Made in Manhattan

Who among us is noble enough not to envy Lena Dunham? The 25-year-old’s second feature film, Tiny Furniture, received widespread critical attention when it was released in 2010. There were awards at festivals, special screenings, multiple reviews in the New York Times. There was a New Yorker profile, which ornamented the basic facts of Dunham’s biography with artful detail. Like Tiny Furniture‘s Aura Freeman, the character she plays in the movie, Dunham grew up in Manhattan’s art world—her mother is the photographer Laurie Simmons, her father the painter Carroll Dunham. She attended the elite Brooklyn private school St. Ann’s, as did her former babysitter Zac Posen; she has an Eloise tattoo. Her next project, the comedy series Girls, premieres on HBO in April, with Judd Apatow as co-executive producer. Last week, the Criterion Collection released Tiny Furniture on DVD.

Jealousy was a given, and forgivable. But the pettiness Dunham’s success inspired was of a kind not usually seen outside children’s parties. Like infants driven to tears by the sight of someone else getting all the gifts, human adults became incapable of hiding their envy. Instead, they disguised it as criticism. It wasn’t, they claimed, how Dunham told her story that was the problem. The problem was she thought it was worth telling. As Deadline.com reader C. K. put it: “Here’s a thought…propagate a world view that doesn’t have a Beverly Hills, CA or Upper East Side, NY zip code. This is talent? SERIOUSLY?” Dunham grew up in Tribeca—which several years ago overtook the Upper East Side as Manhattan’s most expensive neighborhood—but the point was clear. The facts of her biography disqualified her from converting them into autobiography.

Another thing most reviews couldn’t get past were Dunham’s looks. On Artforum’s website, Amy Taubin complained that Dunham “court[ed] our rejection” by “walking around the house in nothing more than a T-shirt, flaunting her ass and thighs.” Even positive reviews noted Dunham’s appearance—a fact over which she has slightly more control than who her parents are, but less, say, than the actual content of her film. Fans praised Dunham’s radical frankness, her fearless telling of the truth. Romantic comedy clichés were presented as revolutionary cinema. “When,” marveled Elle‘s Karen Durbin, “was the last time you saw a plump person deftly cram herself into a Spanx-like body stocking?” (The answer is: 2001, Bridget Jones’s Diary.) Again and again, Dunham was cast in the role of a young woman self-conscious about her appearance. In the New York Times, Manohla Dargis classified Dunham as a “body-based artist”: “This, she seems to say whenever she points the camera at herself, is me, a very real, very human body coming into being.” Whenever she points the camera at herself! That leaves Dunham with very little time to say anything else. Taken together, the responses to Tiny Furniture spelled out a single message: if a young woman wants to talk about her life, she better be talking about her looks. Having a body is the only experience she is allowed to take seriously.

In The Art of Fiction, Henry James explains that in the English novel “there is a traditional difference between that which people know and that which they agree to admit that they know, that which they see and that which they speak of, that which they feel to be a part of life and that which they allow to enter into literature.” The same applies to film today, here, in America. Because we speak about “body issues,” Dunham was made to speak about them, too. But what actually makes Tiny Furniture a daring film is that it talks about class and privilege. What makes this boldness radical is that it treats privilege positively: instead of implying privilege’s existence via its absence, Dunham makes it present, as a material experience that offers specific pleasures and advantages. She doesn’t speak truth to power, but from it, which these days is as rare, and as necessary.

It’s true that most movies are made by rich people, but it’s also true that most movies represent rich people as investment bankers or drug dealers. We know they are rich people because they have fancy cell phones and swimming pools, which are the same blue all over the world, like the sky. Such anodyne images of wealth are part of a larger conspiracy of vagueness that imagines every young person as an architect. How do people actually make money, and how much? Nobody will tell us. What sets Tiny Furniture apart is its attention to minor distinctions—to the fine differences within the upper and upper-middle class, like the one between the father who pays his daughter’s security deposit and the father who buys her the apartment. The movie shows us how wealth, privilege, and power actually manifest themselves—seemingly incidental particularities that are actually crucial to their growth and continued consolidation.

