Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Slaves to Unconvention: TINY FURNITURE, ANOTHER EARTH, The Sarah Silverman Show

A great scene comes through the otherwise trite Another Earth like a cyclone: A female TV journalist is broadcasting live from a radio control room, watched on TV by Britt Marling's family. The first person making contact with the recently arrived Earth 2, the journalist talks over the radio to someone she gradually realizes another version of herself from the new planet.  So that means there are now two of everyone. "Maybe the other me didn't make the same mistakes," she notes. Yes, but maybe her hair is lifeless and dull and not stunning like yours, Britt Marling!

She's beautiful, is Brit Marling, with golden hair which she hides under janitorial hood ala some kind of repentant nun, mopping floors and moping over the past. While a minor she killed the wife and kids of some dorky composer via a drunk driving accident (and hackneyed script workshops)-- and now she's out of kid jail and all grown up and wracked with guilt and oh-so obsessed with spying on this dopey composer and she doesn't have the guts to tell him who she is. So she pretends to be from a cleaning service giving out free samples and she continues to serve and worship him and clean his place and it's all rather creepy, like the fantasy of any mid-life crisis slacker, where some beautiful young girl gets rid of your wife for you and then comes and cleans your house for free and eventually falls in love with your sorry middle-aged ass. Like all film school screenplays, it smacks of misogyny that's so deep no amount of therapy or PC post-grad hand-wringing will remove it. You just know this dull, one-note mourner of guy would never get a hottie like Marling unless just this twisted scenario happened and in the end that's the only reason for it.

Rembrandt-ish darkness and sunlight impress in Another Earth far more than the characters as they clean and sulk in the dopey composer's artfully demolished farmhouse. The cliche'd two-character framing undermines the radio and TV broadcasts about the second earth, which would have the weird post-modern immediacy of the best parts of the first two Romero dead movies--where we're just watching TV news come apart at the seams--if everyone wasn't too busy underacting. Instead we're forced to endure the crisis of conscience Sundance screenwriting instructor-mandated 'human story.' Those Sundance mandaters should be asking why -- why bother visiting this alternate earth if it's exactly the same? Are y'all that narcissistic? Y'all that afraid to go somewhere new for a change?

Poetry journal conceits aside the moral here is that actors love roles that require lots of emoting and screen time but less memorization of dialogue and if you let your cellist boyfriend design your score for you don't be surprised if he drowns your every muted reaction shot in tired chamber sawing and wants to make a big production of serenading you by musical saw in an empty auditorium as you visualize old Sputnik photos. You're Britt Marling, damnit! You look gorgeous in front of a big blue Earth, and you're hip and been to some fancy school for math geeks and this is what you're going to let yourself be seduced by?

She does grant herself a really good monologue about learning to love the things that annoy you if there's no way to change them, and there's a Tarkovsky-esque moment playing Nintendo boxing and a great final shot. But in the end, why care about a guy so selfish he tries to talk his girlfriend out of going to space after she wins the essay contest and gets approval from a Richard Branson stand-in? Imagine if Charlie's uncle tried to talk him into giving up his golden ticket because his bunions hurt and he didn't want Charlie to go without him! A guy that self-absorbed deserves to lose his Marling. - **

So I've been watching the old Sarah Silverman Show a lot on Netflix. I love it since it provides all the elements Another Earth so dolefully lacks, namely mischief and a sense the goings-on aren't just cliched emotions being trod out to appease some hack screenwriting teacher.  There's a great animal cunning that comes over Sarah's face when she's stalking her prey or marching purposefully around her apartment; she can be insufferably coy but the gleefully amoral, post-apathetic sprite she plays on the show is at least alive and Nietzschean. I could do without the two hairy nerd slothful, poop-obsessed gay dude neighbors and the ham cop boyfriend, but Sarah's real life sister plays her sister and she really seems like someone I could talk to.

In order to grasp the Silverman revolutionary aesthetic, first see The Big Sleep (1946), Meet Me in Saint Louis (1939), and Animal Crackers (1930), and then think of Silverman as a cross between Carmen Sternwood, Tootie and Harpo.

