American Nervousness, 2012

Dear Jane, Evan, & Lili,

Glad to be here.

I too have been thinking a lot about terrible things happening to the cast of Girls.  Evan just mentioned this as a thought experiment. What if things went woefully and irrevocably awry for The Ladies on Girls? Before that, Jane drew our attention to the threat of violence in her discussion of what Hannah identifies as Charlie’s domestic abuse spectrum behavior. And Elaine Blair, before us again, spoke eloquently about the idea that part of what is extraordinary about Girls, and what has been so infuriating to critics, is that Hannah and her friends live in a kind of bumper bowling version of Manhattan.  Nothing bad would, nothing bad could ever happen to these privileged people. Nobody’s going to die in a gutter, because, in this world, there’s no such thing as a gutter. La di da, hakuna matata.

Like Evan, though, I think this is all part of the plan.  Lena Dunham, whether she shares this mindset with her character or not, seems very interested in the idea of the luxury of anxiety, a kind of twenty-first century heir to neurasthenia.  Don DeLillo has a line in Underworld: “It’s the special skill of an adolescent to imagine the end of the world as an adjunct to his own discontent.”  DeLillo, of course, is not just speaking about adolescents or boys here, and it seems to me that this is equally applicable to Hannah Horvath and her sisters.  Traumatic events only serve to displace anxieties about other, more mundane, or at least less global, concerns. The idea of Charlie lifting a hand to Hannah displaces her guilt over betraying(?) her bestie; the idea of contracting AIDS displaces Hannah’s anxiety about the emotional toll of her polymorphously unrequited affair with Adam; the idea of dying in a gutter like Flaubert displaces Hannah’s anxiety that her writing might not be worth dying in a gutter over.

So that, I think, is the perspective of the show to a certain degree. If Girls is an ethnography of a very circumscribed class of person, then this kind of apocalypticism is a big part of what defines Dunham’s subjects. But, to come back to what everybody always has to come back to with this show, just because Dunham has trained her eye on this kind of magical thinking doesn’t mean she’s not reproducing it to a certain extent. Now, I believe enough in Dunham’s self-consciousness about her work that I also can believe that this is all leading somewhere, but that’s not a sure thing.  Why, for instance, doesn’t anything bad happen to these people? To take an example from last week’s episode 5, why doesn’t Hannah get fired for coming on to and then berating her boss?  On most HBO series, all you have to do is wake up in the morning to warrant an axe in your brain, but Hannah Horvath’s intentional and energetically performed self-destruction simply won’t stick.  The same goes for Jessa’s immaculate lack of conception.   Hannah and her friends are engaging in a kind of recreational anxiety that is only possible because, deep down, they believe that their fears are unfounded. This is a phenomenon certainly worth looking into, a panic widespread enough to be a notable feature of modern life. Trouble is, Hannah and her friends are right. They don’t really seem to have anything to worry about.

But, again, Dunham is doing a pretty humane job lovingly articulating all the ins and outs of a particular kind of delusion, and I don’t want to begrudge her empathy.  Marnie doesn’t need to die of Roman Fever like Daisy Miller in order for Dunham to effectively critique her behavior.  Likewise, TV showrunners needn’t behave like the Old Testament God, meting out justice to the sinners down on earth, to be responsible social critics.  If Tony Soprano always got what was coming to him, there wouldn’t have been a show, and, thanks to Matthew Weiner’s merciless skewering of Betty Draper, I think we’re all sufficiently familiar with exactly how grimy it can feel to see a television writer punish a character for all of her bourgeois vanities and transgressions. Girls doesn’t need to be a Jeremiad to be a valuable work of social fiction.

Dunham, for her part, seems to be laying the groundwork for something, and I’m excited to see what.  Jessa’s relationship with the father of the kids she babysits is a bit of a time bomb, and one that could have actual consequences if it goes off.  And, even though she didn’t get fired, Hannah’s whimsical forfeiture of her job could come back to haunt her in fiscally real ways.  But what will happen then? To amend Evan’s question, can something bad happen on this show that does not lead to a moment of self-discovery?  In other words, is Girls beholden to the Apatow rule that trauma begets wisdom, reckless stupidity begets enlightenment for the worthy?  Or is Lena Dunham committed to shielding her characters from disaster?  What if neither nightmares nor dreams ever come true?

