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David Thomson on Films: ‘Girls’ is Great, But What Will Lena Dunham Do Next?

Only the other day, Lena Dunham had her twenty-sixth birthday. I mention that not to play on your guilt about forgetting to send a card. But I do want to note that when she made her feature film Tiny Furniture, she can’t have been more than 23. That’s two years younger than Orson Welles when he made Citizen Kane. Now, don’t get me wrong. Citizen Kane is more interesting and more fun. But Kane cost $686,000 in 1940 dollars, while Dunham spent $50,000—maybe a touch over if you count coffee and condoms.

Not that I intended to talk about Tiny Furniture or Orson Welles, though I will mention one thing that thinking about Dunham has brought to mind. While Citizen Kane has nearly everything, it does lack a problem child in the Xanadu house. Kane had a son but he died early in a car accident. So I do believe the picture would have been enriched, after Susan Alexander Kane left him, if old man Kane had had this daughter, sort of a cross between Eloise and Holden Caulfield, an intransigent teen, mooching around the house, waiting for television and the remote control to be invented, and insisting on dragging her father into lugubrious conversations. She might even have a little thing going with Raymond the butler, who calls her “Rosebud.” Just a thought.

Anyway, a few weeks ago, having seen Tiny Furniture and tracking the coming of Girls, I asked a magazine editor in London if he’d ever heard of Lena Dunham. Not one word, he said. Then, when I wrote again after a couple episodes of Girls, proposing a piece on Dunham, he told me, “Well, I don’t know. She’s all over the place by now. It might be a bit late.”

All over the place hardly covers it. Lena Dunham stars in, writes, and directs Girls (which airs it 30-minute episodes Sundays on HBO), and she bags another credit as “creator” of the show (though Judd Apatow is also backing it—if he can stand to see work that makes his movies look so ponderous). Dunham is the one who takes her clothes off most of the time, revealing her very ordinary, normal, and hardly ready-for-Playboy body, having sex and talking about it. And Dunham is the wide-eyed, straight-faced persona of a show that has either rabid followers who know the dialogue by heart or people who are very sorry they were encouraged to see it—and who, if told that this may be how their early twenties daughters are living, can see all the more reason never to watch the show, hear it mentioned, or think about it again. It’s a divider, like The Gong Show or Jackass.

There are those who fear and loathe the show—because it dares to suggest that sex isn’t what it’s cracked up to be, that bright kids (graduates from good schools—Dunham went to Oberlin) wander listless and unemployed like the people in Dorothea Lange photographs, because it’s casually filthy and why does anyone let Lena Dunham take her clothes off when she would never have got an audition on Charlie’s Angels or Friends?

Leave good out of it. Girls is funny, sad, plausibly accurate and compulsive viewing. When the series concludes (all too soon), there are going to be withdrawal symptoms. There are four girls, in fact (all resolute about not being “women”): Dunham as Hannah Horvath; Jemima Kirke as Jessa Johansson, an affected, flaky English girl; Zosia Mamet as Shoshanna Shapiro (who starts the series as a virgin), and Allison Williams as Marnie Michaels, the most conventionally cute and the least exposed of the foursome (so far). You notice that all four have names with double-barreled initials, and that’s one clue to Dunham the ironic stylist. That was evident in Tiny Furniture, where some of the compositions were graceful to a point of artiness. But Girls is television shot fast and cheap, and no one bothers with the framing in the same way.

The response on the internet is very mixed, going from “a gem” to “As the weeks have worn on, I’ve found myself getting more & more grossed out. … What planet are the people putting this show on + HBO inhabiting???” (To pick two examples from IMDB comments.) Well, I think it’s my planet, and there is always a period of shock spasms when anyone uses television or movies to say, “Oh, come on, it’s really like this. Human beings aren’t beautiful … they’re normal.”

Of course, “normal” isn’t dramatic or story-like, and while Girls is essential, I’m not sure that it can last. It’s against the grain of the show to think it could turn into years of Friends and artful sitcom writing with the people becoming increasingly adorable and syndicated. It’s true to the disconsolate, wandering lives of its character that it can’t “go” anywhere. These people could only fall in love, get a great job, or grow up by removing themselves from the show. By the time there’s a second season, it may be very boring, and American television is wary of taking on that subject directly. 

So the talented Lena Dunham, who is now being subjected to “all over the place” coverage and a hailstorm of offers, needs to be shrewd about what she does next. That’s why I raised the prospect of her as Charlie Kane’s daughter—Kandide Kane, maybe—a sour little rich girl who infuriates her father by saying she’s “rosebud” all the time. Or she could be a Regan/Goneril figure conniving to put Dad in a retirement home and develop Xanadu as a theme park. The lesson of Welles is plain: At 24 and 25, he took on a large and fearsome subject—the failure of American wealth and power. Isn’t that a subject someone needs to do now? Suppose Dunham plays a daughter to someone like Timothy Geithner or Jamie Dimon, and is even gloomier on economics than Paul Krugman, and is sleeping with the butler and getting no joy out of it, while at his age, he is concentrating on coming. Just a thought.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.