Tiny Furniture (2011) explores life as an intelligent but negative body image-stricken recent graduate whose major was in film theory, though she never seems to make any trenchant Antonioni references. Instead she throws herself at self-absorbed moochers and druggie restaurant kitchen chefs (a notoriously slutty lot), and while the whole "I learned the truth at 17" motif is subtextualized it looms right out into the top text, and Lena Dunham refuses to even smile or hold up her chin, and eventually her inertia drags us down, especially in high-def.

Dunham, second from right.
Lena is the real-life daughter of a famous artist I've never heard of so its understandable she'd try to counterbalance her mom's extroversion and acclaim via a rejection of all aesthetic and social criteria, but why then punish the viewer? Her character's one claim to fame is a shoddy youtube bunch of exercises in a skimpy bathing suit and it seems like we're supposed to read this unappealing spectacle as a challenge to standards of feminine beauty. But more than that it's a misguided bid to belittle her artist mother; to essentially out-maneuver 'Art' itself via a primitive return to Willendorfery; to return the shock value and uncanny horror elements to nudity; to strip the bride bare for her gay bachelors, as it were. It's a good start, but it won't get you laid. This isn't Willendorf or a Dubuffet 1950"corps de dame" mixed media on canvas. This is the movies! In hi-def! Have a heart!

Jean Dubuffet, 1950
There's nothing to be ashamed of in being frumpy if you embrace it but don't expect us to do it before you do it yourself, am I right, Montel?! That just shows a contempt for the public that's probably founded in Dunham's deep ambivalence about what makes art successful. It's a hard thing to do, an artsy differentiation from your artist mom, made with her money, presumably. Talk about a stacked deck, it's a whole lot like Godard asking for money from his rich Swiss dad to finish his Parisian critique of the bourgeoisie.

And there's a reason flawless skin and beautiful cheekbones rule, especially in hi-def. With her frumpy demeanor, Fieldsian nose, and dead eyes, you feel (or at any rate, I feel) that after only an hour or so into Tiny Furniture, you can't wait to get home, take a Silkwood shower and close your online dating account. Is that too shallow? No. It's just shallow enough.

However, Lena's real life sister plays her sister and she really seems like someone I could talk to, and Jemima Kirke (left) as the posh Brit accented party girl Charlotte is cute, daft and completely mad. I kept wanting to whisk her away to another party, do ecstasy with her and live in her bedroom forever! Am I shallow? Why should I be expected to be less shallow than Dunham herself? She should cultivate an interest other than exposing herself to gross boys! Boys are gross. She should have hung out with Charlotte more and done lots of drugs. She would feel better and look good in no time.

Oh well, maybe she'll put that film theory degree to use yet and I have a feeling we'll see Kirke again. I hope so. To sum up, Kirke and Sarah Silverman are at least their own monsters. With gorgeous Marlin bound to dour indie convention and Dunham bound to dour rich kid myopia, we're left with the realization that film school is misleading our confused sensitive young artists, teaching them rules of story development and male conflict enhancement too well and self-realization too poorly for them to every make anything interesting, and the Kirkes must go home and sleep alone.

Escape the Sundance conventional box, girls, go ahead and tell rules of narrative and sacrifice to go the fuck themselves, and shiver in Silverman blue light of... Another Melancholia!

(POST SCRIPT - Dunham's series Girls is rocking HBO and proving everything I said wrong. Or maybe Lena read this post and took my suggestions to heart? Either way, it's hilarious that now some camps are giving her flak because her show isn't more cookie cutter banal! hahahah)


  1. Can I say Amen to your last paragraph if I haven't seen any of these? Is THAT shallow? Between your description of Tiny Furniture and the filmmaker's bon mots about not seeing the big deal in Nick Ray or The Godfather I'm already pretty prejudiced against it.

    I suspect that Dunham & her ilk would be better off dumping their years of film theory and just reading Trash, Art, and the Movies once. As any Paulette can tell you, art doesn't have to be dull. Von Trier knows that (but then I haven't seen Melancholia yet either, so I'm really getting out of my league here...)

  2. Thanks Joel. You can say amen any time. Von Trier does know that, and you need to see Melancholia right now!

    I have not heard about Dunham's Ray and Godfather comments. I'm not surprised though, considering. If you read Paulette as you suggest you learn all about people like Dunham, the elite who sneered at her praise for Taxi Driver and The Fury.


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