As usual,

Phil.

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Testing, testing…

Dear Jane, Phil, and Lili,

Very pleased to be a part of this grand experiment!

I’m going to try to keep this post relatively short, in part because I have a bunch of friends coming over in a few hours to watch Girls (and Game of Thrones and possibly Mad Men as well) and I need to get the apartment cleaned up before they arrive.  (Is that too personal?  Too dull?  This is a blog, right?)

I wanted to pick up on Jane’s calling attention to Hannah’s line “Adults try things. That’s what I’ve learned” from Episode 5, which seems to be kind of emerging as the motto/keynote for the series (more so than the oft-quoted “a voice of a generation” line from the pilot, which was kind of a red herring, in my opinion).  It’s really an interesting line, both because it obviously encapsulates, in its first sentence, Girls/Dunham’s commitment to tentativeness and exploration (can you be “committed to tentativeness”? if you can, then she definitely is) and, in its second, ironizes that commitment by showing how quickly Hannah’s rushing to sum up her still-developing experience.  In other words, she’s announcing: “I am so mature that I have reached a point where I can see that what I’m doing is extremely tentative” — a statement that self-deprecatingly undercuts itself its own authority, as so much of Dunham’s writing does, while still allowing her (and the show’s narrative) to heave itself forward.

To put it another way, Hannah is testing: testing herself, testing other people, testing boundaries.  This allows her to act at once bold and reckless and to disavow the consequences of her actions (because it’s just an experiment; if it doesn’t ultimately turn out, no harm done).  And Dunham, too, is testing, I think, both herself and the audience.  I’ve been surprised by all the negative press — people attacking the show, and often Dunham herself, for being too blithely white/privileged/frivolous etc. — but, as Malcolm Harris pointed out in his excellent piece on the first episode for The State, Dunham is a very self-aware and self-conscious artist who knows exactly what she’s doing by depicting such blitheness.  She is, I think, testing her audience to see how much blitheness, unawareness, and unpleasantness they’ll accept.

One last thing I’ll throw out, re: testing limits and safety.  My favorite part of Elaine Blair’s fantastic NYRB piece is this paragraph:

Many critics have noted that the girls, all from seemingly financially secure families, are members of a privileged class. A slightly different aspect of their privilege is the relative confidence we feel that they can seek sexual experience without being in physical danger, that any revelations they receive will be useful and interesting rather than damaging or crushing, and that the people in their world will not punish them for their curiosity or high spirits. The girls feel confident of this too. They have an air of extended innocence, a girlish exuberance (behind a scrim of polished good behavior) that is the characteristic bearing of American upper-middle-class young women. The young men exude their own version of innocence. Adam’s sex fantasy may be off-putting to some, but part of the deeper humor of the scene comes from our knowing that he is basically an overgrown boy—and probably a pretty good boy at that—whose grandma sends him monthly checks for his rent.

I found this incredibly astute: part of many viewers and critics’ disapproval of Hannah’s behavior seems to be a kind of weird jealousy that she’s putting herself in potentially perilous situations (economic as well as sexual) that we all know aren’t really going to turn out too badly.  I wonder how the show’s tone would change, and its reception would change, if something really terrible happened to one of the primary characters — something along the lines of David Fisher’s traumatic carjacking in Season 4 of Six Feet Under?  What if Hannah had learned she really did have AIDS in Episode 3, for instance?  Or Jessa really had lost the kids she was babysitting?  (Not that I’m wishing for anything bad to happen to any of the girls; just proposing a kind of thought experiment.)  Would any of this alter any of the righteous critiques of the first five episodes, or not?  I guess what I’m saying is that behind some of the hate and anger directed at this show seems to be a sense that safety — and, therefore, the ability to conduct tests with one’s own life — is unevenly distributed in our society.  Which is, indeed, an excellent point, though I’m not convinced it’s one that Dunham’s unaware of.

OK, that was not that short!  I’m sure there will be plenty more to say, about this and lots of other stuff, after Episode 6 airs.  In the meantime, these dishes are (probably) not going to wash themselves.

