The Dormant Potential of Lena Dunham(?)

© 2010 IFC Films

© 2010 IFC Films

I missed Tiny Furniture during its brief run at my local art house theater, but I was intrigued by the advance trailers. When I finally caught it on Netflix (what a truly dreadful way to define one’s initial experience with a film), I felt simultaneously disappointed and exhilarated; to this day, I think both terms remain applicable when defining my feelings as regards Lena Dunham’s rising career.

For starters, I should explain the exhilarated half of my conundrum. As a twenty-six year old gay man, I cannot help but empathize with Dunham’s conflicted portrayals of aggravated modern existence; especially in Tiny Furniture, where she taps directly into this sense of built-in apathy that so thoroughly pervades her (and my) generation. The dilemma of severe desperation perceived as laziness—a condition whose authenticity I can readily vouch for—has rarely been captured so astutely. The fact that she is quick to confess the shred of truth inherent to this perceived laziness makes her portrayals all the more endearing, at first glance.

My disappointment with Dunham arises from a combination of things: her derivative reference to creative influences (especially Woody Allen), her sometimes overly-abrasive characterization—which can be downright hateful on occasion—and her inclination towards framing problems so as to negate any possible solution. This last item is the most discouraging, and it carries a definitive historical precedence in American film, perhaps warranting a brief overview for the purpose of better understanding the topic at hand.

During the early seventies, a phenomenon occurred in American film, which some characterized as the “Easy Rider syndrome.” It entailed an almost misanthropic obsession with the futility of good intentions—stemming in large part from the disappointment of the failed hippie movement, the multiple political assassinations, and the ongoing war in Vietnam. It did not take long for film studios to realize the profit potential of capitalizing on this prevailing hopelessness, and beginning with Easy Rider, many a downbeat premise was greenlit and financed for major distribution. Some filmmakers—like Sidney Lumet, Bob Rafelson, and Robert Altman—seized the opportunity to make lasting works of art on a large scale that would not have been possible if despair weren’t so culturally en vogue; the strength of films such as Network, The King of Marvin Gardens, and Nashville arises not so much from the time of their making as from the timelessness of their vision and insight. Many films of this subgenre, however (which might as well have been dubbed “futility chic”), were just self-indulgent portraits of a world devoid of hope, humanity, or any saving grace.

Needless to say, it did not take long for the popularity of this trend to wane; after all, an audience can only be told that life is shit so many times before it either buys the message and gives in to suicide, or grows weary of the helpless sermonizing and sets out in search of some light at the end of the tunnel (Star Wars?). The unfortunate side of this return to optimism was the disappearance of the likes of Lumet and Altman from the mainstream. The pendulum swung so heavily in the direction of vacuous entertainment that many filmgoers surrendered the prospect of having to think altogether; of course, it didn’t help that the new batch of film school “auteurs” was so eclectic in intent as to lack any cohesive drive: Bogdanovich wanted to make movies that belonged to a previous place and time (namely, America in the fifties), Scorsese was violently trying to bring the sensibilities of early American filmmaking up-to-date, while Spielberg and Lucas just wanted to entertain at (quite literally) all costs. It should come as no surprise which direction audiences were most driven towards.

Presently, there are more options available for independent artists to create and distribute than there have ever been before; consequentially, there is also an inundation of artists within most every medium that—coupled with the overwhelming resources of the Internet—is making it increasingly difficult for individual voices to stand out and be heard. (By comparison, the Bogdanovich-Scorsese-Spielberg splinter effect was a highly focused and calculated division of interests). With this in mind, I could never have foreseen the magnitude of Lena Dunham’s success, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t somewhat delighted initially—after all, this is a natural human response to seeing a “dark horse” climb ahead of the pack. But this initial delight only made my subsequent disappointment more profound.

As I watched the first season of Girls on a weekly basis, I felt much as I did watching Tiny Furniture for the first time: amused, startled, and somewhat exhilarated. There is an undeniable spark to much of Dunham’s writing, and at their best, episodes of the show play like well-tailored short stories. Tiny details emerge from the whole to form an unexpected outline, and the characters all seem blessed with a livelihood they are frequently stripped of in mainstream television. It also didn’t hurt that Dunham and her casting directors had assembled one of the most riveting and dynamic groups of young acting talent in recent memory—in particular, Adam Driver, Alex Karpovsky, Jemima Kirke, and Zosia Mamet. All the elements combined to make for a rare combination of sitcom-structured humor and self-critical social commentary. Even with the benefit of syndicated viewing (on demand or on DVD), it is difficult to pinpoint where it all started to go sour; the more I think on it, I get the impression there was a fly in the ointment all along.

A large part of my excitement behind the show’s first season stemmed from the fact that such a young writer/producer had been granted such enormous creative privilege, both from a financial standpoint and a platform vantage. One gathered the impression upon viewing Tiny Furniture that Dunham was still unsure as to what it was exactly she wanted to say but, like Fellini’s doppelgänger in 8 1/2, she was going to say it anyway. Four years have gone by since the debut of that first “major” feature, and I’m quite convinced that Dunham is still unsure as to what it is she’s trying to say. The shark-jumping moment (for me) occurred somewhere during this season’s subplot about the “e-book” her character is attempting to publish (though I’ll readily admit that the appearance of Gaby Hoffman as Adam Driver’s deranged sister hasn’t helped in restoring my estimation of the series, either).

