistine and dumbass, I was using them to say that even philistine dumbasses can be talented and make good art. I plan to see her film.

Russ H

Speaking of unfortunate (and embarrassing): "disdain" is, yes, what I meant.

Stephen Bowie

Ah, c'mon, you know you'd splash her with destain if you had the chance ....

(Okay, sorry, sorry...)

No, seriously, with Ms. Dunham, "lipranzer," and that turncoat David Thomson all hating on Nick Ray now, I guess the tide has turned and I can officially bin my beloved BITTER VICTORY DVD. Thanks for keeping me in tune with the times, gang!

Kiss Me, Son of God

To clarify my earlier point with an anecdote. When I was in high school I knew this really weird, by-all-accounts stupid guy who dabbled in the arts. He and I did a play together (he had a small role), but his main thing was drawing/painting, which he did extraordinarily well. One day during rehearsal he was working on a beautiful drawing when our director came up to him and said, "That reminds me of Rembrandt." To which this dim black kid said in all sincerity, "Who dat?"

So in this case, I guess I'm saying substitute Nick Ray for Rembrandt, and "I can't deal with this" for "Who dat." I dunno, just giving her the benefit of the doubt, I may end up hating her movie.

craig keller.

Dear Glenn,

Fantastic to read you've decided to take down Lena Dunham for her comments about Nicholas Ray. Her remarks were awesomely threatening to "Nick's" place in the canon. This 24-year-old girl all but set herself up for RSS-disseminated, Google-cacheable crucifixion.

I look forward to your post eviscerating my mother in online-print. After all: the bitch dared gift me a copy of the Criterion MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION for Xmas with the provision, apparentlyz, she get to OPINE right after the big goddamn REVEAL (and this at Christmas no less!) that Sirk's picture was a horrible and, what's more, DUMB moving picture. I know, I know... — I can hardly believe I wasn't 'moved' in turn to immortalize in a blog post all my own all the outrage I never viscerally felt.

So thanks for fighting the good fight in the current instance. It's generous, gentlemanly, and valorous.

(For: Should young 20-somethings take industrious first steps into the big ring, bitches best be ready to duck the slings and arrows of Compulsory Evaluation Writ Large! — that is, slung and shot direct into a known large-readership. [Just so the offenders have the chance of being killed before they're even... dead.] I mean, I understand that the respekt and 'you-go!' plaudits to be gleaned from aforementioned readership/commenters in the aftermath of quite such a gesture can be extremely empowering, can even permit a bit of the dopamine to spike... — Surely, this alone validates the blogger's practice of postponing, or canceling, other life-action... The addictive sit-down before the computer... the half-hour compose of the Bitchy Post... Quel meme!)


Glenn Kenny

@ Craig: Last time I looked, your mother, who I daresay is a fine, fine woman in almost every respect, wasn't hawking a feature film at BAM, expecting audience validation for it, that sort of thing. Nor, for instance, was she anywhere to be seen on the thread in which Jeffrey Wells attempted to eviscerate "Imitation of Life," a fray in which I threw myself with great abandon.

Look, Dunham's free to think whatever she wants about any film she wants. That fact, nor your own seemingly reflexive need to come to the defense of any (intellectually) bourgeois 20-something who deems to pick up a movie camera, does nothing, however, to change the other fact, which is that her remarks concerning Ray are objectively, aggressively stupid, and do very little to render the prospect of watching her latest film a terribly attractive one. Should one judge a filmmaker by the contents of his or her interviews? Probably not. On the other hand, ought filmmakers not give interviews at all, or should we very religiously ignore the content of interviews with filmmakers? If the latter, weren't your efforts, say, in translating Daniel Cohn Bendit's recent chat with Jean-Luc Godard a colossal waste of time? Would a blog post from me in which I verbally deboned and fileted Richard Brody elicit so much outrage from you? Is chiding me for being ungentlemanly not inverting a sexist double standard of sorts? What is it about Lena Dunham, besides her being a woman, that ought to elicit my chivalry? (And while we're on the subject, I'll thank you not to try to put words in my mouth, or my head; I didn't call Dunham a "bitch," and I don't think that about her, and I frankly and seriously resent your implication.)