All best,

Evan

“Act like my life is real, y’know? Because my life is real.”

Dear Dear Television Club,

First, hello, welcome! Thanks so much for agreeing to start a TV club with me. I’m really excited.

After some back-and-forth on what show to focus on, Phil, Evan, Lili, and I have decided on Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls, which will be airing episode 6 of its first season this Sunday. Considering the number of conversations fixated on Dunham’s show, this post might be a bit irrelevant by now—especially since I want to talk about what went down last week in episode 5. But I really thought it was the smartest episode of Girls to date, and other writers have already this past week put their finger on what they thought made it work so well.

The show was seriously firing on all cylinders. I don’t know where to start so I’m going to start at the episode’s beginning, which takes place inside Hannah and Marnie’s apartment. Hannah is sitting on a couch that separates Marnie in the kitchen and Charlie in the living room. The fact that Hannah is literally coming between the couple is visualized here, but it’s also Hannah who quickens a break-up just waiting to happen. Marnie and Charlie get, for once, to argue at one another because Hannah is there are a displacement for their frustrations. This show loves triangles, which makes sense since it’s also pretty interested in communication and mediation. Here it’s not just Hannah, though, that comes in between Marnie and Charlie, but her words as well. Charlie has already sung-read the incriminating remarks Hannah makes about his relationship in episode 4, but at this moment he wants Hannah to read them out-loud herself, to “hear it in her voice.” It was such a great moment to begin an episode—with the same lines the previous one left off—because it shows Girls repeating its script (which, just happens to take from Hannah’s life experiences). It makes Hannah perform her life to show how much she’s taken her life for art.

Hannah’s art has real-life effects, and just because hastening Marnie and Charlie’s separation might be ultimately doing them a kindness, it doesn’t mean Hannah should always be so quick to trade life for fiction. Especially when life feels, well, so often mundane and, dare I say, a little too easy? After Hannah recites her own words, Charlie leaves in the angriest we’ve seen him thus far, turning over the coffee table he made on his way. This moment of heightened feeling from Charlie asks for a similar response of escalated emotion from Hannah. As Charlie drags the coffee table out the door, Hannah stands up and shouts: “That’s the kind of thing you do right before you hit us! Don’t hit us.” *Beat* “Don’t hit us!” This living room scene begins to feel like a full-on stage play. Charlie (who I’m having trouble imagine hitting anyone) is on his way out the door, but Hannah needs to play up the scene for full dramatic effect. Standing in the same spot she was previously sitting, maybe five meters away from Charlie, she tries to accuse him of potential physical abuse. It’s funny. But it’s also kind of sad. It’s a sitcom moment because it places dramatic conventions in a context where they sound absurd.

Charlie leaves. End scene. Hannah resumes as “Hannah” and turns to ask Marnie: “If you had read the essay and it wasn’t about you, do you think you would have liked it? Just as like a piece of writing.” The journal—which Hannah previously referred to as “a notebook…notes for a book”—is now an essay. (Forthcoming in Midnight Snack perhaps?) The astonishing part of this scene is Hannah asks and expects Marnie to be able to take herself out of her life—to look at her life as an impartial outsider.

In Richard Brody’s short post in The New Yorker (which has been one of my favourite entries on Girls so far), he writes about how Hannah growth in this episode is marked by her evolving understanding of empathy. Whereas Hannah needs to know to separate life from art—journals from essays—when it comes to Marnie and Charlie (lives that aren’t, ultimately, hers to dictate), she might be more at liberty to experiment in narrating and directing her own life. Brody writes about the final scene between Hannah and Adam, where the latter lies masturbating on his bed, and the former feeds lines that satisfy his fantasies of erotic submission and guilt:

Suddenly, Hannah’s art and her life are fused: what looks like imagination is actually empathy, and her careful yet passionate catalogue of her experiences and the experiences of others morphs into a spontaneous depth of understanding, the power to respond to the other in the other’s terms, to invent a moment on the basis of what she knows, to turn the often tawdry stuff of life into chasms of revelation.

