Monday, February 27th, 2012

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.

80 Comments / Post A Comment

barnhouse (#1,326)

Well said, thank you. It's self-evident really that those who come up poor know more and have more to say. Wealth, even moderate wealth, is a huge handicap to young'uns.

Moff (#28)

@barnhouse: Mmm. Besides the numerous examples of artists who grew up in comfort and have had plenty to say (Faulkner, Woolf, George Eliot, Byron, Samuel R. Delany, Shakespeare, and, uh, probably David Foster Wallace, in all fairness, to name just a few), there are also plenty of poor people who don't know shit and have nothing to say. It's self-evident really, or ought to be by now, that wealth doesn't necessarily make life easier. Depending on the life, it can even make it plenty harder.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Well… I'm talking about having to work, as opposed to not having to work. (So, not Wallace…) Plus when I say "came up poor" I meant, established a literary career starting from the bottom. I would argue that yes, Orwell was a more competent judge of the world and had more to say about like politics, for example, than Virginia Woolf, and for this reason. Not that I don't enjoy her work, I do, very much. She complains of these limitations herself, actually, like in Three Guineas.

Dave Bry (#422)

@barnhouse I think it's just very difficult to divide the world up like that, in terms of "knowing more" and "having more to say" artistically based on environmental factors. The thing that makes good art is the skill in expressing or execution, not what you know. The work itself. The expressing whatever it is an artist, or would-be artist, knows well. Everyone knows something. Something unique, even. The expressing it is the challenge. And I don't think socioeconomic factors affect that.

barnhouse (#1,326)

Socioeconomic factors affect everything, surely? This is thin ice for me, I guess, because your argument is completely convincing in the abstract. But in practice it seems evident that too much comfort growing up tends to produce artists of a very superficial kind. This is a limitation that could be and has been fought back against, successfully.

Paul Newman I think once said of the troubles his kids faced because of their dad's money and fame, something like, they have to climb down off of your mountain before they can climb their own.

Dave Bry (#422)

@barnhouse I will step out on to some thin ice with you, and say that I think art, or the artistic impulse, I guess, comes from a place essentially different from environmental factors. (I hear the ice cracking, because I don't much like essentialist talk of any kind.) It'd be interesting to do a wide ranging study of the great artists throughout history and quantitatively compare socioeconomic statuses they were born into. (Or maybe this would not be interesting, or, like everything else, it's probably already been done.) I would guess that it would come out pretty equal all things considered and taken into account.

Moff (#28)

@Dave Bry: Goddammit, I deleted my comment. Which said, basically:

My guess is the artistic impulse is something essentially different from environment, but that environment heavily affects whether it gets expressed. And maybe it's hard for rich people to express it, because they have a lot more invested in conformity and not disrupting the status quo. I disagreed with Maria's first, offhand comment, but I totally see what she means below about insularity.

And this has probably been done too, but I'd like to see a study on the correlation between great artists and loved ones dying when the artists were young. Because that pops up a lot.

Moff (#28)

(Of course, you can be poor and have plenty invested in not disrupting the status quo, too. So, I dunno.)

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Dave Bry I suspect you would find that the socioeconomic makeup of the arts scene today very closely mirrors that of the late 18th century, to the extent that such things are comparable.

Except Lord Byron would've moved to Brooklyn.

pepper (#676)

@barnhouse Three words: Mr. Bailey, Grocer.

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

Hey, me and Lena Dunham have the same birthday!

Sorry I don't have anything more substantive to contribute : /

boyofdestiny (#1,243)

@boyofdestiny I should clarify that it's the same birth date. She's younger than me, so I guess that obligates me to shake my fist menacingly and begrudge her success.

Leon Tchotchke (#14,331)

Everyone knows that all the best art has been made by independently wealthy people whose privilege protected them from having to ever deal with the trivialities of a normal existence.

After all, could Joseph Conrad have written Heart of Darkness if he hadn't had his family's schooner to sail around the world in for four years? Would Joyce have written A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man if he hadn't been able to look out over the sea of poor people that surrounded his family's palatial castle? Good GOD, man, would Pollock have painted No. 5, 1948 if he'd been forced to sully his hands with the common labor of the peasant class?!

@Leon Tchotchke Your inclusion of Conrad seems, to be charitable [read: "condescending as fuck"], curious.

