Two Ways Of Looking At 'Tiny Furniture'

“Who among us is noble enough not to envy Lena Dunham?” Elizabeth Gumport begins her analysis of Tiny Furniture in the n+1 film review supplement. (Disclosure: I’m a contributor.)  Dunham’s born-on-third-baseness, and the fact that her autobiographical film addressed it directly, was one of the factors that made it nearly impossible for a lot of critics to treat TF fairly when it was first released.  In retrospect, this seems like an embarrassing mistake on their part. Worse, they also screwed up, per Gumport, by assuming that by turning the camera on herself, Dunham was making a movie about her appearance: “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.”   These are points I’d been waiting for someone to make, and I’m grateful Gumport made them.  But then she describes her reading of the movie’s plot, and while I think her perspective is valid, it couldn’t be more different from mine.

Gumport describes the moment when Aura (Dunham) decides against moving in with her Oberlin friend Frankie in Brooklyn, electing instead to continue living rent-free in her mom’s Tribeca loft:

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.

Wait, let me get this straight. If the choices are a) shucking the privilege you were born to, at least superficially, and spending your early twenties working at the kind of degrading, formative office jobs that force people to confront their worst tendencies and those of others on a daily basis and b) living with your parents and using your luxurious access to time and money to make art from your cushioned experience, in Gumport’s opinion, b) is the BRAVE choice?

I guess it’s hard for me not to take this personally and get upset; like most people, I didn’t have the luxury of deciding whether to try to make art or to try to make a living.  (See: Gumport’s expert analysis of why people envy Dunham so much they’re blinded to her work’s great qualities).  So let me calm down and read Gumport’s final paragraph:

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.

(deep breathing)

Sorry, I just … wow. I guess the only way to answer that question — “Who knows what [people] would have achieved without [obstacles]?” is to reverse it and and ask: Who knows what Lena Dunham might have achieved with them?  It’s an interesting thought experiment, actually: the experience of Dunham’s early 20s, filtered through the lens of a particular kind of crappy experience that she will never have. It would have been a different movie: maybe a worse one, sure.  Or maybe … an even better one.

The luxury of being allowed to speak before you know how badly the world wants you to shut up is not just a luxury granted to the rich, it’s a luxury granted to the very young. Obstacles of any nature would have given us a movie with more perspective, and its tightly-focused  immediacy is one of TF‘s charms.  But I, for one, think obstacles — and the skills we gain from learning to get around them — make people and their work more interesting.  If her next projects are going to be something other than TF retreads, it’ll be because Dunham has, in spite of everything,managed to stumble across some.