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On Rich Girl Cinema: Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture and Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere

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On Rich Girl Cinema: Lena Dunham’s <em>Tiny Furniture</em> and Sofia Coppola’s <em>Somewhere</em>

I first became aware of Lena Dunham’s film Tiny Furniture when Glenn Kenny posted about how, during an interview, Dunham thoughtlessly knocked James Mason in Nicholas Ray’s Bigger Than Life (1956). Consequently, I was not exactly in a receptive state of mind for Tiny Furniture, especially following in the wake of a consistent little avalanche of press coverage on the film culminating in a New Yorker profile on Dunham and a round of “special” screenings all over town before the movie landed at the IFC Center. No film or filmmaker needs this type of overexposure; the overdone publicity will help Tiny Furniture get known and seen, but it is also going to alienate a lot of people in advance, and I would have to include myself among the preemptively alienated. So when I finally watched Dunham’s movie, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s a fairly sharp comedy about a certain artsy social group that leaves a lot of things open to individual interpretation. The day before I saw Tiny Furniture, I watched Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere, a movie that also comes from a place of privilege, as Dunham’s film does, but of a very different kind.

Coppola is a kind of Hollywood princess, and she has earned her stripes by surviving trying to act in her father Francis’s third Godfather movie but also by making her presence felt in what is still a very male dominated indie scene. For those who saw and liked her Lost in Translation (2003), Coppola has made that movie all over again with Somewhere, this time with a neglected daughter (Elle Fanning) substituted for Scarlett Johansson’s neglected girlfriend. Stephen Dorff’s movie star in Somewhere is suffering from the same kind of ennui that plagued Bill Murray’s movie star in Translation, and there’s even a trip to Italy in this film where Coppola tries to replicate some of the fish-out-of-water scenes that served as the rather prissy main theme for Lost in Translation. Coppola has an eye for striking visuals; she can make an intercut close-up of a glass being filled with scotch look so golden and mouthwateringly close that it seems realer than real. And in the first scenes of Somewhere, Coppola flirts with trying out a kind of non-narrative cinema with very little dialogue; she seems particularly intrigued by a pair of blond twins who do a pole-dance act for Dorff, so intrigued, in fact, that she even repeats their act in a separate scene, and these beautiful blond girls still look alternately sexy and awkward, professional and amateur, aware of their effect on men and also somewhat oblivious.

Coppola is canny enough to know that when she finds something as interesting as these two girls and their strip act, she doesn’t have to do anything but get out of the way and film it, but after the commercial failure of Marie Antoinette (2006), a strange, not entirely successful movie, she has shamelessly retreated to what worked for her before in Lost in Translation. She’s repeating herself in a way that looks and sounds weirdly out-of-touch with what might interest a general audience, and being out-of-touch with that audience leads to the best scenes in the early sections of Somewhere, where Dorff just watches the blonds do their dance, or his daughter do an ice-skating routine, but it also leads to all the later scenes where she sets us up to feel bad for Dorff because he’s so cut-off in a stunningly posh hotel room, or so detached from overly elaborate press junket interview questions or, most absurdly, so sweetly weary at a series of knockout beauties who keep flashing their breasts and hoping to go to bed with him. The poor guy!

In Lost in Translation, the neon-lit Japanese setting and Bill Murray’s improvisational skills made the movie look deeper or more ambiguous than it actually was. Repeating every element of Translation in Somewhere, Coppola doesn’t seem to have any idea that practically no one in her audience will be able to identify or sympathize with her rich, successful, alienated protagonist, and she’s utterly unable to make his supposed plight more general, or more abstract, after the promise of her first scenes. Following the try at framing pastel period settings in Marie Antoinette with a modern style, which came perilously close to being a shallow portrait of a hermetically sealed shallow milieu, Coppola is back to telling us what she knows, and the narrow hotel life she depicts in Somewhere is so constricted as to be creepy in a way that she probably doesn’t intend. The one bright spot of authenticity in Somewhere is Fanning, who brings a light, natural touch to her scenes as Dorff’s daughter; she’s so charming that it’s even easy to sympathize with her when she eventually starts crying and complaining to her father, bringing Coppola’s own Daddy issues into frustratingly nebulous play.

Lena Dunham, like Coppola, is a child of privilege as the daughter of photo artist Laurie Simmons and painter Carroll Dunham, but she’s a radically dissimilar type, both physically and emotionally, and the art world that she springs from is also quite different from Sofia Coppola’s Hollywood and European connections, which feel closer to fashion and music video. Dunham is a generation younger than Coppola (almost twenty years), yet there are many moments in Tiny Furniture when she seems much savvier, much more self-aware (in a mostly good way), and pledged to the kind of deadpan humor that would probably make the gazelle-like Sofia squirm and run out of the room.

