Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A Young, Young Person

I first heard about Lena Dunham, and by extension her film Tiny Furniture, which will be released on DVD by Criterion on February 14, from this piece, which I learned of from this piece by Glenn Kenny, who took a great deal of issue with Dunham's thoughts on Nicholas Ray in general, and Ray's film Bigger Than Life in particular. The comments in question don't amount to a whole lot in terms of pixels sacrificed, but it is at least tempting to believe they say a great deal about Dunham and her approach to filmmaking. Here's the salient chunk:

For me, forgetting that I'm watching people act is such a thrilling sensation. That's what I look for when watching movies. . . . I'm a total movie geek, but I can't get into movies like Nicholas Ray's. I'll go with my friends and they'll say, "Bigger Than Life—that was incredible." And I was so distracted the entire time by watching James Mason act in that fashion.

I'm not going to rehash Glenn's post, so let me just state, if you click on the link to his piece and read it, you can be sure that I agree. More to the point, having recently watched Tiny Furniture, I was moved to think back on Dunham's comments, particularly the "I can't get into movies like Nicholas Ray's" bit, and, well, no shit. And I do shudder to think what films this total movie geek can get into, but that's not for me to speculate on. But most of them were probably made in the 1990s.

By way of building a bridge between the preceding and actual thoughts on Tiny Furniture itself, the idea that she loves to "forget" that actors are acting in a film is particularly rich when faced with her breakout film. Never mind that I don't know what it means to "forget" such a thing -- what do you imagine is going on in place of that understanding? -- but whatever it means, it never happened to me as I watched Tiny Furniture. In a couple of cases, I thought "That person can't act," but I hardly think that's what she means. And if a better way of phrasing her thought is that she loves to lose herself in a great actor's seamless performance (I don't even know if that's what she's getting at, though, to be honest), then wouldn't that be better achieved through someone like James Mason, rather than, say, your non-acting mother or sister?

Which is what Dunham is doing with Tiny Furniture. Using her mother's home as her primary set, and casting herself in the lead, her mother in the role of her mother, and her sister in the role of her sister, Dunham is playing the badly misguided game of trying to force actual reality, or whatever vibe she thinks that gives off, into the role of drama (a general term, as the film is primarily a comedy). This can work if you're Rossellini and you're making Paisan, and so I'm left wondering about Dunham's thoughts on that particular filmmaker.

As if all of this weren't enough, Dunham's film chooses as its subject Young Woman Graduates From College So Now What Does She Do Because She Feels Adrift, Is The Problem. The fact that this has maybe been done once or twice should not be a roadblock, or not necessarily, because if you're a good filmmaker then you can make it work. Dunham is not a good filmmaker. I don't know what she regards as the craft of filmmaking. As far as I can tell, she may just walk into her mother's living room with her eyes closed, and then open them and think "Oh my God that's a great shot, I am a filmmaker." She likes a static camera, she does, and apparently figures that arbitrarily structured medium shots and close ups and the occasional medium long-shot, if she feels like playing with space, to be form enough for her. Tiny Furniture is not so much ugly as bland, although sometimes it's ugly, too, in the sense that bland and dull are ugly. It is, in other words, not crafted in any way, there is no eye at work. No care or thought is given to the performances of the non-actors, because, what, that would potentially push them into James Mason territory?

None of this, I suspect, would matter all that much to me if it was a funny film, but it isn't. One of the characters, a rude, lazy, hipster prick named Jed played by Alex Karpovsky, one of two uncertain romantic relationships Dunham's character Aura(!) has in the film, and which form the basic crux of whatever plot we're dealing with, is shown reading Woody Allen's Without Feathers in a couple of scenes (a couple of scenes that, in the film's timeline, take place several days apart, which made me wonder even about that, as Without Feathers can be knocked out in a day, easily, by anyone) -- this reminder of funnier days in my life is as close to experiencing actual humor as I got. This is the real failure of the film, because I gather that, total movie geek or not, comedy is where Dunham's heart actually lies. It could be a case similar to John Cleese not giving a shit about the actual filmmaking of Monty Python and the Holy Grail as long as he knew the jokes worked, except, here John Cleese is replaced by, I don't know, Eric Schaeffer or somebody. But following the critical success of Tiny Furniture, Dunham has been palling around, and possibly working with, members of the currently hip comedy scene, like Patton Oswalt and so forth. So if actual filmmaking is not her thing, okay, let's move on. But now she really needs to work on her jokes.

1 comment:

Stacia said...

the idea that she loves to "forget" that actors are acting in a film is particularly rich when faced with her breakout film. Never mind that I don't know what it means to "forget" such a thing -- what do you imagine is going on in place of that understanding?

With the caveat that I have not seen this film, not even the trailer:

My experience is that someone who says they like to "forget" they're watching actors act, or watching a movie, is that they are talking about the basic concept of suspension of disbelief. They mean that (as an example) seeing a silent film puts them off because you can just tell that actor over there is acting, I mean seriously, just look at that dude in all those cosmetics and waving his hands around, that's just not real, ya know?

Out of morbid curiosity, I'd like to know what Dunham thinks of Johnny Guitar, specifically of Crawford's and Hayden's performances. Or what she feels about Dr. Strangelove, or Seven Samurai. But I suspect complaining that Mason was acting "in that fashion" indicates she doesn't really know how to quantify her personal feelings on the subject.