It has been a long time since I've posted here, and I've decided to use it in a slightly different way for a while. I spend a lot of time writing reviews for publications. Although I understand The Believer's position on "snark" (there are so few book reviews, why waste time on negative press?) I do feel that it's important, when assigned something to review, to be honest with the reader. Often this means being critical. Now as someone who is also trying to produce art, knowing how hard it is to find the discipline to sit down each day and create, with no assurance of how it's going to turn out, I sometimes feel guilty calling attention to the faults in someone else's work. (And I've noticed that I am harsher when the faults are ones I share in my own work). However, I feel that I owe it to the person deciding whether or not to go out and buy that book, or see that movie (or eat that meal, from the days when I did food writing) to say if I don't think that the thing measures up. Also, it's in my nature. If I dislike something, I have a hard time holding back. And I'm pretty picky. When people ask me to share the titles of great books I've read recently, it's sometimes hard to come up with anything. But I far prefer to write positive reviews than negative ones. I love it when a work of art inspires me so much that I need other people to hurry up and experience it too, so that we can talk about it together, gush together, figure out what made it new and meaningful and rare. So I'm going to use this space to gush a little, to exercise my critical muscle in an uncritical way.
Yesterday I watched Tiny Furniture, and I had to keep stopping and rewatching scenes because I thought that they were so funny and smart, and now I can't stop thinking about it.
I had heard of the movie before this, first from my mother, who walked out of the theater. At the time, she was dating a man who had PTSD from the Vietnam war. Because of his PTSD, she told me, he couldn't stand to see movies with a lot of violence or conflict. This, she said, was why they'd walked out of "Tiny Furniture." This seemed odd to me, having read a bit about the movie, created by and starring a young woman (Lena Dunham) who graduates from Oberlin and returns to live with her mother and sister in New York, struggling to figure out what to do with her life next. It hardly sounded like PTSD-triggering material. Now that I've seen it, I can't stop thinking about what might have provoked this reaction, to such an extent that they had to leave the movie.
I think that this movie is more "real" than anything else I've seen in a long time, and this might be why the conflict in it felt almost unbearable to him.
One of the first things that I noticed, as the movie started, was that there is a lot of footage of Aura, her mother and sister (the actresses are actually her mother and sister) walking around their loft in their shirts and underpants. Some of it is shot from below. It's not the most flattering angle for anyone. There was something so real about this "costume" choice, the way it conveys the intimacy and lack of self-consciousness of these three women living alone together, that it made me realize how unreal the staging of "reality" TV is by contrast. This is a first-person movie and a "semi-autobiographical" one (maybe more than just semi) and it's to Dunham's credit that she isn't trying to flatter herself. But nor is she trying to depict herself as grotesque. Physically, she is bigger than most movie stars, but the movie isn't about "being a chubby girl," although I do think it is at least in part about interfacing with the world when you're not conventionally beautiful. There is a great scene in which her friend from high school, who is conventionally beautiful, reads the comments on a video that Aura posted on YouTube, which mock her or refer to her as a whale. The film doesn't dwell on this--Aura doesn't even say anything in response--but I did. I thought it was brave of Dunham to let this criticism of her body be part of the story she was telling, but only a small part. It's also about the difficulty of separating from your family at an age when it's expected, the pressure to create art and make a mark in a world that's lousy with marks, the desire to be sought after, to connect, to find that same intimacy from people not in your family, and what happens when you bare yourself to them. Dunham is very funny, and in a way this is a comedy, but unlike most comedies (movies at least) it doesn't follow any recognizable formula or offer a happy ending. When these family members fight, they say brutally honest, even cruel things to each other, but they usually apologize and make up shortly thereafter, with a weariness suggesting that they have no choice, really, because they love each other and they're stuck with each other. Both daughters still want to sleep with their mother, competing for the spot in her bed. I remember hearing the interview with Terri Gross on Fresh Air, how she couldn't believe that any girl this age would want such a thing, and Lena Dunham admitted that this (like much of the film) is based on reality. There is something weird about this detail, but as a parent who guiltily loves sleeping with my almost five year-old son, it doesn't ring false to me. It seems like another moment--like the women walking around in their unflattering thermal undershirts and underpants and control-top stockings--in which Dunham is giving us a peek behind the door of how people really live, a glimpse of the secrets of intimate family life, as opposed to staging a censored version of it. After watching the movie, I read some reviews in which Dunham is faulted for making a movie about people of privilege, New Yorkers, middle class artists, the tone invariably suggesting that here is "yet another" glimpse of rarified life. While I agree with the first part of this, to an extent, I'd argue that there are few movies showing how anyone really lives--rich, middle class, poor--and it didn't seem like "yet another" anything to me.