Dunham is a comedian of the Elaine May school; she’s not as freakishly talented as that comparison might suggest, but there are moments in this film when Dunham very much resembles May’s own daughter, the actress Jeannie Berlin, and I can imagine the great May admiring the scenes in Tiny Furniture where Dunham’s Aura has hilariously overwrought fights with her mother (played by Simmons herself) and her sister (played by Dunham’s own sister Grace). In the middle of Dunham’s biggest, most melodramatic meltdown with her patient but unpredictable mother, she holds the camera on the scene long enough so that we can see her sister starting to laugh at Aura’s drama queen antics; that’s the kind of both-inside-and-outside-the-moment scene-making that Coppola is too shy, or too cosseted, to attempt (and it’s particularly heartening to see such a complex mother-daughter relationship in a movie season that has served up the crass chauvinist hucksterism of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which plays out like a meathead film school production of The Piano Teacher {2001} as mother Barbara Hershey and daughter Natalie Portman tremble because their hair is tied too tight on their heads and because they’re “frigid” and never get laid).

For the first fifteen minutes or so of Tiny Furniture, I found it difficult to focus because Dunham looks and sounds and acts exactly like a girl I used to know in college, a rich girl who wrote poetry, plain-faced but magnetic, who always was taking up with pretty boys who treated her badly. In my immediate post-college years, I met and befriended several other girls who very much fit Dunham’s type, though none of them were particularly funny, as Dunham is. What I find intriguing about Dunham’s humor and performing style is that her face always falls into a kind of blank wariness, as if she knows that she shouldn’t expect too much, but this wariness co-exists with a wildly reaching kind of sad-sack exhibitionism that covers her ass emotionally (if not physically) but leaves her open to being a winner or a success, professionally or romantically, if luck happens to come her way. Dunham’s privilege makes her bolder than a dumpy but bright, attractive girl would be from a less privileged background, and she’s smart enough to see the comic potential in that without ever making anything a bigger deal than it is, or needs to be.

Dunham is particularly acute in her handling of the two boys Aura falls in with, YouTube comic Jed (Alex Karpovsky, who was so funny in Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax {2009}), and kinky, pretty boy chef Keith (David Call). Again, these two jerks are exactly the types of guys the Dunham-girls I knew would be drawn to, at least when they were very young, and it’s a sign of Dunham’s maturity as a writer that neither of them is either worse (which was probably tempting) or Hollywood-better than they would be in real life. Jed takes advantage of Aura to stay rent-free for a while in her mother’s loft, and he’s such a slick user that he doesn’t even pretend he wants to sleep with her (a fact that Aura’s mother and sister ruefully note). Keith is your usual shark-like unavailable player with vague talk about girlfriends and ex-girlfriends who is quite believably drawn to Aura when he thinks he can get pills from her, and also when she tells him that she might be seeing Jed (his eyes light up at that, even though Aura isn’t quite telling the truth, and Call makes it clear that Keith’s interest is piqued because he enjoys breaking up couples). The public sex that Aura winds up having with Keith is brief, sordid and in some netherworld of not-quite-funny and not-quite-serious that feels pretty much spot-on.

Dunham’s Tiny Furniture is definitely promising and open enough to argue over; there are a few curious lines, like the moment when Aura stands in front of Film Forum and confesses that she doesn’t like “foreign films” and is met with immediate agreement by Jed. I was so taken aback by this mindless provincialism, which reminded me of Dunham’s own tone-deaf James Mason insult in her Voice interview, that I was literally unable to hear several lines of dialogue after this exchange. Wouldn’t Aura/Dunham know enough to make this line funnier by saying that she doesn’t like, say, the cinema of a particular country instead of just “foreign films”? And wouldn’t hipster Jed, who does his YouTube videos as “The Nietzschean Cowboy,” mock her for this, or at least agree semi-ironically? Maybe this is just a failure of performance or tone, and Dunham is young (later on, she gives a shout-out to Seinfeld re-runs), but let’s hope that this blanket dismissal isn’t meant to be taken seriously.

Watching Somewhere and then Tiny Furniture, it was very clear to me which daughter of privilege had made the better film. I’ve given up hope on Coppola at this point, though I’d still be ready to be surprised by her if she can find the right material for her sensual visual sensibility and can move away from her own too-limited experience. As for Dunham, she certainly has the right background and talent to make a definitive skewering of the Chelsea art world scene, and it’s good to see a young female director and performer who not only isn’t afraid to be quietly funny, but who sees the humor in practically everything without being judgmental.

Somewhere

Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film Journal, Senses of Cinema and the L Magazine, among other publications.