Lena Dunham

Where Are the Men in HBO’s “Girls?”

by Jose Manuel Flores

“I think I may be the voice of my generation.” Hannah Horvath said in the very first episode of her hit HBO series, Girls, and little did we know, she was right. Girls is a very well-written comedy show about four female friends living in New York while complaining about the white girl problems of their generation. Hannah Horvath, Marnie Marie Michaels, Jessa Johansson and Shoshanna Shapiro (holy shit, they’re all alliterations) deal with shitty relationships, career paths, abandonment, sexuality and all the troubles that privilege entails. Oh, and privilege is horrible, by the way. A lot of people give the show a lot of flak for how selfish the titular girls are, but they do their best given the circumstances. However, I am not here to talk about the girls.

When Hannah said she was the voice of her generation I think she was absolutely right, so I started thinking that “Girls” wasn’t the best title, not that I could come up with a better one. The show stopped being about the girls a long time ago and it became about today’s culture overall, and the boys are an important part of the show too. But maybe, in a sick way, “Girls” is the perfect title for a show that encapsulates our generation, because all the boys of Girls are neutered.

There are a lot of shows out there about emasculation, from The Sopranos to Breaking Bad to name a few, but I propose that Girls is actually a show about castration. Most, if not all of the male characters in Girls are impotent when we meet them or become so over the course of the series. From Elijah’s sugar-daddy, to Jessa’s friend from rehab, to Hannah’s dad (who is totally gay), Girls is a show about men who willingly surrender their literal and metaphorical manhood to the girls.

Take Charlie, for example, whose sensitive and caring nature towards his girlfriend, Marnie is a point of mockery and annoyance during the first half of Season 1. Hannah and Marnie complain about how nice and unthreatening he is and Hannah even writes in her dairy about how Marnie must feel awful to “date a man with a vagina.” Even after publicly dumping her in a rare moment of awesomeness Charlie still doesn’t get the satisfaction of ending the relationship. Marnie goes to his apartment for the first time in the several years they’ve been dating and begs Charlie to take her back, only to immediately break up with him while having sex. Marnie dumped Charlie while his penis was still inside her. And Charlie is not a bad guy, he’s just so bland and vanilla. He is not a man in the eyes of Marnie or the audience. What Marnie really wants is a guy with balls, like Booth Jonathan, who bluntly tells her that he’s gonna fuck her so hard it will scare her, because he is a man, and he knows what he is doing. If only Girls hadn’t neutered Booth Jonathan too.

If Marnie seems like a bitch because of her treatment of poor, ball-less Charlie, take a look at Jessa. Maybe because of her abandonment issues, Jessa seems to be a magnet for guys begging her to take their manhood away. She acts like a tease to her boss in Season 1 and to her hipster ex-boyfriend (you know, the one with a girlfriend named Gillian), and especially to her husband Thomas-John. I hated TJ. He was the definition of white privilege and what it entails. He was also seemingly 12 years old and had a twisted idea of how women work. In his introduction episode he screams that Marnie and Jessa owe him a threesome because he works hard and they’ve never had to work for a living. They were blue-balling him by shutting him out of his own fantasies and he deserved it. Thomas John tries to reassure himself that he is still a man by controlling women (which by the way, is never okay). Jessa terminates the marriage early and in defiance, smashes his most prized, phallic award.

Let’s look at “Old Man Ray”, a 30-something year old guy making ends meet as a glorified barista. He is one of the characters on the show who started out already neutered. When Shoshanna ultimately broke up him after their sweet affair, she was quick to point out how he had no interests, no goals, no career plans, nothing to live for. Unfortunately for him, she has a point. The show has never pretended that Ray is anything more than the pathetic loser we see. Even when Marnie starts revenge fucking him she acts like it’s the most disgusting thing she has ever done right to his goddamned face, and he doesn’t even mind.

Not all the recurring male characters were always a flaccid mess. Take Adam, whose dominating and borderline abusive personality actually felt like a sharp criticism of a culture permeated by the celebration of hyper-masculinity. Adam is by far the most traditionally masculine of the main cast: he is a tall brute in a moustache, he works with wood (both literally and figuratively) and he is very sexually dominating. For the majority of the show’s run I wasn’t sure if I was supposed to hate him for being such a toxic influence in Hannah’s life or like him for being the only one who wasn’t a whiny bitch. But when Adam and Hannah broke up at the end of Season 1, his character took a turn for the nasty. As the intense guy that he is, he gradually fell madly in love with Hannah, admitted she was his new purpose in life and was immediately rendered useless by a passing bus that put him in a bed for months, requiring Hannah to look after him by day while she porked Donald Glover’s character by night. Unable to use his penis on his own, Adam even needed Hannah’s assistance to pee. By Season 3 I stopped recognizing Adam as who he was at the beginning. He didn’t engage in the sick (and frankly very entertaining) sexual practices that made him unique in Season 1. He compromised his artistic vision more than once for a job, something that Hannah had suggested earlier on. He became a better man for sure, but I never felt like he was a happier man. Hannah basically took his manhood away and eradicated what he felt had made him a man, effectively castrating one of the most dynamic characters of the show.

I’m not saying it’s fair to propose that the girls are the ones responsible for all the neutering going on. As I mentioned before, they are doing their best in their own shitty situations and they all lack the emotional maturity they need to have any functional relationship. All of the characters in Girls, male or female, surrender their individuality or their sexuality to someone else in order to function in their culture. For example, Hannah lets her meek, Santa-looking boss grope her just so she can keep her job, yet Hannah and the women at her office still have all the power over him. So is it any wonder that a show called Girls, and which claims to be the voice of our generation, features no traditional “real men”? More and more shows are redefining the notions of masculinity and patriarchy, and young men are still trying to figure out what it means to be a man in today’s society. Just like Hannah, we are all trying to figure out who we are.

