Criterion Cuts: “Tiny Furniture” and Selection Controversy

Hello and welcome to the latest installment of Criterion Cuts, the weekly article where I dig into the archives of everyone’s favorite foreign/art house home video distribution company and unearth some obscurity and tell you just why it might be worth your time. As always, most of these come from the generous offerings available to Hulu Plus subscribers unless otherwise noted.

Today’s movie is one of the more recent entries into the Collection, both in that it was just released and is only a movie from a few years ago. In choosing to examine this movie, I felt it was time to talk a bit about one of the biggest sticking points about Criterion as a company, so expect this article to be two pronged: first, a bit about selection, and second the movie itself. Those are roughly in order, but I suppose the whole thing will likely be a jumbled mess, as complicated arguments often are (at least when I’m writing them.)

On Criterion Selection (and fan bickering)

Object of nerd lust, catalyst of fanboy rage. Art films: serious fucking business.

“[The Criterion Collection] was really clear with me. They definitely said this wouldn’t be a very orthodox choice for our label, but also, this is really what Criterion is about: unexpected choices. And it’s a label that can release the best of the French New Wave and it can release THE ROCK. They’re interested in the ways that different kinds of films can be valued and inform the current cinematic dialogue. They were clear that this isn’t a clear choice for them, but there was something in my film that reflects what’s happening in digital filmmaking and it’s something they wanted to be a part of. So, I told them that whatever the reason they were picking me, I’m happy.”

– Lena Dunham

The selection of new Criterion Collection titles is something of an event for people who are invested in the collection. New movies are teased on facebook or on the Criterion twitter feed, speculated about in some of the nerdier film forums on the internet, and generally held to a lot of scrutiny before being announced on a regular schedule months in advance. Everybody has favorite films they wish Criterion would pick up, and why not? Being part of the collection means you get an amazing home video release, usually chock full of extra features (many times ones that exist nowhere else) and presented the best way possible (Criterion Blu-Ray is the gold standard for packaging and disc presentation, by far.)

By far the most controversial Criterion release in the short time I've been following them.

So when people’s presumptive choices don’t get picked, or when something really surprising appears out of the blue, people sometimes get upset. Sure, it’s the entitled whiny upset that is rife among all sectors of the internet, but who can really blame them? The Collection is in some ways, to many people, one of the best advocates for historical cinema. Its choices matter, raising some films of out of obscurity, ensuring restoration to ancient films. People care, and caring is almost universally a good thing right up until the point it isn’t. Which brings us to the release of Tiny Furniture.

It’s hard to criticize Criterion choices when they’re critically hailed art films coming from underrepresented Iranian directors (like the recent Criterion announcement of Certified Copy), or when they’re even less works of established auteurs. Sure, maybe it’s not the biggest or best film in the world (it seems like Criterion insists on cataloging all things early Japanese at any cost, something that I know doesn’t always interest everyone) but since it often has historical context and weight people shrug and usually say very little. But then sometimes they pick up films that aren’t critical darlings, or aren’t historically significant yet, and then you really see the claws come out.

Tiny Furniture sits firmly in this category, a sitting duck of a film in the landscape of Criterion releases. Director/writer/actress Lena Dunham’s feature film debut, at first seems (even to people only vaguely familiar with Criterion or the movie itself) to be wildly inappropriate for the collection. It’s so brutishly modern, with seemingly modest reflective sensibilities and the stripped down digital film style still being derided by establishment critics of cinema. It’s so small, not an important film or an impressive one, just some shitty entitled kids going on for 100 minutes. It’s so new, perhaps the biggest sin of all, barely out of its initial run and certainly not yet having acquired the patina of debatable relevance that often takes years (my general impression is that it’s often 5-10)  to build up even on more obvious films.

Tiny Furniture (2010)

But what of the movie itself? Most of the objections seem to be ad hominem attacks on the very idea of there being worth to the cinema of 20-somethings, the often navel-gazing shapeless work that collectively is dismissed these days as ‘mumblecore’. But considering the job here is to try to talk about why movies have worth, to advocate for watching and exploring different types of films, I cannot think of a better candidate than Tiny Furniture, a movie I dismissed as ‘more insufferably indulgent indie bullshit’ when I saw the trailer for its initial release. Now, with the Collection doing its job of forcing reevaluation, let’s get down to talking about the film that caused such a furor (even if it was small and isolated).

