18 February 2013
There’s nothing like the La Jefitas, is there? No, really, there’s nothing like it. This list of the best 2012 films by and about women — designed to celebrate those female bosses of modern film and subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry — is exactly what we need during years like this one, when not a single female director was nominated at the Cannes Film Festival or at the Oscars. I mean come on.
Plus, the La Jefitas feature much better statuettes.
Just to bring you up to date from yesterday’s winners:
- Best Actress: Anna Paquin in Margaret
- Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen: the abortion scene in Prometheus
- Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass: Gina Carano taking down Michael Fassbender in Haywire
- Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the Year: Where did all the roles for Black women go?
- Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012: 2012 was the Year of Fierce Girls Onscreen
- Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles: Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook
- Most Feminist Film: Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now?
Be sure to check out the full post to find out more about honorable mentions, reasons for establishing these categories, and gorgeous images from the films.
Before we finish the awards ceremony, I feel it incumbent on me to discuss the sad fate of my favorite category: Sexiest Scene in Which a Woman Eats Food. This year’s films did not have a single contender for this prize — a sad state of affairs and a sure measure of the state of our world. To be sure, I had a couple of films in which a woman ate food in an incredibly unsexy way (winner: Shirley MacLaine in Bernie) but that’s not the kind of prize I want to offer at all. Filmmakers: fix this, please.
And now on to the exciting 2012 winners!
Best Female-Directed Film:
This was absolutely the hardest category to determine — I even toyed with breaking my films-only rule and awarding it to Lena Dunham for her series Girls. But in the end there was one film I couldn’t get out of my head: Lauren Greenfield’s documentary The Queen of Versailles, which (inexplicably) I never got the chance to write about last year. (Also was inexplicably ignored by the Academy Awards. Do you see why the La Jefitas are so vital?)
Now this is brilliant filmmaking with a healthy dose of sheer karma. When Greenfield began, she simply wanted to create a documentary about a couple in the process of building the largest house in America, which they had already named Versailles. “In a way, it just seemed like this incredible microcosm of society that showed our values. Both Jackie and David [Siegel] had rags-to-riches stories,” she told Vanity Fair.
But after the financial crisis hit and month after month passed by with increasing stress for the family, the director realized she had to change the story of the documentary. If it started out as a story about self-made Americans and their desire to symbolize their success in a house, by the time “they had to put [the half-finished house] on the market, I realized that this was not a story about one family or even rich people,” Greenfield continues. “It was an allegory about the overreaching of America and really symbolic for what so many of us went through at different levels.”
If you haven’t seen The Queen of Versailles, run — don’t walk — to your television and load it up right away. It’ll make you laugh and cringe, but most of all it’s a fascinating cinema insight into our culture’s obsession with wealth and display. Also, just for those scenes of the chaos in the Siegel household after they are forced to let go of so many maids.
Best Uncelebrated Supporting-Supporting Actor:
Jeannie Berlin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. As the best friend of a woman killed in a bus accident, Berlin attracts the attention of the young Lisa (Anna Paquin) for all the wrong reasons. But you can see why she would appeal so deeply. Prickly and no-nonsense, independent but capable of deep love for her friends, and — most important for Lisa — lacking a need for male attention, she seems perhaps to be the perfect replacement for Lisa’s actual mother. Best of all, she wears her Jewishness on her sleeve rather than push it to the side. Her self-possession is most of all marked by the way Berlin chooses to enunciate her words slowly and methodically, which has a surprising power over the emotional mess of a fast-talking teenager, like a balm to her soul. No wonder Lisa feels so suddenly invested in connecting to this woman.
But she also sees Lisa’s selfishness clearly, and refuses to play a role in Lisa’s mini-drama of denial. It’s a beautiful performance that seems all the more meaningful because the film was so utterly shut out of Oscar competition this year, in part due to its complicated production. Here’s hoping a La Jefita ensures that Berlin gets a lot more work and recognition from here on out (is there a La Jefita bump? let’s find out!).
