Yesterday’s premiere of the new HBO comedy Girls was one of the more highly anticipated television premieres in recent memory. Sure, we were all excited for the new season of Mad Men, but barely anyone noticed when it initially launched; it took similar amounts of time for the major benchmarks of the current television landscape to gain enough momentum to be covered by the whole entire internet. And surely Girls has been: every single website and news outlet that covers television, the arts or culture in any way has written about Girls, many have written about it twice. And while each column has its own tone, angle and spin, they all come back to creator and star Lena Dunham.
Dunham, a 25 year old Manhattanite, is an immensely talented writer/director/actor who is so front and center of her show that it seems any piece which doesn’t actively deal with her is missing the mark entirely. In order to prepare myself for the premiere, I sat down last week with the Criterion Collection printing of her award winning feature Tiny Furniture, the piece that really put her on the map. Also included on the disc are four “short films” and a sixty minute feature, her first, all shot while she was a student at Oberlin College, where I also went (long before she did).
I started with her “short films” - billed as such by both Criterion and Dunham herself in the credits of at least one - which aren’t films at all, they’re exercises and outtakes and sketches. In “Pressure,” Dunham shoots a scene between three friends talking in the stacks of Oberlin’s library; the scene is basically one character describing what an orgasm is like, Dunham addresses head on the blunt expression of female sexuality that would later become one of the things thousands of people wrote about as a hallmark of her style. Another paradigm is also introduced: Dunham herself as the one lectured to, the one who needs to be taught. We also get an early moment of self-conscious movie making: at the end of the piece, Dunham sticks her finger in her nose to make herself sneeze - her character’s asexualized version of an orgasm - and after a few moments, she holds up her other hand in a signal to whomever is holding the camera that they shouldn’t cut. She could have just told her operator not to cut unless she says it but it’s almost as if thinking that far ahead just isn’t her style.
The three other shorts on the disc show the style that Dunham is working to develop: a gritty, unpolished aesthetic that puts her right at the front of the idea that she’s trying to work out. “Open the Door” shows her trying to coax lines of dialogue out of her parents as she leaves them stranded outside their apartment building and won’t buzz them in until they oblige her, this becomes much more interesting later when considering Tiny Furniture. “Hooker on Campus” is a comedy sketch ostensibly about the way men commodify women in a contained environment but it’s also about Dunham exploring a paranoid response to her developing sexuality and the fear that sex makes women whores (which comes up in Girls). In “the Fountain,” which also pops up in Tiny Furniture, Dunham takes a bath in a campus fountain and keeps rolling when campus security asks her to stop. She is watched by her real life college boyfriend who isn’t at all perturbed by the proceedings. The thing about “the Fountain” is that it is both Dunham’s best work and also worst. In terms of the look and feel of it, it is the highlight of her early aesthetic but it also degenerates to be so wholly about her that it devolves from film to sketch to home movie. I found myself wondering what would have happened if she hadn’t been stopped by security. Would she have just gone on and shampooed her hair and would she have liked the piece better? After all, it wouldn’t have been as much about her if it had continued according to plan, assuming she had a plan, that is.
In Creative Nonfiction, Dunham lays the groundwork for Tiny Furniture while simultaneously borrowing liberally from the entire mumblecore genre and Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming, an early scene taking place in a small creative writing workshop leans closer to theft than homage to Baumbach’s essential movie about life at the end of college. What’s striking about Creative Nonfiction is the disparity in quality between voice and craft. Dunham has an extremely strong voice, she makes you care about characters even when they basically aren’t written at all. But Creative Nonfiction is terribly made. The camera never stops moving, even when the operator changes position, like clearly going from kneeling to sitting cross-legged during a take. And, naturally, Dunham doesn’t cut around any of this, either because she doesn’t have coverage or because she doesn’t want to, but it’s all so terribly distracting you almost forget that you’re watching something genuinely interesting. At least, I did. I was so distracted by the shoddy work in nearly every respect of actual filmmaking - besides the problematic camera work, the editing is atrociously terrible - that I almost gave up on it after a few minutes. (In a Criterion featurette where Dunham talks about these works, she mentions that someone compared Creative Nonfiction to low budget porn but at least most porn doesn’t break the one eighty rule on the third shot.)
Most of these problems don’t carry over to Tiny Furniture, with the exception of the coverage issue which by now is obviously a conscious choice. Tiny Furniture is, without a doubt, a total and complete masterpiece, it is sharp and fun, beautifully shot and all that. It is both a step forward from Creative Nonfiction and a redo of it. It moves Dunham’s story forward from junior year of college to the fall after having graduated and the return to the nest but much of the content is the same: Lena is caught between two men who are both wrong, there is even a bedsharing scene (platonic on his part, not on hers) halfway through that is almost identical to the opening scene of Creative Nonfiction, a character from the creative writing workshop scene has the same name as the mother character in Furniture, played by Dunham’s mother the artist Laurie Simmons. The largest similarities are based around sex: in Nonfiction, Dunham loses her virginity, in Furniture she talks about how all her writing is really about virginity loss; a waiting for Mr. Wrong scene evokes “Hooker on Campus;” there’s the same fantasy of tragedy connected with sex and the general notion that sex can trap people.
