Sunday, December 18, 2011

Thank You TV For Intriguing Recent Movies – Part I: "Tiny Furniture"

      Many smaller movies don’t make it to a secondary urban market like Cincinnati (The Esquire and its offspring have pretty much given up on being art houses) and others aren’t released at all.  If it weren’t for IFC or Sundance Channel, I wouldn’t get to see some obscure independents, though they were reviewed in The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly, and if it weren’t for Movies on Demand, I’d miss a couple of the best contemporary films around.

Lena Dunham With Her Mother,
Laurie Simmons
      Tiny Furniture has been in rotation on Sundance.  Released last year, it was written, directed, and starred Lena Dunham and co-stars her sister Grace and her mother Laurie Simmons, a noted New York photographer.  It is seemingly autobiographical since
it tells of a new college graduate, Aura, returning home and trying to find a life for herself but, through no fault of her own, unable to connect with anyone and pretty much judged by everyone (family, friends, co-workers) in a passive-aggressive way that is both drolly funny and unexpectedly wounding.  Her character’s mother is a famed New York photographer currently focused on dioramas of doll furniture and her younger, gifted sister who doesn’t want Aura around.

      Dunham is ruthless in showing just how vagueness and disconnectedness can explode into very articulate familial rage or how a coldly, uncomfortable sex scene played in a rolling steel cylinder can become very funny because it is so awful for her character.  The pacing is deadpan and the tone is antiseptic (as is the interior set design) and yet it still maintains an ambivalent texture that is both empathetic and dispassionate.  The dialogue is sharp and Jody Lee Lipes’s cinematography provides a clarity that grounds the disparity that is the root of the film and what it says about young, urban, privileged Americans.

      Tiny Furniture is an example of “mumblecore,” a group of independent, low budget films that have premiered at music and film festivals in the past few years and show young adult millennials trying to find themselves.  Basically, they’re dealing with lowered expectations in a down turned economy after being promised their dreams and cosseted from failure by alternately over-involved and self-involved parents.  Aura even looks like she could have been one of the video daters from Mad TV’s “Lowered Expectations” running sketch.  Another indicator of Dunham’s prodigious comedic talent is that she casts herself in the most unattractive light possible – emotionally and physically and she doesn’t get a happy ending either.  Take that, Woody Allen and Judd Apatow!  

      Dunham and “mumblecore” are metaphors for the Millennial generation.  The movies are about contemporary slackers while Dunham is a gifted overachiever playing a slacker.  Having worked with a number of Millennials, I’ve experienced the overachievers and the slackers and, honestly, there aren’t many in the middle.  Dunham reportedly is developing a TV series for Apatow.  It’ll be interesting to see if she can adapt her point of view to TV.  Certainly, the tone is close to the awkwardness and asperity of The Office and the characters are as spirited and as suspended as those in Happy Endings, but will she sustain the metaphysical autobiographical details that most completely reflect contemporary culture?

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