Art by Victoria Elliott
The Many Loves of a Southern Cinephile:
The Woman Before the Girls
If you’ve been following American TV culture as recapitulated through the Internet, then you’re probably aware of the premiere of Lena Dunham’s HBO comedy, Girls. While television is, admittedly, out of the purview of this column, I’ve mentioned my love for Dunham’s directorial work in the past, specifically her 2010 feature, Tiny Furniture, which more or less won her the critical admiration of enough people to believe that she could (with a little help from Judd Apatow) pull off a prime-time series.
In short: Dunham is in her mid-twenties, a daughter of New York artist Laurie Simmons (who also stars as her mother in Furniture), and makes movies (and now television) about being an unsympathetic, over-privileged, self-absorbed, affluent millennial who is grossly misinformed about getting a job in this staid economy. Doesn’t that sound infinitely watchable? Well, of course it isn’t, and that’s exactly what’s spawned so much debate about the relevance of Girls. Some of the backlash has been about the show’s lack of racial diversity (the main characters are four cluelessly white women). Some has been about the gratuitous and unpleasant sex coming across as moralistic as opposed to, say, realistic. And, most alarmingly, some critics have (duh) alleged class bias (each of the lead actresses is a daughter of some near-celebrity).
What’s been most curious to me is that, in all of these discussions about Dunham being the child of Manhattan haute bourgeoisie, or portraying young women to be utterly bereft of virtue, ambition, or self-control, and, most significantly, Dunham being a female director (hello! female directors are sadly still bird-of-paradise rare in the industry), no one has really been talking about her logical forebear, the woman who, basically, made this business inhabitable for Miss Dunham: Nicole Holofcener.
Holofcener’s work is a definitive influence on Dunham (she even acknowledges as much in her florid New York magazine profile), and for obvious reasons. Charles H. Joffe, Woody Allen’s longtime champion producer, is Holofcener’s stepdad. She, too, roamed the streets of Manhattan as a wee bairn of affluence. She has an actress-muse, the ever-stunning Catherine Keener, who has appeared, more or less, as some avatar of her own biography in each of her four feature films. Her films (Walking and Talking, Lovely & Amazing, Friends with Money, and Please Give) are all about women conducting their lives with such crippling narcissism they can’t hardly see straight. It’s not for nothing that Holofcener is dubbed (affectionately, I hope) the “Female Woody Allen.”
While Holofcener doesn’t star in her own movies, she readily admits to cribbing from her own life and the lives of friends. Thematically, Holofcener broaches the subject of female friendship and sisterhood constantly, something that Dunham’s work also strives to do (the strained sister dynamic in Tiny Furniture felt identical to my own). But, with little to no exception, in Holofcener pictures, the lives of women (and, for the most part, intelligent, economically comfortable women) are exposed so ruthlessly that they are the assholes—just look at some general characteristics of each of Keener’s roles:
· Walking and Talking: Woman who sleeps with a man she refers to as “The Ugly Guy,” then stalks him when he doesn’t call her back.
· Lovely & Amazing: Married woman, who has no career ambitions, cheats on her husband with a teenage boy.
· Friends with Money: Successful writer who doesn’t realize the egregious additions to her home are driving down the property value for every other person in her neighborhood.
· Please Give: Successful Manhattan antiques dealer who buys furniture from estates for a pittance and sells it at an inflated price—she basically spends her entire career jealously waiting for people to die so she can get things from them.
But Keener’s not the only example—the majority of Holofcener’s female characters are deeply, impressively flawed. Jennifer Aniston in Friends with Money is a plodding pothead who spends her days cleaning houses and stalker-calling an old lover. Amanda Peet in Please Give is a beautiful and remorselessly shallow and emotionally absent sister. Anne Heche in Walking and Talking is a joyless psychologist who fantasizes about sleeping with her mentally ill patients. Yes, these scenarios are all perfect comic fodder—that is, if you have a cringe-inducing sense of humor—but they’re also impeccably realistic portrayals and, spoiler alert: Almost none of these women change for the better.
Holofcener’s work is resonant for this reason. It’s aggressively about women, without being exactly for women—things are so universally relatable that they’re not tailored for a specific audience. If Holofcener has received similar rapacious criticism for her portrayals and biases, I haven’t seen it. Films like Friends with Money explicitly engage creative upper-class and independently wealthy families—she’s revealed in interviews that she doesn’t understand why the one conversation women won’t have with each other is how much money they make, or if they earn anything at all, as if there’s still taboo around women discussing finances.
In Please Give, Catherine Keener’s Kate begins to experience serious guilt for her comfortable lot in life—all the while kvetching that the old lady next door won’t die and relinquish her adjoining apartment to satisfy Kate’s expansion plans (yes, that would be two instances in Holofcener films where ego manifests itself in obnoxious home renovations). In her efforts to reconcile her guilt, Kate partakes in such ill-advised charity feats as attempting to volunteer with a disabled men’s recreational program or palming twenty-dollar bills into the hands of homeless blokes. None of these superficial gestures will solve her scruples because she’s far too self-absorbed to know otherwise, even to know what she’s doing is the opposite of generous; it’s self-serving.
There is, on the other hand, the question of race. It’s very true that the majority of Holofcener’s ensembles are all white women, but that’s not to say she ignores issues of race all together. Quite stridently, in fact, in her 2001 film Lovely & Amazing, Holofcener performs the dual task of introducing a racial dialogue through a solid character whose very existence in the plot is a comment on privilege. Annie (the charming Raven Goodwin) is the adopted black daughter of Brenda Blethyn’s Jane, a white woman who, by all appearances, has money, but no job, and who’s about to go in for some serious liposuction. That’s not a knock against her—Jane seems to be a competent, if not accomplished, mother who sees no harm in helping raise another girl in need of a benevolent female presence (Annie’s mother is a crackhead). What happens, though, is that Annie isn’t just a poor needy black girl—with a comfortable lifestyle and a doting mom, she, too, transforms into a beleaguering brat. Her older sister Michelle (Keener) can barely stand her, while her other sister, Elizabeth (Emily Mortimer), who is possibly as equally insecure as Annie herself, tries to look out for her despite being taken advantage of by Annie’s occasional guile. It’s a fascinating relationship that’s handled as complexly and matter-of-factly as it should be.
There was some disgust that the only black character in the pilot episode of Girls was a jovial, singing homeless man who appears like some weird Magic Negro iteration out of nowhere. Frankly, the circumstances of his role did feel like that. But I would also like to remind the vicious detractors that pretty much the only black character in Holofcener’s Please Give was a scruffy-looking man Kate tries to force her box of leftovers on, only to find out that he’s not, in fact, in need, but waiting for a table outside of a classy Manhattan restaurant.
Point being: let your biases beware. There’s not so much shocking content in Girls that we’ve never seen before. It’s probably just that there wasn’t so much hype built around an unflatteringly female and cruelly honest Holofcener picture, although there deserves to be.