And so on, and so on. Granted, the potentially self-congratulatory aspect of "venting" in a post of this sort is readily evident...if not possibly glaring. But if I were truly and only interested in "you go!" plaudits then I'd moderate this section a lot more than I do, and ripostes such as your own wouldn't be replied to...they'd be gone. As it happens, I find the counter-arguments from Kiss Me SOG and Russ H. somewhat more compelling than your own. And thank you, Kiss Me, for noticing my restraint. I WAS exercising it, although my wife still asked me, after reading the post, "So where's this 'nicer' part you wanted me to notice?"

If Dunham's film does turn out to be any good I'll be delighted to champion it. And the stuff she said about Ray will STILL be...well, stupid.


Here we go again, I guess, but here's my question: is Dunham saying that she doesn't like the way Mason's character BEHAVES in BIGGER THAN LIFE, which I think would be akin to saying "I don't like violent movies", and would be, while perhaps a narrow point of view for a "total movie geek" to hold, a subjective, personal bias that I think more of us have (of whatever type) than don't; or is she saying that she doesn't like the acting of James Fucking Mason. And by extension, I suppose, the acting styles common to old Hollywood movies. Because if that's what she's saying, then Dunham can go straight to Hell (I do not literally mean this).

Fuzzy Bastard

It seems odd to me that people are accusing her of besmirching the name of the great Ray, when the one she's besmirching is Mason.

And it actually does get into something interesting: the enormous shift in film acting around the mid-60s (when The Method starts to completely dominate) and the degree to which contemporary audiences are alienated (in a bad way) from pre-Method acting.

I know a number of fairly intelligent, sophisticated people, who are comfortable reading lots of literature in translation, doorstop-heavy Russian novels, German philosophers, and other headscratchers, but who just can't handle the theatrical performance style of 1950s movies. It's striking, especially in, as I say, otherwise aesthetically sophisticated people.

Is it just The Method, I wonder? Or is there some other change in acting style that creates modern film acting as we know it, and makes the stand-and-deliver performances of the 50s and back seem so very alien?

Glenn Kenny

@ Fuzzy: Whoever she's besmirching, she's not doing it in a particularly intelligent or compelling way. And what actually DOES get into something interesting is what you're extrapolating from what she said. And what she actually SAID, among other things, was "I was like ugh, yawn, bring a book, I can't deal with this."

I understand that the way I interpret Mason's presence/performance in the film, that is, as a kind of built-in alienation effect (it really kicks in at the point where his character is describing his high-school football exploits to his son; it really does kind of make you think, "You have GOT to be kidding...") runs rather counter to some of the facts surrounding the film's actual making. That is, Mason was one of the picture's producers and had a deep investment in bringing the source material to the screen. Hence, he likely did not think that he was in some respects overtly wrong for the role that he played. But he is. But I think in the overall scheme of the film, that wrongness is made to work, in particular at the school board meeting and of course the climax at the staircase, where the character's otherness assumes monstrous proportions. So I think the whole thing's a little more complicated than what I presume Dunham's reaction was predicated on, e.g., here's this guy with a plummy British accent emoting in the role of a middle American husband.

Which of course leads to the question, am I putting out a genuine critical analysis here, or just rationalizing in the service of a film I love? In either case, I like to think I'm being slightly more substantive than the "ugh, yawn" that Craig wants to go to the mat over.

Fuzzy Bastard

Nu, there's worse things than rationalizing in the service of a movie that one loves---that's what rather a lot of criticism is, and that's fine. Personally I'll take criticism that makes the world seem more full of interesting things, and even makes things I"d previously dismissed seem interesting, over criticism (informed or un-) that makes the world/movies seem less worthy of attention. I would love to read someone convince me that SatC2 had depths I hadn't noticed.