Between the two scenes that bookend this episode 5, Hannah stumbles through another exercise as empathy in a moment—both horrifying and hilarious—with her boss, Rich. After some prompting from Jessa, Hannah thinks she’s responding “to the other in the other’s terms” by propositioning Rich to have sex with her. He fails to follow script, turning a planned sexual rendezvous into a scene of farce.

Jessa tells Hannah to fuck her boss “for the story,” but Hannah doesn’t yet know the difference between doing it for the story, and doing it “just to be an asshole.” You can’t entirely blame her either—sometimes those things just aren’t easily separable. So instead of backtracking, Hannah takes the story to its logical cinematic (here Erin Brockovich is cited) end and threatens to sue Rich for sexual harassment. After that gets her only more laughs, she tries extortion. Nope. Feeling that her story has gotten somewhat out of hand, Hannah proposes to quit her job, except Rich responds (warmly, surprisingly, given the other obviously icky aspects of his personality) by asking her to stay. “You’re great!” he assures her, “You don’t know how to do anything, but you have so much potential.” In this moment, you’re really, really compelled to agree with him. Hannah, perhaps unknowingly, has also gotten her story out of this encounter, even if it’s not quite the plot she expected for herself. Leaving Rich, she pipes: “And someday I am going to write an essay about you and I am not going to change your name. And then you can sue me!” Hannah is still not very believable when she’s trying to keep to book; she’s best when caught off guard and forced to improvise. She has, after all, so much potential.

The ease with which Hannah shifts from one persona or attitude to another is all to her benefit. It’s, honestly, what I wish I had more of as a person and a thinker. Flexibility is less an achievement than it is a continuous practice. Hannah wants things (relationships, stability, someone who “loves you that much”), but in order to find them, she needs to rehearse letting go. Adam gives Hannah some pretty valid and thoughtful advice: “It’s a bummer but people do outgrow each other.” (Even if they don’t “wanna outgrow each other.”) The situation isn’t, of course, singular to Hannah. It was only after I had replayed the scene three times did I realize my own relentless desire to understand Adam’s advice. Going by memory it’s something like this:

–     These things have a timeline: six months or until someone stops having fun.

–       But you’re not having fun.

–       You’re secretly sad.

–       I kissed you because you looked sad.

–       I had sex with you because I was kissing you.

Ouch.

Adam and Hannah’s encounter is juxtaposed against Marnie and Charlie’s—another couple that, after four years, might need to try letting go too. While Marnie attemps to win Charlie back, the show flashbacks to their first encounter where Marnie is literally “stuck to a pole.” When Hannah goes off to dance, Charlie enters as the person who won’t abandon her. She asks him to hug her, again and again, while ignoring his invitation to attend his band’s show. Fast-forward four years and it’s Charlie now who can’t deal with being abandoned. But it feels a bit necessary, at least right now, that this relationship doesn’t have a happy ending.

Elaine Blair’s insightful piece in the NYRB this week looks at how sex, desire, and romance are presented in pop culture, and how Dunham has worked to expand such conventions:

Though Tiny Furniture is a comedy on a different scale from a Hollywood production like Bridesmaids, it nonetheless has some things to say about heroines. Both guys in Tiny Furniture are laughably wrong for Aura. Her romantic life is composed entirely of unsatisfying encounters and nonevents, though Dunham suggests that these are never less than interesting.

Like Blair, I agree that Dunham’s work compels because she often keeps our sympathies toward a heroine’s love interest(s) ambivalent. Especially in episode five, the concept and term “love” is tossed around so often as to open up its meaning to the point where it could signify anything a person hopes it to. At least in the moment. As Jessa tells Hannah: “Guys like that will try anything once. Even love.” Hannah vibes on this advice in her encounter with Rich: “Adults try things. That’s what I’ve learned.”

There’s more I want to talk about (but this already feels too long): what Brody said about how this “episode deepens and extends Dunham’s theme of the writer as betrayer.” Which brings me back to questions of triangles, and journals, and eavesdropping, and extortion. How I actually found Jessa’s scene with her employer-couple in their washroom (where she’s using the mother’s make-up?) the most uncomfortable, even though I find her the least easy to identify with it. Sorry this post isn’t very much of an ending. I’m looking forward to tomorrow night, and what you lovely folk have to say.

Trying things,

Jane