This seems to be a big part of Girls. Dunham is so trapped by sex that, in Tiny Furniture, she gets fucked in a gigantic pipe in a scene very similar to the dismal borderline abusive sex scene that is the center of the Girls pilot: Dunham’s Girls lover Adam “considers” wearing a condom and won’t tell her if he actually has one on, Dunham’s Furniture lover Keith doesn’t when he fucks her in the pipe. Both men are terrible to her emotionally as well, the first thing we hear about Adam is that he doesn’t text back, Keith has a girlfriend and leaves Dunham to wait for him in vain at one point and he loses interest in her the moment they finish fucking.
This de-romanticized take on love and sex is one of the key points in Dunham’s work and it is the center of Girls, all the characters immediately have problematic relationships and are disconnected from the world or their lovers based on the notion of what a relationship and sex is supposed to be. Marnie, in a long term relationship with a man who adores her, can’t stand the touch of him, there is a remark that their sex life is become nonexistent. Jessa, the fast living British member of the group played by Dunham’s high school classmate Jemima Kirke (who played an incredibly similar role in Furniture), is pregnant unexpectedly but still is so frivolously self-involved that she doesn’t notice who Marnie’s boyfriend is and asks if he’s available. And then there’s Shoshanna, Jessa’s cousin, who only appears briefly and is meant to be an outsider in the group: she has so little an idea of who she is and what sex is that she can only related to via allusions to Sex and the City. She claims that sometimes her Samantha side sneaks out, but we know it’s an act.
The thing about Girls, even trying to remove all the hype surrounding it, is that it should be better than it is. Lena Dunham is an amazing talent, Tiny Furniture truly is great, and there’s a strong group of creative people around her, but she still can only pretend to look critically at herself. Her ability to inflect judgment into the actions of her surrogate characters is minimal compared to her ability to deal with her atypical-for-stardom body. She is comfortable both being naked (she is nude during her Creative Nonfiction sex scene, in the shower after her Tiny Furniture sex scene, and makes use of her ass in the Girls sex scene), she includes mean Youtube comments about her body from “the Fountain” in a scene in Tiny Furniture, her sister makes an offhand comment about Dunham’s legs delivered in a way that it seems so used it has long lost its bite. The best moment comes during Dunham’s Tiny Furniture breakdown scene, when her sister enters wearing tiny shorts and a sports bra, towering over Dunham, the very embodiment of everything she isn’t.
But Dunham is less critical of her talents. Throughout each of her pieces, there is someone to provide positive reinforcement that she is talented, that she has an incredible vision, that she can write. Whether it is a professor in Nonfiction, her friends in Furniture or her parents in Girls, the notion of her genius must be reinforced constantly. You would think that success might blunt her desire for this kind of intra-imagination praise but it hasn’t. And the real shame of that is it makes Girls less than what it should be.
Of course, it’s best not to fully judge a whole show based on one episode, especially a show that will air a full season’s worth of episodes, but the show hasn’t found itself and it has a ways to go. As with any opening up of the creative process, the inclusion of more voices has made Girls less sharp in style than Dunham’s previous work. (Dunham said in a Criterion extra that Creative Nonfiction was as close to singular filmmaking as possible, and even though there’s obvious exaggeration there - after all, she got an English professor to give up time to shoot two scenes - her point is solid.) And that’s kind of a shame. Additionally, like any successful stand up comedian who loses the ability to be funny once the struggle is gone, Dunham’s success is making her characters boring, the characters played by her that is. Jessa and Marnie are far more interesting than Dunham’s Hannah, even Shoshanna so lost in pop culture abstraction is more compelling than Hannah. I enjoy watching Dunham but the reliance on her own life is becoming a problem, especially as she she continually mirrors her real life on screen. I would love to see a Girls without Hannah, but that’s completely impossible.
Dunham, in her need to fill her work with herself, highlights the egomaniacal moment we are living through right now: Girls must star her, as must all her other works, because they are about her, and really, only her. The other characters are more foil than anything else, they are there to show how Dunham is different, or smarter or fatter or whatever, and they need to be more than that. She could get away with it in Creative Nonfiction, she barely gave anyone else anything to do, and it worked in Tiny Furniture because she could rely on the reality of her relationship with her mother and sister, and you can see all that history bleed through the screen. But Girls doesn’t work as well and if it will become the show that everyone, including me, hopes it becomes, she’s going to have to focus on doing more with Marnie, Jessa and Shoshanna. She’ll have to if she has any hope of saying anything interesting about something other than her own life.