I do take your point about Mason's built-in alienation effect, and yes, I too care little about how factually accurate such a point is (though I wonder if you'd let another critic get away with that). But I wonder how much of her reaction is Mason-specific and how much is a general dislike of the stand-and-deliver school of 40s/50s acting, with its heavy Odets influence. Much film from that period plays almost like Kabuki to contemporary audiences---heavily stylized and deeply foreign---and it's interesting to contemplate what changed in acting, and how that change became so universal. Honestly, it's so universal that it makes me think it can't just be the acting---there must be something in how directors present the actors that make the shift in style seem so complete.

John M

Maybe I'm not the first to say it, but I feel compelled: from what I've read online, COLD WEATHER has been so far hugely, hugely overrated and oversold. I saw it. It's not a particularly memorable movie; moreover, it's just not very good. Dull people doing less-than-dull things for the first time in their life: still dull. Quiet, cold-palette mopiness is not existentialism. As far as I can tell, Katz is basically getting major points for using a dolly and having a....wait for it....modernist original score. Mumblecore's baby steps.

Craig Keller is a good, adventurous, and very smart writer, but his almost militia-level defenses of a certain age-specific menagerie are getting predictable--this is HIS French New Wave, and dammit if we're aren't all just blind slobs. I can understand some of his jabs and hooks, but then he's off yelling that Kentucker Audley is the world's finest actor (better than Pacino even, that's right, he said it!), and I'm lost again.

The fact that he's now using Lena Dunham's age and girl-ness (!) to defend her speaks volumes.

John M

It would also be fascinating to compare the arch and unrealistic performances in a Nicholas Ray film to the arch and unrealistic performances in a Lena Dunham film. (Though Ray wasn't casting his family, so point Dunham, I guess?)


Glenn, why is Mason wrong for the role? I feel like a lot of people want BIGGER THAN LIFE to be a direct and unambiguous inversion of 1950s TV -- the copy on the back of the Criterion box even breathlessly notes that the film came out while FATHER KNOWS BEST was on the air -- but what's wrong with the film being more specific than that? A plummy British guy who emigrates to the US could very well find himself with the same interests and the same situation as Mason's character does in the film. Maybe I'm just tired of the whole "This film/book flips LEAVE IT TO BEAVER on its ear!" way of approaching this kind of material (actually, I know I'm tired of it), but I find it much more interesting to view BIGGER THAN LIFE as a story about "Ed Avery" than a story about "Middle American Husband".

John M

I'm searching but so far have't found "splash her with destain" in Finnegan's Wake. Surely it must be here somewhere. Don't let me down, JJ.

Kiss Me, Son of God

Glenn wrote: "So I think the whole thing's a little more complicated than what I presume Dunham's reaction was predicated on, e.g., here's this guy with a plummy British accent emoting in the role of a middle American husband."

Honestly, Glenn, I think you may be giving Lena D. too much credit for even formulating that particular objection--which is at least a logical one, even if it does miss the point. Seems me to me her reaction is more along the lines of the wantonly dismissive "OLD MOVIEZ ARE OLD" attitude prevalent among, well, almost everyone born during or after the Reagan era. (I'm a Reagan baby myself--yeah, I'm trying to make "Reagan baby" a thing, it's better than "Millennials" or "The Wiki Generation" or whatever the fuck--so I'm painfully aware of my contemporaries' cultural apathy toward anything that came before Star Wars.)

And yeah, I know I was sort of defending Dunham earlier, but my real takeaway from all this is how sad it is that even a cinematically-inclined member of my generation, praised to the heavens for her precocious filmmaking, can be just as knee-jerk ignorant/closed-minded/stupid about archival culture as any random asshole I went to high school with.

Dunham apparently loves Ishtar though, as seen on her (gulp) Twitter, so at least there's that. Tellin' the truth *can* be dangerous business...

David Jameson


Frequent reader - first time caller...

Just a comment or two.

I try not to be an idealist, but I often form a preconception of an artist's personality based on their work. Admittedly, I have been disappointed when I've met that person or read something they've said in an interview.