Leon Tchotchke (#14,331)

@My Number Is My Address Would a grateful world have Van Halen's 'Panama' if the Right Honorable Sir Edward Lodewijk van Halen, Fourth Earl of Halen, hadn't provided the band with an endowment and a furnished estate overlooking the Rhone river valleys on which to pursue their first gentle struggles with the lofty creative processes?

Leon Tchotchke (#14,331)

@My Number Is My Address Also if you're saying Conrad's family was rich, I'd retort by saying that by the time it mattered they were not only rich, but also exiled and dead. He's actually a really good example, now that I think about it, since he's a rich guy who wound up going out in the world and living like a normal person and created art that reflected his experiences as a result?

@Leon Tchotchke Now you're just talking nonsense. Panama is, was, and always shall be. If it hadn't been discovered by v. Halen et al it would have been stumbled upon soon enough by some other stalwart travellers of the sonic waves. Dexy's Midnight Runners, perhaps. It is what Dr. Who (cantab) would call a "fixed point" in history which no amount of time-travelling jiggery-pokery or counter-factual hocus-pocus could dislodge.

@Leon Tchotchke I just think of him more as a Robert Dupea (from Five Easy Pieces) than any kind of working class hero. Albeit with more political complications. And by no means to his detriment.

stuffisthings (#1,352)

@Leon Tchotchke Don't forget Herman Melville, whose decision to live off his family wealth rather than seeking his own way in the world led to the massive success of Moby Dick, allowing him to live comfortably off the royalties in his later years.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

And yet Pierre Menard devoted the wherewithal of his patronesses to the Don Quixote, for what?

deepomega (#1,720)

Yes, clearly the best art is made in a vacuum of wealth. Ideally, all artists would work in a room soundproofed with stacks of hundred dollar bills naked tip the wall.

deepomega (#1,720)

@deepomega The Impossibility of Not Making Typos When Commenting Using My Phone At Eight In The Morning

HiredGoons (#603)

Um, having to choose between living in Brooklyn and Manhattan is not a struggle.

jfruh (#713)

@HiredGoons SERIOUSLY, is there someone who honestly thinks that being "forced" to live in Park Slope is the worst thing that ever happened to a creative person? Yikes.

flossy (#1,402)

@HiredGoons Will you please hush? Some of us fully intend to look back on the phase of our early 20s spent loft-hopping in Brooklyn amongst the Oberlin alums as "our lean years," dammit.

The iron of my creativity was forged in the crucible of the line for brunch at Enids, etc.

HiredGoons (#603)

@flossy: GET OUT OF MY NEIGHBORHOOD (drinks?)

davidwatts (#72)

@HiredGoons And just THE IDEA that Park Slope was the most rough, Brooklyn-y place she could come up with . . .

flossy (#1,402)

@HiredGoons *call me

WaityKatie (#79,377)

@HiredGoons Ha, I read over that part really fast and assumed she was saying that Lena chose to stay in Park Slope with her parents and live the easy life, rather than living somewhere she could afford on money she actually earned. But she's saying that Park Slope is where poor people have to live? Oh.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@jfruh If someone forced me to live in Park Slope, I'd kill my (or someone else's) self. And I'm saying this as a software engineer.

werewolfbarmitzvah (#16,402)

I am so glad I read this instead of reading the n+1 review.

In the last few years it's fully sunk in that anyone I know in my general age group who does some form of ART as their fulltime career, whether it's creative writing, filmmaking, or whatever else, has a very affluent family and has received a lot of help from their very affluent family. On the one hand, finally accepting this truth has mostly stopped me from comparing myself to these people (now that I've "given up" and embraced having a regular office job that lets me not teeter on the verge of homelessness), but on the other hand, it's made me appreciate contemporary film and literature approximately 1000000x less than I did before.

deepomega (#1,720)

@werewolfbarmitzvah Are you including commercial art? Because I know a ton of commercial artists who came up from nothing, and do "fine" art on the side.

werewolfbarmitzvah (#16,402)

@deepomega Nah, I wouldn't include commercial art. Mostly just the fun, esoteric, "I'm gonna videotape my leg hair as it grows while beluga whales coo in the background!" stuff that is unlikely to pay one's rent.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Dudes who move art on art trucks? Take a survey of those guys.

I always thought a snood was the thing you wore over your moustaches at night to keep them orderly. Women! It's like a whole other language!

SidAndFinancy (#4,328)

A third way to look at tiny furniture would be through binoculars the wrong way, but that would be silly, because it would be so tiny as to be nigh invisible.

hockeymom (#143)

@SidAndFinancy I love you.