A running joke of the series has been Hannah Horvath’s obliviousness to the ramifications of her privileged upbringing; though Dunham insists she is playing a character, the similarities with her own personal background are undeniable and, to an extent, admirable. After all, honesty is one of the most neglected traits in contemporary teleplays, and the brutality of Dunham’s analysis is oddly reassuring at times. “If many young folks are truly this devoid of personal values and good judgment, at least they are aware of it”—this is the message one might have taken away from the series. But as Ruth Gordon said to Bud Cort when he shared his love of a local junkyard with her in Harold and Maude, “is it enough?” And this is my question to the show’s ardent admirers: Is it enough to just admit one’s lack of sensibility, episode after episode? Is it enough to say, “yes, young people are this deplorable—but look at the world they live in: how can they be otherwise?” Isn’t this just an extension of the Easy Rider syndrome?

I am taking the time to pose these questions in writing because I still believe Dunham to be a very talented and creative individual, and I find it inspiring that she has obtained (and maintained) such high visibility in a culture riddled with illiteracy and rampant diagnoses of ADD. There is an almost literary quality to much of Dunham’s television work, and it is encouraging to see that young people are willing and able to respond to it; this, in and of itself, throws a little light upon the lie of the show’s increasing cynicism. Although I was willing to overlook Dunham’s lack of focus at the start of the series, figuring she would find her way through the process of writing these episodes and ultimately find the words to express her obscured intentions, it’s all become more than a trifle tiring. Perhaps the truth of the matter is that Dunham is not merely unaware of what she’s trying to say; perhaps she’s not trying to say anything at all, in which case my disappointment is doubled. In a day and age where artists have to struggle against every sort of media configuration (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and other “likes”-driven outlets—all ruled by a mob mentality) to maintain their purity of voice and complexity of reasoning, it would now appear as though she climbed to the top of the media mountain without any camping gear.

It seems to me as though Dunham has at least two options at her disposal for recapturing the original appeal of Girls: she could attempt focusing more on the social and/or environmental circumstances that are shaping her characters’ behavior (Hannah in particular), or she could attempt to offer some solutions to their increasing nihilism. Although Adam is still the moral compass of the series—a fact which was once touchingly ironic, but is now nothing short of depressing—it isn’t helping that we see less and less of him. Even Ray and Jessa, the voices of reason complementing Adam’s sense of right and wrong, have become increasingly marginal and, like the other members of the core cast, much too confused. One gets the unfortunate impression that Dunham is striving for some trendily despairing form of artistic integrity here (much like those films of the early seventies), and if this is the case, the joke is on her: she appeared more in control, and demonstrated far greater clarity of artistic vision when she was just writing out of love for the characters.

This is my ultimate disappointment with Dunham’s award-winning series, really: it is starting to lose its natural sense of social consciousness. I firmly believe in the necessity of raising awareness for the problems faced by the youth of today, and Girls has succeeded in doing this at times. For example, many folks are unaware of the strain placed by the baby boomer generation’s postponed retirement on the employment opportunities of young people; many young folks are having to lean on their family resources, “sponging” off of their parents to make ends meet and struggling to maintain a shred of optimism in their own future career opportunities. Some become so numb to their own perceived ineptitude that they never really grow out of the cycle of filial dependency—a problem that, as shown with Hannah in the first episode of the series, can be compounded by their parents’ reticence to cut the financial umbilical cord. In Tiny Furniture, the issue of an inadequate minimum wage was aptly satirized by a single close-up of Dunham’s first paycheck from her job as a restaurant hostess: we know from the financial logistics of New York City living that she would practically have to work an 80-hour week to make this wage meet the cost of living. In short, the problems Dunham examined early on in the show were problems that most of her audience could relate to directly; those who couldn’t, could at least appreciate their validity and significance.

In the latest season of Girls, there is not a trace of down-to-earth sensibility to be found. It truly seems as though the financial success of the series has gone to Dunham’s head: it can most clearly be seen in Hannah’s sociopathic insistence on having her e-book published, (deliberately) refusing to pause for an emotional breath when her agent is unexpectedly found dead. This particular development reads more like the rotten fruit of an over-indulged celebrity than the keen observation of a Midwestern twenty-something. I am not implying that she should be prohibited from showing despicable behavior among her characters (hasn’t she been doing that all along?), but the basic rules of storytelling dictate a certain minimum of respect for one’s characters and audience—and both are sorely missing as of now. The depth of Hannah’s misanthropic leanings is possibly starting to reveal more about Dunham’s displeasure with herself than it is about her character’s pathology, and I don’t think anyone wants to sit through this much self-disparaging analysis (no matter how big a fan of Woody Allen one might be). The show has effectively become an ugly caricature of its former self.

In closing, I would like to reference something I once read in a collection of Pauline Kael’s writings—something which has popped into my head on numerous occasions while watching the past few episodes of Girls: “Allowing for exceptions, there is still one basic difference between the traditional arts and the mass-media arts: in the traditional arts, the artist grows; in a mass medium, the artist decays profitably.” I am still holding out for the possibility of Lena Dunham proving herself a rare exception to this rule, but she certainly has her work cut out for her now.

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