The New York Observers
Lena Dunham’s Girls, Candace Bushnell, Katie Roiphe, Whit Stillman, Chloë Sevigny, and the voices of generations.
Photograph by Jojo Whilden/HBO.
Girls (HBO, Sundays at 10:30 p.m. ET) is an exceptional piece of American art, as witty as The Women, richer in raunch than Portnoy’s Complaint, charismatic like Sleater-Kinney. A lot of people are writing about it, some of them even literately, and that is generally a cheerful development.
I am sketching an indulgent love letter to young Ms. Lena Dunham. She is the author and the star of Girls and, with Judd Apatow and Jenni Konner, its executive producer. I am on board with Paul Schrader’s idea that Lena ought, on the strength of Tiny Furniture (2010)—flesh and soul as arranged for a Canon 7D on a budget of $25,000, a movie anticipating Girls’ approach to telling stories about women coming of age in the cultural center of our technology society—that Lena ought to be a household name like Woody or Marty or Spike. (Schrader says this in a video clip appended to Tiny Furniture’s Criterion Collection DVD, an honor I initially thought premature but which, by now, no duh.) I have decided that she, not yet 26, is a ferocious talent and pleasant provocatrix, journalistic and diaristic in her approach. I have been thinking about “Who’s the Voice of this Generation?”, a 2006 Lev Grossman essay on a kind of decline among novelists: “Has the country's artistic talent been siphoned off by sexier, better-paying media with bigger audiences? (TV has been suspiciously good lately.)” And I am thinking that a country hosting a discussion of whether Dunham might represent “a voice of a generation,” as her character calls herself, and as Dunham shies away from calling herself without quite writing the notion off, should count itself lucky.
Photo by Jojo Whilden/HBO
I have been thinking about Dunham’s short film The Fountain—a YouTube slip of juvenilia included on the Criterion DVD. In a blog post for the website of the Guggenheim Museum, Dunham explains that she made the clip as a college kid in Oberlin, Ohio, home of the Yeowomen: “I didn’t go to film school. Instead I went to liberal arts school and self-imposed a curriculum of creating tiny flawed video sketches, brief meditations on comic conundrums, and slapping them on the Internet.” She goes on to say that The Fountain blew up in a comments-section teacup as if she’d popped a squat at the Armory:
The video was one that depicted me in a bikini taking a bath in the public fountain at Oberlin College, where I went to school. I conceived it as some pseudo-performance-art-parody response to La Dolce Vita, a movie I hadn’t even seen. It was all sort of Jackass-y and fun. I anticipated a few comments from YouTubers saying things like “This is mad boring,” or ”Get a life, dork.” But what I got was a 15,000-comment-long debate about whether or not I am fat….
My main embarrassment wasn’t with my unacceptable figure. It was with the fact that I didn’t think the piece was very good.
Sketching the idea, I am thinking what to think about a thing Francis Coppola said while drowning in Apocalypse Now: “To me the great hope is that, now, these little 8mm video recorders and stuff’ve come out, some people who normally wouldn’t make movies are going to be making them, and suddenly, one day, some little fat girl in Ohio is going to be the new Mozart."
Courtesy of Lena Dunham/The Criterion Collection.
I am working in a very quiet bar on a Saturday afternoon, trying to prepare to try to write by reading “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” and two national newspapers. Why don’t the Times and the Journal each just go ahead and consolidate their social-media coverage into a regular section?—something like, say, “Sports”? Every morning the papers hit the door. Every morning yards of agitation and anxiety and self-alienation, briefs on how to get and spend our identities, SEO WTFs, queries about manners and mores and the mediated self, and so forth—these meet the door downstairs with a solid thud. On Monday, the front right-hand column of the Times will find Jenna Wortham writing about Facebook’s largest acquisition yet—a $1 billion deal for Instagram. That is the future. In Saturday’s Journal, there is a piece by Julia Angwin and Jeremy Singer-Vine about Facebook apps sucking the story of your life dry for profit, and I am weighing this story against my general understanding of the evolving media culture and Dunham’s engagement with it as an artist and a personality.
I am reading the paper, and the bartender—23, maybe?—is updating the other patron on her love life. She’d been seeing a guy, but it fizzled out. He started spending more time with another girl instead, and the bartender didn’t like him quite enough to put herself out there and pursue an exclusive arrangement, so it fizzled out, which has been kind of a bummer. She is explaining to the other patron that one element of the bummer is, because she was linked to guy and his friends on Instagram, she has had an automatic view onto his ongoing life. She could pick up her phone and watch the other girl riding his motorcycle, straddling the bike that she, the bartender, had imagined herself on. The other patron wondered, “What ever happened to the romance of ‘I’m never gonna see you again"?
This article represents a stab at a start at writing around a show so intimate and impassioning as Girls. The piece wants to flow like a length of ribbon unspooled in asides, advancing at digressive stretches, looping old news in ellipses to retrace patterns of thoughts, and so on, and on, until the whole of the thing gathers like a bloom of a bow pinned at the point of an eye. I have more tangential questions than I do straight declarations. But so does Girls?
* * *
In 1991, William Strauss and Neil Howe published Generations, forwarding a cyclical theory of history in which America was born to parents hailing from the Awakening Generation (idealists born between 1701 and 1723), the Liberty Generation (born between 1724 and 1741 and shaped by the Great Awakening), and the Republican Generation (1742-1766, tempered in the crucible of the French and Indian War). According to the Strauss-Howe calendar, I clock in at late Generation X, among the people born between 1961 and 1981, children of the Cold War and MTV postmodernism.
Courtesy of Vintage Books.
I sense that my narrow mini-generation of cultural consumers—people who went to college, probably, in the middle of the 1990s—are the people whose self-imposed syllabus of voice-of-a-generation reading included Bret Easton Ellis (born 1964), Jay McInerney (born 1955), and the Canadian Douglas Coupland (born 1961), among others. These would be people who fondly remember the square format of Coupland’s Generation X and the Vintage Contemporaries cover of McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City—a night scene where an inside-out Hopper meets a remodeled Ruscha as the sign at Odeon makes a neon dream and the windows of twin towers shine like facets of mirrorballs.
My mini-generation of cultural consumers may have owned Mellow Gold on CD and watched Slacker and Reality Bites on VHS and then gone into adulthood looking up at Kicking and Screaming, Walking and Talking. But I’m trying, impossibly, to skirt generalities here, and anyway this is America, where we do magical thinking, occult populism, and Hollywood astrology, searching for our selves in our stars. Maybe there is utility in narrowing the question further?
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.