Best Role for a Veteran Actor Who Is Not Meryl Streep or Helen Mirren:
Emmanuelle Riva as Anne in Michael Haneke’s Amour. I only wish I’d seen this film with friends so I could debrief about it and Riva’s performance at length. It’s hard to believe that this magnificent, beautiful performer has only made 14 films since her début in 1959’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour. I tried many times to write about it here but found myself inadequate to the task; suffice it to say that even with a grim story like this one, the amour triumphs in a way that the inevitability of mortality does not.
Amour is such a perfect portrayal of a good marriage in its final stage that it’s difficult for me to speak of Riva’s performance separate from that of Jean-Louis Trintignant as Anne’s husband Georges. Indeed, I don’t know how the Academy overlooked Trintignant for a Best Actor nomination; the scenes between them are so tender and honest that we’re left with powerfully mixed feelings. On the one hand, it made me desire with all my heart that I will have such a companion when I’m in my 80s (and oh, I’m almost terrified to hope it is my perfect, wonderful partner of today); on the other hand, I hope we will get mercifully hit by a train together on the same day. When it came to playing the role of a woman wrestling with rapidly-advancing debilities of age, Riva gave the role such realistic tenderness and brutality that I swear it must have taken part of her soul. As I watched so many of those scenes, I marveled — how did the 85-yr-old Riva make it through the filming, considering that she must have these same fears of aging on her mind?
Riva’s achievement is all the more impressive because of the stiff competition by veteran actresses this year. Just think of Sally Field in Lincoln and you’ll know whereof I speak; I also include Shirley MacLaine’s comic turn in Bernie and Nadezhda Markina in Elena. Truly: it was a great year for veteran actors.
Best Breakthrough Performance By an Unknown Actor:
No questions here: Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. I know this film didn’t work for everyone; indeed, the naysayers include big names in cultural criticism. But I believe this film constitutes a visionary outsider’s statement from a child’s point of view — a lovely statement about belonging and existence that ties together deep poverty and wild imagination.
Wallis is so good that it makes me fret about her future — is she really a major acting talent, or a disarmingly wonderful child whose acting will vacillate as she grows older? Nor am I the only one to ask those questions. It makes me nervous about her Best Actress nomination from the Academy.
But in the end all this second-guessing is unfair to the performance as it appeared in this film, a performance that was just perfect. No child, much less any other 6-yr-old, could have gotten it so right this one time. And with that, I’m looking forward to the next role as eagerly as any of her other fans.
Performance So Good It Saves a Terrible Film … well, no, but almost:
Eva Green in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows. I don’t have anything good to say about this film except that every time the evil witch Green showed up, I started having a good time again.
That blonde wig! The facial twitches! The sex scene in Green’s office! Her gift for physical comedy!
What can we say about the film overall, except that it was confused and that it had a very few funny lines (all of which are helpfully compiled in the film’s trailer)? Yet Green was fantastic. Give this woman more work.
Most Delightful Way to Eschew Narrative in Favor of Pleasure in Female-Centered Films:
They stop what they’re doing and start dancing. I can’t even remember how many times various films this year just stopped what they were doing and featured a great dance number — and I’m not even speaking here about explicit dance films like Pina, Magic Mike, or Step Up 4: Revolution. Remember the weird finale to Damsels in Distress, in which Greta Gerwig and Adam Brody sing the deliciously goofy “Things are Looking Up” and dance awkwardly through a pastoral scene? Or the final act of Silver Linings Playbook, all of it hinging on the goofy routine worked up by two (ahem) non-professionals? In Take This Waltz?
Or the scene at the homecoming dance when the three leads let their freak flags fly in The Perks of Being a Wallflower?
Once you start to put them together, you find a lot of mini-moments onscreen when films adhered to the old theater maxim, you sing when you can no longer speak, you dance when you can no longer walk. Dancing has the capacity to take us out of the fictional magic of the narrative one step further and launch us into true fantasy. Is it a narrative shortcut? oh, who cares. I love it.
