Writers are often told that, when it comes to the act of artistic creation, one should “write what you know.” And yet, when it comes to the art I value most, I tend to be more intrigued and even sometimes moved by works in which an artist not only depicts what he or she knows, but also tries to step outside of themselves and imagine characters and situations outside of their usual purview.
I've thought a lot about this issue ever since I saw Lena Dunham's 2010 feature Tiny Furniture, which won top honors at South by Southwest two years ago and which has since inspired its fair share of spilled ink, especially from those firmly on the “con” side. I've always been rather baffled by the charges of narcissism that have plagued this immensely talented writer-director since Tiny Furniture exploded on the independent film scene; apparently, one person's bracingly honest self-examination is another's insufferable navel-gazing. But really, where's the point at which unsparing self-awareness lapses into the kind of self-absorption that no one except the filmmaker would really care about? What distinguishes one from the other?
Those questions came rearing back into my mental forefront this year at South by Southwest with the world premiere of the first three episodes of Dunham's Judd Apatow-produced HBO television series Girls—which, and maybe some of her detractors will get a kick out of this, received a fancy world premiere at Austin's historic Paramount Theatre, certainly the last place one would expect episodes of a television series to screen. As one might expect, Girls shares many similarities with Tiny Furniture, stylistically and thematically. It features Dunham herself playing a character—named Hannah this time—who's trying to fulfill her artistic ambitions while struggling to stay afloat day by day; the fact that her parents, at the beginning of the pilot episode, have decided to cut off all financial help to her certainly doesn't help matters. Hannah, not too much unlike Aura in Tiny Furniture, is a bit of a neurotic mess; the second episode, for example, revolves around her obsessive belief that she may have contracted an STD even though her boyfriend has been using condoms during sex. And it's set in some of the more privileged sections of New York, with Hannah herself coming from an upper-class background that's quite possibly left her unequipped to deal with the harsh realities of living by herself. (Consider the opening of the Girls pilot the inevitable follow-up to the final scene of Tiny Furniture, which suggested both Aura's desire to break out of her privileged bubble, but afraid to actually make the leap.)
One major difference, however, is the stronger presence of supporting characters in the television series to offer up that sense of a wider perspective that some critics felt was sorely lacking in Tiny Furniture. Hannah's roommate, for instance, is Marnie (Alison Williams), a wiser and worldlier woman in many ways compared with Hannah, though she's not without neuroses of her own (she's attached to a nice boyfriend, for instance, with whom she has become bored). Another major character is Jessa (Jemima Kirke), who often affects an air of hip sophistication to cover for her general immaturity; Jessa could be said to be the character Hannah wishes she could be, for well and ill. In other words, Hannah's neuroses aren't the whole show here; whenever her navel-gazing threatens to become irritating, there are always other characters to expose the ridiculousness of some of those neuroses.
In that way, Girls can be said to represent a step forward for Dunham as a writer-director. Her dialogue is as fresh, witty, and humorously unsentimental as ever, but the first three episodes of Girls suggest, even more than Tiny Furniture did, that she also has the ability to imagine specific characters beyond her own type. She may still be writing what she knows, but Girls so far suggests that, even at her young age, she's not only observed a lot about people in her own generation, but that she's even developed some wisdom and perspective on it and has the potential to translate it into something memorable. Hannah may use her lofty literary aspirations as a ploy to get her parents to funnel more money her way, but Dunham herself may well have the artistic chops after all to actually become a major voice of her generation after all.
The idea of writing what one knows turns out to be an implied theme underlying Sleepwalk With Me, the feature filmmaking debut of comedian Mike Birbiglia. At one point, Matt Pandamiglio (Birbiglia), an aspiring comedian who's so far found little success on that front as he continues bartending for a living, finds himself in the midst of yet another potentially disastrous set, and, in a moment of desperation, spontaneously decides to try out a new routine based on an anecdote relating to his girlfriend. With his comically skewed observations and droll demeanor, Matt finally hits paydirt in the form of eliciting hearty, genuine laughs from an audience. He's finally realized the most fruitful source of his comedy: his own life experience.
If Birbiglia himself tends to be upfront about the autobiographical nature of his comedy onstage and in his radio stories on This American Life, in Sleepwalk With Me he plays around a bit with the distance between an artist and the persona he creates. On a stylistic level, he uses the time-honored device of breaking the fourth wall by talking to the audience directly while traveling on the road, thus inviting us to see this as Birbiglia's story even though technically he's playing a character named Matt. More directly, he addresses this distance with various fellow comedians he befriends on the road, many of whom are surprised when they discover his material is drawn from his own personal experiences. “That is just your persona, isn't it?” he's asked on more than one occasion.
Sleepwalk With Me isn't just about his growth in maturity as a stand-up comedian; Birbiglia also delves into his fear of committing to marriage to his longtime girlfriend Abby (Lauren Ambrose). He's refreshingly frank about his insecurities, and certainly there's something to be admired about his willingness to put his whole self on the line in this way. However, this more intimately personal angle to the film does paradoxically suggest the limitations of simply writing what you know: You may focus so much on writing what you know that you fail to make it resonate in a wider, more inclusive context. If you don't find yourself identifying with Birbiglia's travails on some deeply personal level, you may find this charming and occasionally insightful film dissolving in your memory fairly quickly after you've seen it.
SXSW runs from March 9—18.