The aerial perspective of the city at the beginning of West Side Story, the eerie descent into the Dakota in Rosemary’s Baby, Manhattan‘s opening montage: like a tourist or a commuter, the camera comes at the city from somewhere else—as did the directors responsible for those iconic images. Robert Wise is from Indiana and Hollywood, Roman Polanski from France and Poland, Woody Allen grew up in Brooklyn. These men are the reason why, when we picture Manhattan in our minds, we picture ourselves outside it—as if we, too, were outsiders. The Manhattan of our popular imagination, first and always its skyline, is the Manhattan of childhood, observed from across the East River or in other movies.

Dunham, on the other hand, has spent nearly her entire life on the island of Manhattan. As a child, she was raised in the Soho loft where her mother had lived since the 1970s. Later, Dunham’s family spent a few years in Brooklyn Heights before settling in their current Tribeca apartment, where Dunham lived during Tiny Furniture’s production. Before transferring to Oberlin, Dunham spent a year at the New School, where, she explained to the New Yorker, “there were a lot of kids who were really excited to have just gotten to New York. . . . They wanted to go to clubs or go to Broadway.”

In Tiny Furniture, nobody goes to clubs or Broadway. Nobody even really goes outside. When they do, old conventions are undercut. Some innovations are the result of technical constraints: cinematographer Jody Lee Lipes shot Tiny Furniture on a Canon 7D, which has trouble processing horizontal pans. Instead of the camera tracking two characters talking as they walk together down the sidewalk, there’s a seconds-long shot of Aura and her childhood friend Charlotte (Jemima Kirke, daughter of Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke and a fellow St. Ann’s alumna) hailing a taxi. When Aura sits on a bench near the Hudson River, it’s to talk on her cell phone, and the camera stays tight on her face. We never see the water, or sky, or even a skyscraper. All we get in the way of scenery is the Holland Tunnel air vent looming in the distance, like a giant radiator.

As an insider, Dunham captures the city as it actually looks to anyone who lives there, which is: like the inside of an apartment. The film opens with a shot of a white brick wall—the interior of Aura’s family’s loft. In the title sequence that follows, Dunham cuts shots of Aura in a cab on her way home from the airport with other shots of bricks and bookshelves and carpets. Not once do we see the view from the taxi window; not once do we see the skyline. We hardly even see the sidewalk. The only exterior shot of Aura’s building is a close-up of her key turning in the lock. Most of Tiny Furniture takes place inside the Freeman loft, which has very few windows, like a spa. At least four different scenes feature Aura sitting in the bathtub.

Plenty of people can afford to take the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building; even more can purchase a postcard of the view, or Google it. King Kong can be downloaded for free by anyone with a computer. But how many of them will ever set foot in a Tribeca loft, never mind own one? When Aura’s mother Siri and polished younger sister Nadine visit colleges, she invites YouTube personality Jed (Alex Karpovsky) to stay at their apartment while he’s in town for meetings with television producers. Currently camping out on a couch in “a studio space in Bushwick,” Jed accepts eagerly and asks for an extra key. Tellingly, Aura doesn’t have one. Eventually, Siri forces an apologetic Aura to kick Jed out. Aura suggests they hang out before he heads back to Chicago, but he rebuffs her. I’ll be in Queens, he says. That’s so far. After Jed walks out, the camera stays on Aura, standing still in her lobby. The scene doesn’t end until the door swings shut. The lock clicks, loudly.

The easy liberty implied in the old iconic shots—nobody owned the skyline, nothing obstructed the vast sweep of the camera, which winged its way over the city as freely as a pigeon before roosting wherever it pleased—is a lie. Manhattan isn’t yours unless you’re an Aura, or a Charlotte, who lives in an apartment provided by her father, a successful artist. (A joke from Dunham’s 2009 web series Delusional Downtown Divas: “I’m not really sure how I live in this apartment,” says the daughter of a famous artist, glancing around an enormous loft in downtown Manhattan. “I think it kind of exists from the 70s or something.”) Charlotte’s seeming independence, combined with a natural gift for embracing privilege, affords her the rarest luxury of all: indifference to the idea of Brooklyn. (“Fort Greene?” she minces. “Bed-Stuy?”) But Aura—because she knows that most of the world perceives living at home as infantile—can hear their appeal, which rings like a school bell in the ears of every college graduate. It marks the passage from one period of life to another, or seems to. When Tiny Furniture begins, Aura is waiting for college friend Frankie (Merritt Weaver) to complete a research project in Ohio and relocate to New York. When she arrives, they’ll move together to Brooklyn.