Tiny Furniture is the story of Aura (Dunham) who is returning home after graduating from college. It is, in that respect, a fairly typical coming of age story, that often difficult nebulous version unique to 20-somethings that involves still the Figuring Out Who You Are of teen versions and the Where Are We Headed that dominates older representations of the story. Aura is a typical recent college graduate, her liberal arts education left her with a lot of learning but little in the way of actual skills. Emerging from the womb of academia, she seems almost like she’s recovering from a trauma, leaving behind the friend she’s already drifting apart from and the boyfriend who left for a different life.

She comes home to a family rife with artists, her mother (played by Dunham’s own mother) a long-popular intellectual boheme who at the moment is obsessed with photographing the eponymous tiny furniture in the same photograph as real sized human leg, these belonging to Aura’s sister Nadine (played by Dunham’s sister). Nadine, who hasn’t yet left home for college, is obviously the favorite child, though it’s never clear if that’s just due to her closeness to their mother and her work or whether it was always that way. Aura would certainly like everyone to think that’s the case, but she suffers quickly and isn’t necessarily to be trusted.

Aura's combative relationship with Nadine is the highlight of the film. Both of them regularly accuse the other of their own worst qualities.

Aura instead goes about the business of finding a job and reconnecting with old friends. She shows up at a party of one of her good friends only to end up hanging out with Charlotte, who she has known all her life (supposedly) but who seems to be a bit of a social pariah in the group of 20-somethings who make up that whole social circle. Feeling similarly outcast, the two of them form a new bond, much to the puzzlement of everyone else. Charlotte gets Aura a job as day-hostess at a restaurant where she spends most of her time furtively flirting with her coworker and being miserable. At the same time, she begins a desperate relationship with a youtube ‘celebrity’ named Jeb, who seems mostly interested in Aura for an opportunity for a place to crash while her family is out of town.

So it obviously looks pretty grim for Tiny Furniture, then. A bunch of liberal arts majors and supposed artists drifting around New York suffering in their affluence and aimless priviledge? Sure, you could certainly look at it that way. It reeks of mumblecore, but digging into it it starts to get holes poked into it. Among them: an incredibly tight script, on point and nuanced, even when it’s consciously being awkward and earnest; amazing cinematography, that juxtaposes clean modern interiors and natural New York streets to create a sense that the characters live in a plastic, sterile bubble; and most importantly, a nagging sense that deep down, Dunham is poking fun at all of this as much as she’s getting all of the angst out there.

While the interiors are all arty and sterile, New York City itself is depicted as the dirty, (un)romantic city of film and song.

Tiny Furniture is absolutely autobiographical, obvious from the casting to the way Dunham fills the story with the quiet, small details of someone who is barely acting at all. So charting her journey from the relief of escaping back to home to her fall into the depression that she didn’t really escape from anything, the realization that ambition isn’t really enough if you have no direction to turn it towards, the self-depreciation that causes her to hope for too little and settle too frequently. But that truthfulness is borne not out of self-aggrandizing narcissism, but a desire to share and laugh at and cry with the reality of someone’s being. And in that, I think that despite all the cries that this ‘new’ cinema is awful and strange, Dunham has a historically significant precedent.

That precedent is Woody Allen.

See? The movie knows! It even puts these awkward conversations between Aura and her erstwhile boyfriend into the modest domestic context of most of Allen's comedies.

It might seem crazy at first glance, because Allen has become such an institution, but in reality there isn’t that much of a difference. If Tiny Furniture was age-shifted ten years, to the point where people were getting married and divorced and having kids, but still had the same problems and attitudes? It’d be Manhattan. Deep in the bones of both types of movies is the kernel of author-exposed that drives something quietly funny and deeply relatable, the kinds of small problems that aren’t apocalyptic or even often very interesting but that haunt all of us.

That’s what Tiny Furniture really excels at. Maybe some people have no sympathy for the time when they were young and not sure who or what they wanted to be, but for anyone who did or is already there Tiny Furnitureis absolutely worthwhile, escaping the lame confines of the subgenre it’s burdened with. If every mumblecore movie was this well made, this considered, and this honest there would be no stigma at all, no controversy. But from a troubled niche comes a genuinely good film, and genuinely good films should never be ignored.

If you don't have a high tolerance for depictions of ennui, Tiny Furniture is probably not for you.

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About M

Artist, ne'er do well, militant queer.
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