Film of the Year:
Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty. Really: there’s just no question. This would receive my Film of the Year prize even if it had been directed by a man and/or featured a male protagonist.
Nor was it easy for me to let go of Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret; I even toyed with the possibility of declaring a tie. But I believe Zero Dark Thirty achieves something even beyond the former in working its viewers through the emotional aftershocks of that methodical search for our proclaimed enemy — it wants us as a culture to move away from retribution and toward some kind of catharsis.
My appreciation for the film certainly doesn’t rest on Jessica Chastain’s performance, which didn’t work for me all the time. Rather, it’s the architecture of the overall film and the accelerating action-film aspects that lead toward an exhilarating (but ultimately distracting). Whereas poor Margaret shows in its fabric the scars of so many cooks in the kitchen, Zero Dark Thirty is just a masterful piece of work that amounts to more than the sum of its parts, and Kathryn Bigelow was robbed when the Academy failed to nominate her for a Best Director Oscar.
So there you have it, friends — the year’s La Jefitas! Please don’t hesitate to argue, debate, send compliments (oh, how I love compliments), and offer up new ideas for categories. (You gotta admit, my Most Delightful Way to Eschew Narrative in Favor of Pleasure in Female-Centered Films category should receive a Pulitzer on its own!)
1 January 2013
This is ultimately a glass-20%-full question.
I have now re-read A.O. Scott’s NY Times Magazine piece, “Topsy Turvy,” several times — a piece that leads with the subtitle, “this year, the traditional Hollywood hierarchy was overturned. Heroines ruled.” I want to know exactly how he came up with that subtitle, because I don’t think the article supports it. Nor does the evidence.
Now, I have seen a lot of really good films this year — films that feature terrific female leads, stress women’s experience in fresh ways, highlight gay/trans characters, and are sometimes directed by women. Just scanning over this list makes me feel encouraged. Scott particularly mentions some of these: Brave, The Hunger Games, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Let us not forget, too, the box office success of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II and Snow White and the Huntsman, two films that give me less encouragement but which nevertheless get women into the equation.
Four of those movies — four! — were among the 15 highest-grossing films of 2012. This is very good, for when Hollywood sees female-oriented or -directed films earning big bucks, it’s more likely to fund future projects.
But let’s not forget those other top-grossing films: the endless stream of supremely dudely fare like Ted, The Hobbit, and the superhero business in which women play the most conventional roles of all: The Avengers, Skyfall, Amazing Spider-Man, and so on. I give Anne Hathaway props for her role in The Dark Knight Rises but she remains only an interesting twist on the usual female suspects in such vehicles.
If I say this was a good year for women onscreen (and behind the camera), is that impression based solely on a perceived slight uptick from the usual — which is that women get fewer leads, fewer lines, a smaller range of interesting parts, and far less opportunities to write and direct than men? Is this glass 20% full, or 80% empty?
When I look back at 2012 I see new levels of schizophrenia about women in public life. When Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls was released, she was attacked on all sides. Jennifer Lawrence was termed too fleshy for the role in The Hunger Games. But movies & TV were only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not forget the public schizophrenia outside the world of film. Sandra Fluke’s public flogging at the hands of Rush Limbaugh; the massive troll campaign against cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who sought to scrutinize gender in video games; the revival of anti-birth control measures; unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds required of women seeking abortions in Texas and (almost) Virginia; the crazy anti-woman, anti-gay GOP platform during the 2012 election; the public whack-job discussion of rape by prominent Republicans running for office.
Of course, those two politicians lost. But ladies, you’re wrong if you think this is the end of efforts to ban abortion altogether or to humiliate women who seek sexual and political equality. Let’s not kid ourselves by thinking that Hollywood doesn’t reflect that schizophrenia, at least on some level.
