Sunday, May 27, 2012

#597: Tiny Furniture

(Lena Dunham, 2010)

OK, I'm going to start here: Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture is a refreshing and honest film that unquestionably taps into the contemporary art and cultural zeitgeist and is a superb representation of modern American independent filmmaking. It unquestionably deserves its place in the Criterion Collection, and people who single it out as a uniquely problematic inclusion are doing so out of animosity towards a filmmaker who is a young woman.

I'm making all kinds of big sweeping statements, so let's unpack this a little. Lena Dunham's Tiny Furniture was made in 2009 for $45,000 and starred not only Dunham, but her sister, mother, and childhood home. It caused a big enough firestorm at SXSW in 2010 to be bought by IFC - which of course put it on the shortlist for Criterion inclusion - and to provide its creator with the chance to develop her HBO show Girls. The film was subsequently released in theaters to mostly positive reviews (though there were a few big detractors). When it was leaked last year that Criterion would indeed be picking up the film for its main line, there was a huge uproar within both the general film nerd and specific Criterion fan communities. The basic complaints (beyond just "I hated this movie," which is fair enough) generally fell into three categories:

1. This is going to irreparably damage the Criterion brand.
2. Lena Dunham is an obnoxious person who had everything handed to her and some friend of her parents is secretly delivering her to stardom and artistic legitimacy.
3. Who cares about this rich white girl from Manhattan and her hipster problems?
4. This movie is totally derivative and poorly made - there are 1000 movies by obscure Foreign filmmakers that Criterion should be focusing on instead of this garbage.

There's a lot of bullshit here, so I'll just systematically demolish these.

1. This is going to irreparably damage the Criterion brand.

This is obviously the most absurd of the four statements. First of all, since the film has now been in stores for three months, I can officially confirm that the Criterion website is still live. Second, let's run down a few titles under the Criterion banner: ArmageddonChasing AmySweetieThe Life AquaticThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Border Radio. Regardless of how you feel about any or all of these, they are all movies that have been cited as drags on the Criterion Collection, and have been largely decried by a large number of film fans. There are plenty of other films in the Collection that could be considered equally controversial (OK, maybe not as controversial as Armageddon, but you get the picture). Dunham's promise as a filmmaker could be a losing gamble for Criterion - but no matter, they've lost that gamble before with George Washington. Even the IFC collaboration that has yielded so many spectacular Criterion titles has certainly produced work just as inconsequential if not more so - think The Secret of the Grain, A Christmas Tale, or the fascinating but deeply flawed Gomorrah. Let's move on.

2. Lena Dunham is an obnoxious person who had everything handed to her and some friend of her parents is secretly delivering her to stardom and artistic legitimacy.

This is a common argument on the internet, but it's only employed selectively. I'll refrain from listing the hundreds of people who have gained fame and success in the entertainment industry simply because of their family connections, but for some reason we only hear about these connections when people are decrying someone's work (I am certainly guilty of this with regards to someone like Sofia Coppola, who I find to be supremely untalented). I'll explain later why I think Dunham's obnoxiousness is actually one of her biggest assets, but it should be made clear that obnoxiousness is generally a subjective claim. Finally, do we really have to take seriously the idea that Criterion has somehow given in to some mass conspiracy among the New York elites to anoint Dunham a legitimate filmmaker? Regardless of how you feel about Girls, the show's ability to enter the cultural discussion and generate disparate perceptions of its significance and quality should indicate that she is able to hold her own. There are plenty of well-connected "artists" languishing in insignificance.

3. Who cares about this rich white girl from Manhattan and her hipster problems?

This really drives me crazy. Is every movie ever made supposed to be focused on poor people in some far-flung corner of the world? Are we expected to ignore the existential crises in our own lives simply because we know other people have it worse? Is "there are starving kids in Africa" really meant to be a stand-in for film criticism? I don't believe in the "write what you know" ethos 100%, but I do think that someone who chooses to reflect their own life on screen should not be dismissed simply because they are privileged, particularly when, like Dunham, they are so intently focused on avoiding any skewed depictions of their lives that would seek to glamorize or idealize themselves. This is extremely hard to do in film, just by nature of producing a conventional narrative work with a central protagonist, and should not be overlooked as an enormous accomplishment in Tiny Furniture. The fact that the film happens to be about a woman with a very specific, rich background (both in terms of financial situation and cultural currency) is not relevant - dismissing a film simply for being too familiar or devoid of true suffering rings to me just as false as dismissing a film for being too foreign or too depressing in its authenticity. I'd also like to point out that the greatest movie ever made is about a rich guy who just wants to be a kid again and play in the snow.

