The Secret World of Emotions
Hey, I’m Sophie Monks Kaufman. staff writer at a movie magazine called Little White Lies. I'm frankly honoured to be introducing Lena Dunham’s 2010 feature Tiny Furniture and will be giving a little Dunham context and a few scoops on what she means to me.
I first heard of Lena Dunham in 2012 when I was doing work experience at Total Film. A permanent member of staff gave me an interview to transcribe and it was her. She had just made the first series of Girls with Judd Apatow for HBO. That was about to air. Tiny Furniture, which had been doing the rounds in the States for years was about to come out in the UK. She sounded fresh and smart and grounded and generally did not seem like someone who within three years would be one of the most talked about and commercially valuable cultural figures in the western world.
Now in 2015, she has four seasons and multiple Emmys under her belt for the HBO show, Girls, $3.7 million thanks to biography, Not That Kind of Girl. Journalists love to write about her and until recently she was killing it on Twitter. She still has an account but no longer directly handles it cowed by the hateful reactions she was receiving. “I deleted Twitter because I’m trying to create a safer space for myself emotionally. People threaten my life and tell me I’m a cow,” she told Ryan Seacrest at the Golden Globes.
Before fame and infamy, there was Tiny Furniture, which premiered at the indie-cool Texan music and film festival SXSW in 2010. It won Best Narrative Feature. I love it because it shows how awkward and undignified it feels to be in limbo, grasping at vocations and people because they’re there rather than because they’re right. Dunham wrote, directed and starred as Aura, a college graduate who comes home to live with her somewhat preoccupied mother and sister and proceeds to bumble around open-mindedly and recklessly.
What makes Dunham so distinctive and successful is a tone that is hyper-articulate and alive to character eccentricities married to a very deep and confrontational approach to universal concerns, like work and family and sex and love. She is superficially charming but always uses these charms in dramatic service of powerful, buried emotions that must eventually come out. As a fellow – albeit slightly less well-known writer - she has taught me to be less afraid of being open. She has doubtlessly inspired many other women and men of the world to feel the same way.
People often accuse her of self-indulgence. It’s an easy charge to level at a person uses the raw empirical data of their lives as material but
a) this is a smart course of action when – as was true when she was breaking out -you don’t have buckets of studio money to funnel into production
b) this is a failure to recognize the dramatic irony and absurd comedy carefully built into the nature of the women that she creates and
c) what the hell is wrong with self-indulgence? Of the many sticks used to beat creative types with, this is the weakest. Lena Dunham is showing a generation of women what her life has been like and talking about legit source of suffering that, yes, it is possible to experience even as a privileged young women with artist parents. If that is self-indulgent then bring on self-indulgence. Until it no longer feels radical to hear that women can be successful while suffering from anxiety, and having a non-idealised body type with a haul of shitty, grubby sexual experiences to her name then I welcome self-indulgence. A better way of describing this narrative tendency is the telling of our stories.
As Sarah Kosar will talking about in more detail, when women tell stories it opens the doors for other women to tell stories. Bechdel Test Fest screened Desiree Akhavan’s delightful and raw sexual comedy, Appropriate Behaviour on Monday. In the marketing of it, everyone referenced Lena Dunham. She has become a genre and a canon unto herself, in terms of the specifics of her fast-talking comedic New Yorker style but also in terms of proving that female fronted, directed and written material is a viable business venture.
For most of my adolescence and even adulthood I felt a little like I was leading a double life - not in a Mr and Mrs Smith way, but more in a socially conscious 'here are the edited highlights of my awkward personality because no one needs the whole package' kind of way. And now here’s Lena Dunham riding her awkward personality for all it’s worth. It’s so exciting. It makes me wonder what heights I can take all my crazy passions to.
Lena Dunham uses what she knows in emotional content and also with people. If any of you watch Girls, you will recognize Alex Karpovsky and Jemima Kirke in juicy roles in Tiny Furniture. The whole film was made by pulling in favours, to cut costs. She has said: "I don't think that I would have begun to become a filmmaker if I had to wait for permission." She cast her real mother, Laurie Simmons, and real sister, Grace Dunham, and filmed in their family's real home in Tribeca, New York. She also inserted a real short film ‘The Fountain’ that she made while at Oberlin university in Ohio.
Dunham’s extroversion is a social and creative tool too. She uses herself as a human smoke bomb to flush out other people and their personalities. Her dramas are always character-driven and socially curious. One of my favourite shorts, ‘Hooker on Campus’ –captures Dunham loitering around on a sunlit campus in ripped tights and a mini skirt. She casually and somewhat awkwardly propositions various male and female students and in the process we see a spectrum of endearing reactions. It’s invisible theatre.
‘Open The Door’ is a super lo-fi short whose comedy is once again fuelled by Dunham pushing other people’s buttons and drawing them out. Once again it is her impressively game mother and even her father as the dupes. This five-minute short will screen before Tiny Furniture. It’s simple but really shows how you can develop little sketches using a minimum of resources.
I still sometime feel like I’m leading a double life. Adulthood demands a certain level of stoicism or – as Hannah learned in the recent season 4 finale – the development of boundaries. Where the secret world of emotion and the social world of restraint segue is when confronted with a daring and honest piece of culture. Published emotion is legitimising and published emotion can be talked about socially, over coffee, or over laptops in the office. Published emotion enables us to accept our murky depths and – maybe to explore them and to speak of them when opportunity presents.
I don’t think that Lena Dunham is perfect. That is the point. That is why even though I think series 3 and 4 of Girls can’t touch series 1 and 2 I keep watching and appreciating them. We need to be constantly reminded that women are complicated and flawed and aggravating not because that is inherently wonderful but because it keeps us from imploding. Think of brittle housewives, like Betty Draper in Mad Men, self-destructing on the downlow. Lena Dunham is a totem to unapologetic female vocalness. And wit. And intelligence.