Was this year better than last year for women in film? Tough call. Last year had Bridesmaids, The Help, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Bad Teacher (oh yeah, and another Twilight) all near the top of the list of highest-grossing films, plus all those amazing foreign and independent films that delighted me during my La Jefita Awards. And hello, The Iron Lady. Maybe I can say 2011 and 2012 were equally interesting years for those of us willing to seek out and draw attention to the topic.
Most important is the question, do these two strong years indicate a change in emphasis in Hollywood? Well, no. Sure, Pixar finally gave us a female lead in Brave. Does that mean they’ll have another one soon? I doubt it. We’ll get more Hunger Games, but we’ll also get more superhero fare in which women are negligible and/or tokens. Will Cannes allow even one single female director into competition? It’s a crap shoot; that film festival didn’t have a single female director in 2012. It looks good that Kathryn Bigelow will get nominated for Best Director at this year’s Oscars. But is that really a sign of a shift?
The best I can hope for is that we have a third good year for women in a row. But when I say good, I don’t mean that opportunities for women/ gay/ trans peoples are improving in big ways. It’s a fragile thing, this good year designation. The ever reliable Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg School, who crunches these numbers all the time, simply terms women onscreen “sidelined, sexy, and subordinate” and doesn’t dicker with minute distinctions.
Let’s just say that we have little evidence to trumpet a “Hollywood hierarchy was overturned” narrative, Mr. Scott. But I’m hoping for a good year in 2013 anyway — and by good, I mean that it’ll look a teensy bit better than 2012.
8 May 2012
I’ve been thinking back to my first semester of college, when I met a confident, gorgeous, funny 3rd-year woman student in my dorm named Maria. She had long, beautiful, straight hair and a penchant for practical jokes, and she was a standout geology student (which made me, temporarily at least, also a geology major).
The fact that I refer to her as a woman is because of her. “There was this woman in my high school,” she’d begin a story — and for someone like me who’d grown up refusing to call myself a woman, this casual reference was mind-blowing. At the first reference, I actually found myself wondering if this “woman” in her high school was a middle-aged mom who’d gone back to school. Gradually, it occurred to me that embracing the notion that I was a woman rather than a girl could be liberating. “Want to go out with me and a couple of women from the frisbee league?” she’d ask, and I’d feel like I was part of a new and very, very cool club. A club of not-girls.
Is it corny to believe that adopting Maria’s term woman — and abandoning girl — was one of the most meaningful moments of my feminist education?
I got onto this line of thinking because of Lena Dunham’s show Girls, of course, but also because we have an epidemic of girls underway in film and especially TV:
- Two Broke Girls
- New Girl
- Bad Girls Club
- Girls Gone Wild
- Gilmore Girls
- Gossip Girl
- The Girls Next Door
- Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
It strikes me that my ongoing use of woman won’t have the same effect on my 18- or 19-yr-old students because I’m not one of their peers. I’m a 40-something professor, not a 20-yr-old with long, straight, glossy hair. But I wonder if I should bring up this topic explicitly.
Corny or not, I still think that teaching that simple linguistic shift could be mind-blowing for young women. Oh, if only Zooey Deschanel (TV’s New Girl) or those glamorous bitchez on Gossip Girl referred to themselves and their friends as women. That would be interesting.
Hannah (Lena Dunham) is lying in her hospital gown, rattling on nervously to the gynecologist about why she’s getting screened for sexually transmitted infections. She describes her lifelong fear of dying of AIDS. The doctor asks if she knows someone who died of it. “Umm, it’s more of like a Forrest Gump based fear,” she explains. “That’s what Robin Wright Penn’s character died of. So….”
Even though she always uses a condom with her partners, she says, she’s worried about getting infected by the “stuff that gets up around the sides of condoms.” (Having googled that query, she’s pretty convinced it’s something to worry about.) The gynecologist looks at her with exactly the kind of disbelieving annoyance that was probably on my face during this scene.
“You could not pay me enough to be 24 again,” the gynecologist says.
“Well, they’re not paying me at all,” Hannah replies.