Finally, I'm not really sure what qualifies Dunham as a hipster. That her parents are artists? That she is from New York? Neither of these characteristics are true of most hipsters who live in New York. Maybe it's that her film premiered at SXSW, or that she gained notoriety through YouTube and continues to use new media and contemporary cultural signifiers in her work? This again rings false to me - certainly artists should not be faulted for existing within and even reflecting their own realities. Perhaps the oddest thing to me about identifying Dunham as a hipster is how much this now-pejorative term has come to be intertwined with irony - yet Tiny Furniture is almost certainly one of the most genuine depictions of youth seen in the last decade. Comparing the film to something like Garden State - which was ostensibly authentic but was steeped in quirky winks to the audience and saturated with cultural cash-ins in the form of over-utilized indie-tastic music and an unearned happy ending that even the characters seemed to be surprised they could get away with - makes this new earnestness feel decidedly anti-hipster (note: this is admittedly certainly changing - fast). This is not done in an intentional way, even, but instead feels like a byproduct of the true goal of Dunham's work, which is to be totally honest with herself and her audience. Of course, it's every person's right to decide what problems are legitimate and what movies they want to watch based on the legitimacy of the conflict within the film. But to dismiss out of hand a specific point of view simply because its creator hasn't earned the cultural caché of living the struggle feels condescending not just to privileged people who go through real difficulties but to those artists who actually do struggle by reducing their hardships to an entry pass into legitimacy.

4. This movie is totally derivative and poorly made - there are 1000 movies by obscure Foreign filmmakers that Criterion should be focusing on instead of this garbage.

The first half of this statement is the hardest argument to dismiss since it is mostly subjective. So I'll address the second half first. Let's look at the first 25 movies in the Collection. This list includes movies like This is Spinal TapThe Silence of the Lambs, and Robocop, three movies that would certainly have been (and eventually were) treated to deluxe editions by their respective studios. Yet even at that early stage Criterion was selecting mainstream films by well-known directors "at the expense" of movies like The Apu Trilogy or films by any lesser-known, much-lauded filmmaker. My point is that - even if it's what most of us value most about the brand - Criterion is not and has never been solely a vehicle for obscure and/or unavailable titles. In fact, my guess is that if it wasn't for the difficult process of attaining the rights to each movie we would see a lot more mainstream and American films in the collection - one need only look to the list of laserdisc releases to confirm this. So Tiny Furniture did not take the place of some other film that would have your film geek pants all messy, and it's not in the Collection to earn Criterion a little extra cash. (Although who can fault them for supporting releases like their Imamura boxset with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?) It is because - like it or not - the powers that be at Criterion thought the film was relevant enough to be included in the conversation about what film means, both in general and in 2012.

I've been spending a lot of time on why arguments against including the film seem misguided, but what are the reasons in favor of including the film? First of all, I want to make clear that I don't think Tiny Furniture is a "Great" film, and offhand I can think of five IFC/Criterion releases that are vastly superior to it: Fish TankCarlosSummer HoursRevanche, and Certified Copy. However, I do think the film is funny, heartfelt, and extremely relatable. These are subjective viewpoints, and I don't think enjoying a movie alone should qualify it for inclusion. I also think it's beautifully shot, particularly on such a small budget, but there are countless terrible, beautiful movies, so again I would hesitate to select it just on that basis.

