Brow Beat

The Mini-Completist: Lena Dunham

Girls’ Lena Dunham during the 2012 SXSW Music, Film + Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas.

Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for SXSW

From time to time, Slate considers the full body of work of a major artist in a feature called The Completist. Here at Brow Beat we are starting a related series, The Mini-Completist, devoted to writers, directors, musicians, and so on with a small but compelling body of work. Up first: Lena Dunham, whose new HBO series, Girls, premiered April 15. Warning: the videos below contain profanity.

That faint shifting noise you heard around Valentine’s Day was the sound of a million (or maybe a few hundred) eyebrows being raised at the release of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture by the Criterion Collection. Though the semi-autobiographical film received widespread critical acclaim when it was released in 2010, it was only Dunham’s second feature film (and her first over an hour in length). Dunham was 23 when she made it, and her most widely-seen prior work was a five-minute web video; her résumé hardly matched that of most of the filmmakers whose work Criterion considers “important classic and contemporary films.”

But Dunham is clearly on the rise: Her HBO series Girls, a gritty portrait of post-recession urban life for the daughters of privilege, is generating the kind of buzz networks would probably kill for. (New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum recently declared herself “a goner, a convert” in an enormously sympathetic profile of Dunham in New York.) Whether the hype surrounding Dunham will mellow into the unquestioned respect enjoyed by the likes of Woody Allen—whom Dunham resembles in her ear for dialogue, skill for self-parody, and unconventional looks—remains to be seen. But after watching everything that Dunham’s directed (everything available online and on DVD, at least), I’d be willing to bet on it. Though some of her narrative tics may not stand the test of time, she has a rare talent for crafting characters who talk and act like real people: funny, flawed, and sympathetic, all at once.

Dunham’s early shorts—five-minute films she made in college at Oberlin, four of which are available on Criterion’s two-disc Tiny Furniture set—establish the themes and motifs handled more deftly in her later work: sexual naïveté (and its consequence, failed seduction), exhibitionism, the millennial sense of entitlement. She plays cartoonish versions of herself (without even changing her name, as she does in Tiny Furniture and other later works), and she gives herself a very hard time. (In 2007’s “Open the Door,” for instance, she presents herself as a spoiled, thoroughly loathsome adult daughter who childishly coerces her parents into participating in a film she’s making.)

In “Pressure” (2006), “Lena” asks a female friend to describe what an orgasm feels like; despite her protestations that she’s had orgasms herself, we get the sense that she’s bluffing. In “Hooker on Campus” (2007), she dresses up in ripped tights and a lacy top and asks students at her college, “Are you interested in a good time?” (Most, it seems, are not.) Nudity, both sexual and otherwise, recurs: In “The Fountain” (which makes a brief appearance in Tiny Furniture) Dunham bathes and brushes her teeth in the middle of the Oberlin campus. Afterwards, she talks to her boyfriend, who says that while he wants to get naked in front of people who want to see him naked, she wants to do so in front of people who don’t want to see her naked. Critics have debated the politics of Dunham’s exhibitionism, but she seems confident of her intentions, telling Nussbaum in New York that it’s “a way of saying, with these bodies, you know: Don’t silence them.”

Sex, self-parody, and low production values followed Dunham to her next project, a ten-episode web series for Nerve called Tight Shots, the best of her early work. Dunham’s character is still called “Lena”; the other characters also go by their actors’ first names. The series follows six friends as they attempt to make a movie (written by Lena) about sexual awakening in the Deep South (the closest Lena’s gotten to the Deep South is Florida). Instead, they end up squabbling and sleeping with one another. Tight Shots hints at Dunham’s knack for rendering bad sex onscreen with exquisite realism, and it also introduces the dickish male archetype that pops up in her later work. In the pilot, Lena’s boyfriend breaks up with her in the most insulting way possible, then insists that she hug him and say everything’s OK. In a later episode, “Many-Headed Beast,” Lena sleeps with the caddish Rel; though she’s head over heels, he declares it the worst sex he’s ever had (“worse than not having sex”) and coldly rebuffs her when she tries to entice him playfully into a second tryst:

Tight Shots’ awkward moments are played mostly for laughs, but Dunham’s next project—an hour-long film called Creative Nonfiction—is more nuanced. She plays Ella, a college student who’s working on a half-baked screenplay about a kidnapped high-school student while grappling with a crush on a male friend (who is, in true Dunham fashion, a complete jerk). Creative Nonfiction contains Dunham’s first long and explicit bad-sex scene: Ella loses her virginity to a psych-class acquaintance who tells her afterwards he hasn’t felt this connected to anyone since his dad died. It’s simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking.

Dunham has forsaken touchingly lifelike characters in favor of broadly painted caricatures only once. Her two-season comedy web series called Delusional Downtown Divas is about just that: three over-privileged young Manhattan women who fancy themselves artists but are blind to their own creative and moral bankruptcy. The series is pure satire—the characters have no redeeming value whatsoever, and every joke is at their expense—and it left me cold. (It also got Dunham more critical attention than anything before Tiny Furniture; many in the art world loved it.) In Dunham’s other work, even when her characters are immature, masochistic, and terrible at making decisions, they’re human—and, for that reason, sympathetic. That humanity is missing from Divas—though Dunham does show off her keen eye and ear for the affectations of the moneyed, creative classes. In one short but droll episode, Dunham’s character, Oona, and her friend Swann (played with deep commitment by Joana D’Avillez) visit a legendary performance artist who gives them a meaningless but impassioned lecture on the history of performance art and then asks them to give an impromptu performance:

While Tiny Furniture felt revolutionary when I saw it in 2010, it was actually a culmination of what Dunham has been doing since 2006. While the movie got a lot of attention for its fearless nudity and realistically awful sex, its most striking elements were the half-absurd/half-heartfelt dialogue, the razor-sharp class consciousness, and the carefully contoured sense of gender dynamics. (Thanks partly to the cinematography by Jody Lee Lipes, now working on Girls, the movie also looks better than anything Dunham did before.)

Some of Dunham’s strengths—dialogue that’s both realistic and hilarious, characters poised delicately between sympathetic and obnoxious—will serve her no matter where she turns next. Others—the fearless exhibitionism, the pigeonholing of men as either assholes or nebbishes—might wear thin over time. I get a thrill every time Lena Dunham takes her clothes off onscreen, because I have never seen a body like hers in movies or on TV; I laugh at her portrayals of condescending, cold, childish men because such oafs are rarely depicted so sharply in pop culture. But if Dunham’s work succeeds at opening doors in Hollywood for women who don’t look like models and for films that turn the Bechdel test on its head (by marginalizing and stereotyping men), these stunts might start, eventually, to feel old hat. I hope they do, anyway, and I hope that Dunham has a few more revolutionary tricks up her sleeve when it does.

Five Lena Dunham Works Worth Watching:

1. Tiny Furniture (feature film, 2010)

2. Creative Nonfiction (feature film, 2008)

3. Tight Shots, Episode 5, “Many-Headed Beast” (web series, 2007)

4. Pressure (short film, 2006)

5. Delusional Downtown Divas, Season 2, Episode 4, “The Jonas Mother” (web series, 2009)