I can’t imagine a better snippet of dialogue to catch the way these Girls of Dunham’s articulate exactly the kind of emotional and intellectual chaos I see in my students of the same relative intelligence and class status. They’ve got a whipsmart quick-wittedness that serves as the lingua franca of young women — self-identifying as smart, self-deprecating, funny, astute, sometimes brutally honest. Traveling in packs with the volume jacked up, these girls’ verbal patter can reach a manic level. But they’re neither self-aware nor knowledgeable enough to know how idiotic they sound to everyone who lives outside their tribe. The patter covers up a lot of the neurotic uncertainty.
You sort of want to grab them by the shoulders, give them a good shake, and say, calm down, shut up, and stop it with your attention-deficit chatter for a sec. You also kind of love them for their non-filtered logorrhea. Which brings me to the first relevant point about this show: as its creator/ director, Lena Dunham offers us a theory about why these are “girls,” not “women” — and it has to do with what they call themselves, and what they will allow themselves to be. Whereas Sex and the City fantasized a world we could all aspire to, with perfect financial comfort, work enjoyment, sexual confidence, spectacular clothing, and available men, these Girls are finding none of the above. They live in Brooklyn, not Manhattan. They have bodies and clothes I recognize as real. They screw up their job interviews.
The men are so undesirable as to be chilling. Hannah’s perpetually disappointing fuck-buddy Adam (Adam Driver), an “actor,” hangs out in his apartment with no shirt on — clearly imagining that he’s far more all-that than he is. Hannah’s awful sex scenes with him will make you grip the arms on your chair.
It’s not just the spectacularly bad sex that makes you cringe; it’s also the crazy sense of entitlement undercut with glimpses of self-doubt managed, one guesses, by anti-anxiety medications. How else to explain Hannah’s situation at the table with her parents as they announce they’re cutting her off financially? When she protests that she’s not done writing her memoir (!) she explains, “I think I may be the voice of my generation.” But then she backs up. “Or at least a voice. Of a generation.”
You see? This is great stuff, and it’s delivered with that same combination of quick-witted self-deprecation I recognize from those students of mine. And yet: she’s writing her memoir? Also believable, also cringe-making.
So yeah, you won’t identify with these characters. My students won’t show up in the fall telling me “I am sooo like Shoshanna!” the way they did ten years ago with Miranda, Carrie, Samantha and Charlotte. (There’s even a nice scene in the first episode in which Shoshanna burbles about which character she identifies with.) These girls haven’t figured out what they want, nor how to get it. They’re full of borrowed, would-be sage advice picked up here and there — and they’re quick to criticize each other — but they’re floundering. It’s kind of amazing.
Perhaps I should pause here to note that, between gazing on these Girls with disbelieving annoyance and laughing my butt off, I can’t believe no one has done this before. This writing is crisp, subtle, tight. The characters interrupt each other with non sequiturs so realistic and ridiculous that I want to watch all the episodes again to make sure I caught all the best jokes. Like when three of them sit in the clinic’s waiting room while Hannah gets ready for her STI examination:
Marnie, speaking to Shoshanna about Hannah: She’s obsessed with getting AIDS. She’s thought she was going to get it since she was like ten years old. That’s what this is about. [rolls eyes.]
Hannah: I don’t have an obsessive fear of AIDS. I have obsessive fear of HIV that turns into AIDS. I’m not a fool.
Marnie: Well, you don’t have HIV. You just don’t. It’s not that easy to contract.
Shoshanna: It’s really not that hard to contract either, though. I mean, haven’t you seen Rent?
Marnie, rolling eyes: Please. I’ve seen it like twelve times. It’s basically why I moved to New York.
You see? I swear I heard those same girls at the coffee shop this morning.
Compared to Dunham’s Tiny Furniture (2010, made when she was only 23, gulp), Girls is tight — and fearless. I quite liked that film, but this series has an underlying perception and forthrightness about how these girls live that shows Dunham’s growing talent as a writer. Parts of it even feel like a shot across the bow by this gifted writer and young woman, especially given the second episode’s subject matter, “Vagina Panic” — which circles around Jessa’s scheduled abortion as well as Hannah’s STI anxieties.