Emily (#20)

Hmm, I didn't mean to encourage such black-and-white ways of thinking about wealth and art. A little rain falls into everyone's life, even if it's hard to see that's what's happening through the layers of Of A Kind scarves artfully draped over their sadness.

And being poor can also make people jerks with huge chips on their shoulders, which doesn't make anyone better at anything.

@Emily I think you did a fair and even-handed job– it's just a super sensitive issue. How could it not be?

I enjoyed reading both pieces. I'm glad this can be the focus of discussion as opposed to– as you've both pointed out– Dunham's appearance or whatever. I'm a big fan of her work! I feel similarly about Sofia Coppola; I appreciate they're both making honest work about their own personal experience, whatever it's worth.

Moff (#28)

@Emily: Unless you're trying to win a jerk pageant with a shoulder-strength competition!

Dave Bry (#422)

@Emily This is right. And I don't think the essay implied that. It's "obstacles" in general that make life/art/anything more interesting. And people born wealthy are certainly able to have obstacles of their own, different kinds, maybe, that they encounter in their own way. Maybe some of those obstacles, like you say, are just harder to see. The "money can't buy happiness" thing is actually pretty true. Both great art and crap art can be and is made by people born both rich and poor. "Every story has got to be told," Chuck D once said, in reference to the fact that gangsta rap (and its attendant focus on poverty and the struggle to escape it) was starting to so dominate his genre. "If you mow your lawn and buy flowers for your grandma, that's a good story, too." (I'm paraphrasing. But that's close.)

barnhouse (#1,326)

I made my first comment very offhandedly (for which I apologize) because I am in contact with a lot of privileged kids, one way and another. Indeed they suffer, and what they very commonly suffer is this insularity, where they don't know how to act outside the narrow parameters of the "comfortable" world they've grown up in?

There are exceptions, sure. And there are ignorant people, and talented people, of every station. Just calling 'em how I see 'em.

Dave Bry (#422)

@barnhouse Fair enough. I think that the ways people can suffer, and how that then plays into art, are too myriad and complex to make that kind of better/worse call. But I understand what you're saying.

jfruh (#713)

I really did heart Tiny Furniture, but isn't Aura's complete and total lack of real-world survival skills, and the hilarious and infantalizing mixups this results in, one of the central jokes of the movie? And isn't the comic hyper-closeness of her family also meant to be an object of a certain degree of fun. I mean, yes, this reflects Lena Dunham's reality to some extent, but the movie struck me as very self-aware about how absurd it all was.

C_Webb (#855)

Gumport's review is almost uncannily like/unlike Franzen's bizarre assessment of Edith Wharton in the NYer.

By the way, does anybody know, is she Barrows Dunham's grand-daughter? That would be awesome/sad. I think I heard he has a son who does things with model trains so maybe it's genetic. I have never heard of this movie before but I like miniatures.

Lockheed Ventura (#5,536)

@My Number Is My Address I believe she is the daughter of Jeff Dunham. Her wealth comes from the Achmed the Dead Terrorist routine.

deepomega (#1,720)

@Lockheed Ventura She's from puppet money.

@deepomega I'm just replying because I was only allowed to thumb's up once. Consider this about six more.

Brad Nelson (#2,115)

amazing that people don't disqualify the movie on the basis of the main character's name is aura

HiredGoons (#603)

@Brad Nelson: I like Brad.

Matt (#26)

Well that's racist.

@Brad Nelson Until you said this I was giving it a pass by thinking it was pronounced "ow-ra." Now I'm angry.

MichelleDean (#7,041)

A spectrum of privilege that extends from Brooklyn to Manhattan isn't much more convincing, though. Particularly where, as here in Gumport's usage and then impliedly in Gould's, Brooklyn is used less as a geographical designation and more as shorthand for what certain young (often white) liberal arts graduates see as "Brooklyn." (I believe that professions other than "office work" and ::cough:: "freelancing" are well-represented in Brooklyn.)

I realize Gould doesn't necessarily disagree with this – I'm just taking her point out further. I just don't feel like there would have been that much of a change in Dunham's outlook were she "forced" (a yes, hilarious word) to live in Park Slope for a while. Or even Bed-Stuy, frankly, because it would have been a very specific kind of Bed-Stuy existence she would have signed up for, I suspect.