Another commonplace that got repeated about Tiny Furniture was that it was mumblecore. Mumblecore films are soft—muted palettes, shadowed corners, a gentle graininess about the image—while Tiny Furniture is cleanly framed and crisply shot. Despite its white walls, Siri’s apartment never appears sterile, or grimy. What color there is looks rich and dense, and often comes from costumes: Charlotte’s turquoise snood, Siri’s green blouse. While mumblecore movies seem to have been made in a state of indecision or distraction, Tiny Furniture‘s vision is coherent. It has style.

It also portrays sex more accurately than the average mumblecore, which tends to avoid the subject or approach it indirectly. Instead, Dunham captures the consummation of Aura’s crush with a frankness that is simultaneously merciless and humane. Tiny Furniture‘s sex scene is realistic not just because it is short and relatively explicit, but also because it is funny. Mumblecore is considered “naturalistic,” partly because its actors speak slowly and haltingly. Is this how twentysomethings in Boston and Austin talk? Nobody in Manhattan mumbles. In fact, the film’s only mumblecore elements are the two characters not from New York. “I don’t like you,” Charlotte tells Jed. “You have this sort of DIY aspect.” It’s easy to imagine a career path for Jed that ends with him auditioning against Alex Karpovsky for a part in a Joe Swanberg movie.

Then there’s Frankie. For most of the movie, she’s alone on screen, talking to Aura on the phone. The two friends don’t appear together until the end of the film, when Frankie shows up at Aura’s art opening in Dumbo. Her sudden appearance in this milieu makes no sense. Who is this person carrying a canvas tote bag and asking Aura where her clogs are? Aura has clogs? It’s as if Frankie wandered off the set of a completely different movie. When Aura tells Frankie she quit her hostessing job, Frankie asks, a trace of judgment in her voice, “Didn’t you just start?” In her spare time, Frankie enjoys baking and building miniature balsa-wood dinette sets. Her bearing is thoroughly mumblecore, where “happy ending” means characters retain their sense of whimsy while embracing adult responsibilities. They break up, stay together, teach English in a foreign country.

Standing next to Charlotte, Frankie’s lack of charm is visceral, and it underscores one of Tiny Furniture‘s bitter truths: there is such a thing as a bad personality. The fact that Charlotte possesses both prime Manhattan real estate and enormous charisma is proof of life’s immense unfairness. She seems so at home in the world—so magnificently and irresistibly self-assured, free of the neediness exuded by Jed and Frankie—because she is. In place of familiar morality tales—money changes you for the worse, or not at all—Tiny Furniture advances the possibility that there is no limit to the advantages extended by wealth.

At the end of Tiny Furniture Aura decides to remain at home instead of moving to Brooklyn with Frankie. It’s a selfish decision, made worse by the fact Aura doesn’t tell Frankie until the day before she’s due to arrive in New York. But it’s also an act of bravery. What Aura is saving is her time, which—like a rent-free apartment in Manhattan—is too valuable to squander. If protecting it costs Aura her friendship with Frankie, that is perhaps the price she must pay for her work, and success. Their conversation is followed immediately by a scene in which Aura films herself reading from Siri’s journals. It’s the first time we’ve seen her make a video.

To cover rent in Brooklyn, Aura would—one imagines—have to spend her days answering phones in an office or hustling for freelance assignments. Making videos would be like baking, something she did on the weekend. Who, in Aura’s position, would choose this life? Only a child (who can’t imagine death) or a coward (who won’t). Moving out of her mother’s apartment would be an ignorant and extravagant waste of Aura’s time, which is finite and irrecoverable, just like everybody else’s. The movie ends with Aura and Siri talking about a ticking alarm clock.

Aura chooses Manhattan over Brooklyn, art over hobbies. And why shouldn’t she? Just because some people overcome obstacles in order to succeed doesn’t mean obstacles are necessary to success. Who knows what they might have achieved without them? Maybe their movies would be better. If they aren’t, it’s not Lena Dunham’s fault, and there’s no reason she should be made to pay for the fact that some people live in Park Slope. We ought instead to be inspired by Dunham’s allegiance to her own experience—to having it, to recording it. If we’re not, perhaps that’s because it wakes in us the dormant worry that we’ve betrayed our own. The value Tiny Furniture places on ordinary existence calls all of us to account. Which life did you leave unlived?

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