Between the four of them, they articulate virtually every perspective on abortion — everything from “it’s devastating” to “whatever” — because that’s what they do; they blather. There’s no conceptual consistency to their opinions; they haven’t really thought them through. But neither does any one of them question the utter necessity of getting that abortion. “What’s she going to do? Have a baby and take it to her babysitting job? That’s not realistic,” Hannah insists in one of those perfect moments of clarity. Let’s face it: the idea of any one of these girls taking on motherhood is appalling.
Fuck yeah, Lena Dunham. We’ve all been complaining for years about the Judd Apatow-ization of film — the perpetual focus on men’s neurotic feelings and ambivalences, while stereotyping the women in their lives — so listen, friends, the time has come to watch one of those actual women skewer her own tribe. It’s so funny, so awful that you (like me) might find yourself watching the episode all over again to catch on to the jokes.
You could not pay me enough to be 24 again. Unless I could be Lena Dunham, using this as material toward a spectacular future.
28 April 2012
Does TV and film have a race problem? Hell yeah.
But would someone please tell me why it’s so important to have a shit fit about the fact that none of the four leads in HBO’s new celebrated show Girls is a woman of color, when no one made a peep about the all-white, all-dudes Entourage? (Melissa Silverstein, you stole that thought right out from under me.) Why does it get reduced to a women vs. people of color argument, when the relevant point is that white men dominate everywhere?
This is one of those unbelievably rare moments — when HBO actually throws its considerable resources toward a brilliant and celebrated show with nothing but a whole lot of women in the cast. Girls isn’t just the first show about women on the network since the finale of Sex and the City in 2004; it’s also written and directed by a woman, the preternaturally gifted Lena Dunham. As a result, it saves the network from being one of the most truly retrograde in existence with regard to gender balance.
(Apologies for slight hyperbole here: I realize that Enlightened features Laura Dern as its lead, and that Big Love had a lot of women at the center of the story. I still maintain that Girls, with its multiple female leads and female creator/director, is exceptional.)
In addition, the show appears to me to be deeply satirical, if not outright critical, of its self-centered, privileged, clueless leads. This is no Friends or Sex and the City.
The sidelining, ghettoization, and/or ignorance of people of color on TV and film in general is stunningly racist, especially when it comes to Latinos — but the enemy in that story isn’t Girls. Don’t make women have to face off against people of color… again. It’s one of those classic zero-sum games from the goddamn 19th century: who gets voting rights, women or Black people? When, in fact, any rational person can see that both groups should have received the right to vote, instead of fighting it out in the nastiest possible way about who was most worthy.
Let’s get outraged about the casting decisions by the makers of Two and A Half Men or the shameful tokenism of virtually every show you can think of. Better yet, let’s have a come-to-Jesus conversation about race on TV and in film more broadly. Let’s not make the women and the people of color battle amongst themselves.
I’m not singling out any one of the numerous articles on this subject, because the problem isn’t any one of them but rather the media pile-on that has occurred over the course of the past week. I firmly believe that individually, any given writer is entitled to write or post on whatever subject that moves them. But in total, this media firestorm makes it look as if Dunham has committed some kind of crime in casting the show the way she did — when there’s nothing unusual about it in the least except that it’s full of women.
Eyes on the prize, people. We’re together in this fight against the white male domination of the media — if we refuse to fall for that divide-and-conquer false consciousness.
… And as soon as I can catch up with all the episodes: more on why I think this show is so good.
20 January 2011
“Oh, you look so pretty!” coos one of Aura’s old friends as she walks into a party — a line that drips with fake flattery. Aura (Lena Dunham) responds, “Oh, are you serious? I feel like this outfit just screams, like, ‘I’ve been living in Ohio for four years — take me back to your gross apartment and have sex with me.'” She has returned home to New York after graduating from college; in Tiny Furniture, writer-director Dunham tells the tale of being a 23-year-old adrift by highlighting her sense of disjunction with this world, a New York that seems as cold and hermetic as the miniature furniture Aura’s mother photographs in tiny scenarios. Tiny Furniture is a comedy, but it’s also a mood film akin to Sofia Coppola’s work — a film about what it means to be young, gifted, and dreaming of connection.