I think what makes Tiny Furniture so valuable from a film history perspective is its unique ability to zero in via both form and content on what constitutes an artistic life in the modern world. As someone who gained a small, tiny amount of success by blogging, I know what the weird relationship is that develops between the reader and the blogger, how strange it is to navigate between the internet and reality, and how different success is within the context of a website or viral video. What I think Dunham is able to accomplish particularly well in the film is lowering her character to the viewers' level, mimicking the internet's instant feedback, person-to-person dynamic within the context of a medium which has consistently avoided this relationship - first with the glamorous, unattainable lives of flashy stars, then with scaled-up epics that went literally bigger than life and have particularly in the CGI age trended heavily toward the fantastic. Tiny Furniture's bare honesty - not just borne out in its creator's complete willingness to be seen as the superficially anti-feminine female in terms of body image and psychological approach to sexuality, but in the impressive ability to craft an authentic (if carefully crafted) depiction of her own life - leaves the viewer feeling like they know the core of this person. The fact that her character can do stupid things or act selfishly or immaturely and present herself in a narcissistic, obnoxious way strengthens the perceptions of relatability by heightening the disconnect between Dunham's protagonist and the protagonists of the vast majority of movies. Her authenticity shines through as character flaws. Even if the viewer doesn't recognize themselves in what they see, they feel comfortable building up or tearing down this image that Dunham has constructed of herself.

With this accomplishment so central to the success and legitimacy of Criterion's selection, the vitriol and vaguely sexist comments that the release elicited were actually a confirmation of this legitimacy. If Dunham's work felt more rarefied (as a film like Fish Tank seems), the unruly commenting masses might not have felt as comfortable rejecting it so viciously. Part of what Tiny Furniture achieves - if again unintentionally - is a sort of DIY manifesto: by positioning her heroine as an honest and almost hideously relatable portrayal of herself, the viewer can't help but wonder why they haven't made their own movie starring them. The fact that Dunham's onscreen persona is so antithetical to the conventional persona of a filmmaker enhances this perception; after all, if a young, insecure, self-absorbed, immature girl can make a movie, certainly I can, too!

Of course, I've put off the elephant in the room long enough, which is that word: girl.  It's used a lot with Dunham, and sexism undoubtedly plays a significant role in the backlash against Tiny Furniture. To be clear: not liking Tiny Furniture - a specific and personal movie with a very unique tone - does not make you sexist. In fact, I would imagine most people who watch Tiny Furniture won't like it. But I would have a hard time believing that the same type of film made by a man (or, to a smaller degree, an older woman) would engender such antagonism. It doesn't take a Google expert to find countless comments throughout the online discussions of the film (and of Dunham in general) that invoke her appearance/age, while many more comments circle around the issue of femininity, often dismissing the film's subject matter and relevance to cinema. Tiny Furniture is a movie about women - even if it's about this one woman - and movies about women are much easier to reject in a male-dominated medium. But even more, the fact that Dunham is confident enough to present herself in such a naked manner - especially in areas which are typically identified as problematic for women - opens her up to this kind of gender-based criticism. Dunham is often compared to Woody Allen (which seems a bit premature even to me), but even Allen's persona was afforded some degree of glamour by getting all the good lines (and the beautiful girls). You might dislike all of of Allen's whining, but at least he's funny! Dunham, on the other hand, refuses to stress her character's redeeming qualities, instead asking you to relate to the darker side of her personality. This is extremely intentional, and it is not how women are supposed to behave, particularly in Hollywood, where a nudge nudge, wink wink ugly performance by a leading actress can give her an Oscar for her bravery.

I certainly understand the legitimate complaints about Tiny Furniture. The film is undeniably self-centered - though, again, this is more a style than a complaint since there have been countless great works of art that were entirely narcissistic. Though I found Dunham's protagonist relatable in a negative sort of way, I could see how someone would find her complaining and selfishness insufferable - but is this any different than the characters on Seinfeld? From a plot perspective, Dunham breaks virtually no new ground here - it really is a rather bland presentation of the quarter-life crisis that has been beaten into the collective psyche over the past ten years, with only the fact that it is from a female perspective lending any real novelty. But anyone who has spent time in New York (and I suspect most people who haven't) will recognize the bulk of these characters from their lives, and even the smallest role is fleshed out and given a unique voice - perhaps Dunham's greatest natural technical skill is her ear for dialog.

I've probably said too much here, but I don't feel like I've come across a full defense of the film's inclusion in the Collection, and I thought it deserved it. Tiny Furniture isn't going to become legendary or make anyone's Sight and Sound ten best list, but I wouldn't be surprised if we look back at this moment in time as a turning point in both filmmaking from a micro-budget - and consequently deeply, almost terrifyingly, personal - perspective and a shift in the collective tone from one of removed irony to one of naked and genuine emotion. Tiny Furniture, like its title, is a small and somewhat silly representation of that larger picture, a little movie that points to a much bigger, subterranean cultural shift.

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