It seems to happen more often with musicians whose work I appreciate than filmmakers, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are a good example. Anyone who's seen KILL YOUR IDOLS knows Karen O. isn't the smartest branch on the tree. In fact, (in the movie at least) she's just plain dumb when it comes to talking about music. I still appreciate their music, however. It simply disappoints when you realize artists aren't what you hoped they might be, but that's on us. I attribute some of it to youth and am willing to allow for a few chances though. Mature artists should make fewer gaffes in an ideal world.

However, someone who can't speak intelligently about their own work or the work of others in their field, and whom at the same time create bad work should be spanked (male or female) and called out. The writers of Cahiers du Cinema weren't always gracious in their comments about directors, and I expect the same from contemporary critics whether in print or online. As long as there are things to back it up, all is fair.

Keep on keepin' on.

Badass Richard Conte

I'm confused. Is the objection that she didn't like a Nicholas Ray movie, or that she failed to articulate why she didn't like it in an intellectual manner?

If it's the former, you're all full of shit since anybody is allowed any opinion of anything; if it's the latter, okay -- but keep in mind, not everybody who's a filmmaker is good at verbalizing their thoughts, that's why they express with pictures instead of words.

Chris O.

In one of the documentaries accompanying a recent Nick Cave reissue, someone said you may not judge a book by its cover, but you can judge a band by their covers. Could we say the same of filmmakers? Taste matters? It's the stuff I want to read in interviews, that's for sure. I want to know what filmmakers are watching, who songwriters are listening to, what they like, don't like and why. I think it is telling... in the moment, anyway -- Dunham may very well do a 180-degree turn on the film and bemoan these comments down the line, but who knows. I am a little bummed it may turn readers off from seeing BIGGER THAN LIFE. But I was disappointed in the lack of follow-up from Kaufman (space limitations?) If she's a film geek, I want to know who are her guys/gals?

Having said that, I am reminded of an interview with David Gordon Green when he was asked about what Terence Malick was into these days (Malick had just produced Green's UNDERTOW, I believe) and he said Malick was obsessed with... ZOOLANDER.

Also, I wouldn't expect Hank Williams, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, to wax philisophically, articulately or intelligently on, say, Jimmie Rodgers. Particularly, at 24. But, you know, exceptions and rules and all that.

I like this post and discussion. Thanks.

John M

"...not everybody who's a filmmaker is good at verbalizing their thoughts, that's why they express with pictures instead of words..."

The Filmmakers-Look-Best-In-Diapers Defense.

Badass Richard Conte

"The Filmmakers-Look-Best-In-Diapers Defense."


Fuzzy Bastard

David J is making an excellent point---filmmakers, like other artists, are rarely very articulate about their own tastes (there's exceptions, like Scorsese, but they're very much exceptions). In fact, artists usually have more blinkered taste than fans or critics. Critics are expected to have a broad range of sympathy for different styles as a professional obligation. Cinephiles develop a broad range of interests in their endless quest for new pleasures.

But artists take what they need and leave the rest. There's few artists who don't have plenty of weird blind spots or seemingly inexplicable hostilities. The most famous is probably Nabokov's weirdly philistine dismissal of Dostoyevsky (perhaps because their goals were so similar and their methods so different). And of course, Orson Welles had a very personal list of loved & hated directors, which I wouldn't expect any cinephile to share. Paul Thomas Anderson loved HAPPY GILMORE. The list goes on and on.

I haven't seen Dunham's film either, and the trailer doesn't turn me on that much---maybe it's good, maybe it's bad. But I can guarantee that her opinion of James Mason has nothing to do with that.


"Tiny Furniture" is actually very well-written and well-directed, and is very funny, expensive Tribeca loft or not. I have a feeling that you would not get so wound-up over David Lynch's comparable cinema blindspots. And your evasion of Katz's agreement with Dunham is pretty childish (you being Katz's friend and all).

So, uh, chill out! Or at least watch her movie before tearing her a second asshole.

Badass Richard Conte

Fuzzy: Exactly.

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