Maybe her Ohio college encouraged Aura’s earnestness and wry self-deprecation, but it’s clear they’ve always been part of her personality — and both tendencies are out of place in New York. Part of her sense of alienation is physical: her pudgy body contrasts with her mother’s and sister’s tall, willowy elegance (and Dunham loves to exaggerate with slumped shoulders and unflattering scenes of wandering the apartment in a t-shirt and underwear). Making it worse is the fact that her family doesn’t quite welcome her back with open arms; in Aura’s absence the two seem to have formed a tight bond that now feels exclusive, even chilly. Aura’s true sense of difference, however, comes from her desire to be an artist like her successful photographer mother and prizewinning poet sister — yet with only 357 hits on her YouTube video and a liberal-arts college degree in film theory, where does she start to find a path to artistic success? Her New York friends are tragically hip, glamorous, and decidedly unambitious; in fact, they seem to view ambition as the road to public humiliation, so they sit back and observe the world instead. Like so many recent college grads who move back home, Aura skirts the issue of her own dreams by getting a stupid job at a restaurant, going to parties with old friends, and drifting.
Then there are the boys. Aura’s longtime college boyfriend just dumped her — “something about having to build a shrine to his ancestors out of a dying tree” back home in Colorado, she explains with self-deprecating skepticism — and the New York options get worse the more we get to know them. She develops a crush on the restaurant’s hot chef (above), who only notices her intermittently and seems to see her primarily as a source of prescription painkillers. Then there’s Jed (below), an artist with a minor YouTube following for his Nietzschean Cowboy video despite its dubious contribution to the world of performance art. Jed coyly indicates he’s visiting New York for meetings with agents and producers, yet he has no money, no place to stay, and no clear interest in Aura. When she hears of him, Aura burbles, “He’s a little bit famous,” to which her more cool, cosmopolitan New York friend responds dismissively, “Yeah, I guess, in, like, an internet kind of way.” Plowing ahead with her aimless hopefulness, Aura invites Jed to stay in the apartment when her mother and sister depart on a college tour.
Critics have rightfully sung the praises of Dunham’s funny script — which only very occasionally suffers from a bit too much of a 23-year-old’s eagerness to include all her funny observations of stilted interactions — but for me it was the cinematography that marks the film’s best achievement. The filming does such a great service in marking the story’s contrasts. We faintly perceive that Aura’s mother’s apartment is one of those rare, extraordinarily huge and sunny New York spaces only possessed by the very wealthy and those who purchased real estate in the very distant past — yet the film portrays it as sterile, windowless, a sea of white paint and forbidding minimalism. The rare exterior shots are almost jarring when we realize there might be an outdoor urban world to be enjoyed; Aura’s one chance for sex takes place in a grimly awful enclosed space in an abandoned lot. Between those shots and the closed-off emotions of the New Yorkers around her, Aura appears even more a breath of fresh air utterly out of place. And that freshness goes for much more than her terrific sense of humor. The last time I saw a female protagonist onscreen with an imperfect body was in Precious (2009), a film that sought to make a very different point. Dunham plays this role with a determination to show how much her character feels physically and emotionally stymied by New Yorkers’ svelte, arch coolness. This is the film Greenberg could have been if it hadn’t been so determined to humiliate women.
Tiny Furniture is the kind of film I’m looking for as a feminist — written and directed by a woman, featuring a story about a woman that doesn’t limit her to romance or a rape scenario, and going in unexpected narrative directions. 2010 seems to have been a good year for women in film, but as Melissa Silverstein’s facts about the numbers of women in film show, there’s still a long way to go. Good thing that Lena Dunham is now only 24 and has a lot more films left in her.