I think where Gumport's point could have been profitable was in pointing out that if you are going to write about the rich you might as well do it with nuance and particularity rather than just have this cipher of "richness" hanging over your work. (This is where James and Wharton managed to subvert class-bound myopia, IMHO.) But Gould's right – that's not what Gumport wrote.

That said I rather liked Tiny Furniture, though I expected to hate it.

KarlLaFong (#3,568)

EG, you rock; Tiny Furniture does not. I thought @ first it was a satire about narcissism, until it began to dawn that the auteur wasn't in on the joke. Being closer to the mother's age, I wondered from whence sprung her money and sense of entitlement. Did people buy her shitty one-trick art and make her that rich? I could go on, but I has me standards.

davidwatts (#72)

In all honesty, plenty of great art is made by wealthy people of privilege — Jonathan Franzen covered this the other week in the New Yorker w/r/t Edith Wharton (now mostly behind a paywall).

Related — did I just approvingly site Jonathan fucking Franzen? Please help me.

C_Webb (#855)

@davidwatts I will help you, but I'll hit you first — there's a great piece in LARB taking Franzen down, and an even better spoof of his essay on the Kenyon Review site.

Mr. B (#10,093)

@C_Webb Franzen takedowns are quite a cottage industry these days.

Tulletilsynet (#333)

Why is it I can't think of him anymore without hearing this?

Perhaps Aura can move in with Shakespeare's sister.

iantenna (#5,160)

while the questions at hand are interesting and important, this movie is objectively not. it is a ham-fisted turd that, pre-internet, would have died a painless, unnoticed death as someone's massively flawed film school project.

iantenna (#5,160)

or, in other words, FUCK THAT MOVIE, SERIOUSLY.

iantenna (#5,160)

also, this seems appropriate here.

paperbackwriter (#2,844)

Tiny Furniture is the equivalent of the Skymall catalog. You can leaf through it, but the only joy you'll get out of it is marveling at how anyone would think any of the crap inside is worth what it's being sold for.

iantenna (#5,160)

and, while we're ragging on the super rich (that's what's going on here, right?) i'll say this again; the best thing about a trust fund is you get to be whatever you say you are. the rest of us "are" whatever shit job pays the bills, the rest is just a hobby.

Niko Bellic (#1,312)

@iantenna "you get to be whatever you say you are"

As long as what you say you are is a useless, lazy fuck (a damn hard thing to be when you are broke).

Abe Sauer (#148)

But what the ways of looking at reading and commenting on a blog about an N+1 review of Tiny Furniture during the workday?

Abe Sauer (#148)

@Abe Sauer *about* :(

Trilby (#3,897)

Societies that reach the point beyond basic subsistence start to produce more interesting art. Also, I remember very well that the world told me to shut up when I was young. It finally got through to me and I did. But before that, I was writing some pretty good stories and novels. On the other hand, I watched while contemporaries like Anne Beattie wrote stuff that was no better than my stuff and received encouragement for some reason and got respect and renown. Why?

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

@Trilby Luck. That, and the system has a hard time handling more than one thing of a kind at a time. Write some new ones. Send them out.

C_Webb (#855)

@Trilby I was always surprised by how much money was lurking around the edges of Anne Beattie stories — they have that northeastern preppy quality of not wanting to appear rich, but everyone in them went to Yale.

dntsqzthchrmn (#2,893)

So many levels of I-don't-want-to-feed-this-monster here (trust fund auteurs, n+1, etc etc). Hey, maybe this'll work out for everybody involved the way Citizens United appears to be headed — they'll spend themselves to death and lose into the bargain.

stephanus28 (#221,964)

Very nice, thanks for sharing.

KeithTalent (#2,014)

I just read all of Edward St Aubyns's "Patrick Melrose" novels, holiday kindle binge styles. He was a rich upper class fellow, and the books were terrific in parts. Just a data point. And yes, I had never heard of such novels until the new yorker review of last week.

marzipan (#222,470)

I have tried really, really hard not to begrudge Lena this film. Because sour grapes are just unattractive, you know? But we were in college together, took a couple classes, and….I was a hell of a lot smarter. Just a hell of a lot. And now she's in talks with Seth Rogen to make big feature films and I've accomplished absolutely nothing meaningful in the same amount of time. Doesn't mean I'm not writing. Doesn't mean anyone is interested. I don't know. This may come off as bitter, but, I wish the playing field for creative endeavors was just a little more even.

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