OBVIOUS CHILD IS BRILLIANT, PAINFULLY HONEST, HILARIOUS

Few writers can pull off quirky neurosis in a way that doesn’t alienate anyone who doesn’t already have their doctor’s private number on speed dial. Woody Allen is the obvious choice, Lena Dunham also comes to mind.  With OBVIOUS CHILD, Gillian Robespierre deserves to be added to that list. The writer/director made her debut film (based on her short of the same name) starring Jenny Slate about a young woman, aspiring to be a comedian, who finds out that she is pregnant and gets an abortion. For Dunham, this could be the b-plot of a subpar episode of GIRLS; for Allen, this is a surefire recipe for an entertaining disaster, but for Robespierre, it ends up being not just one of the funniest movies of the year but also one of the most touching and heartfelt.

Donna Stern’s (Slate) stand-up routines are hilarious, and irreverent and frighteningly honest. I often find myself wondering if there’s anything left in comedy, if there are any lines left to cross or if we’ve essentially become too comfortable with being uncomfortable to find much left to laugh at, but Stern brings new shocks and laughs in equal measure as she pours out the gross details of her personal life onstage usually at the cost of her relationships. She strikes an odd balance in front of people, not unlike a rarely-seen uncle who acts a little too familiar when he comes to visit, and yet she still comes across as vaguely reassuring. Slate is a goddess in this role, her presence so unbearably genuine it almost hurts to remember she is only acting.

In her private life (is anything really private for Donna?), her boyfriend breaks up with her, she gets drunk, meets a stranger with whom she pees in public and then has sex with. A few weeks later, her fears come true.

Typical fare for the modernist woman, and typical fare for Donna, she insists to herself. 1 in 4 women have the “safe kind of HPV” she yells, trying to liberate herself from the pains of her breakup. Many women have had an abortion and now I am one of them, she tells her audience the day before her big event. Behind the scenes she breaks down in front of her best friend, Nellie (Gabby Hoffman – can anyone personify the beauty of the sweaty reality of humanity better than Hoffman?) unable to really deal with the consequences of her actions, afraid that she won’t be able to. Every choice is the wrong choice when you’re in your 20s with your 30s fast approaching.

It is a credit to Robespierre how OBVIOUS CHILD remains, to pardon the bad wordplay, not obvious. There are no easy moments out here, even when the plot hits familiar ground – the meet-cute, the obligatory friend-proposing-sex-and-getting-rejected scene, the caring father and distant mother – and the movie surprises in its depth again and again, going beyond what would be trite surface drama in the hands of a lesser talent to find some true humanity. Honestly, this script is razor-sharp and the cast couldn’t be better.

Handling the topic of abortion with grace, Robespierre makes no condemnation nor affirmation of Donna’s choice. Comparisons to JUNO are abound, but damned – JUNO is an entirely different story altogether, focused on Diablo Cody’s “cleverness” (don’t get me wrong, I love her) and Juno’s high-school ditziness, while OBVIOUS CHILD feels like a pulp magazine you could find, half soaked on the floor of a public bathroom but compelling and beautiful and irresistible.

If the nervous laughter-filled meeting between Alvy Singer and Annie Hall is a classic trademark of awkwardness, OBVIOUS CHILD is its glorious descendant. I have never seen another movie with a character making this many jokes and laughing at each and every one of them, but I know, and am one of those people. All actors know how difficult it is to convey genuine laughter on command, and given that, forgetting about her additional emotional intensity and authenticity, Jenny Slate deserves a spot amongst the greats. This is one of the best performances of the year.

Alongside her, Hoffman, David Cross, Jake Lacey, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind and Polly Draper round out the supporting cast with grace and calculated intimacy. These people feel like real friends and family, with the exception of Max the stranger, of course, who is breathlessly out of place and trying to keep up.

OBVIOUS CHILD is the kind of movie every quirky up and coming New Yorker wishes they could make, and the kind of movie that won’t get enough attention from the general population. It is bold and audacious in reach, but subtle and refined in grasp, and occupies a rare place in the movie archives where great movies wait to be discovered. When she’s not performing, Donna works at a bankrupted independent bookstore, a treasure-trove of old books, forgotten classics, and precious memories. This movie would belong warmly on those shelves.

 

 

Happy Christmas – Review

Not enough people know that Joe Swanberg makes good movies. I could excuse them for that because his movies don’t really feel like movies as much as they feel like homemade camcorder moments captured by a new dad in the 70s. I mean that in a good way. Swanberg’s movies are heavily improvised but that’s not to say they are made up as they go. Improvisation gets a bad rap most of the time, as though it’s only for comedy and even then is a little bit fake. Happy Christmas should put that cliche to rest. The story follows one young married couple as his sister, who has just broken up with her boyfriend and is more than a little bit unsteady in life, comes to visit. This isn’t a melodramatic comedy of manners, and it isn’t a sharp social commentary about class systems either. In fact it isn’t really anything other than a glimpse into someone’s life, but what a glimpse it is. Anna Kendrick is Jenny, the irresponsible younger sister who can’t figure her life out but knows she needs something different. Melanie Lynskey plays Kelly, the wife of Swanberg’s character, Jeff, while Lena Dunham as Jenny’s friend Carson and Mark Webber as hapless babysitter, Kevin, round out the supporting cast.

Happy Christmas isn’t a Christmas movie in any way, and in fact isn’t a good title at all unless you want to dissect the meaning of the word, happy, which you shouldn’t. Drinking Buddies was a better title, but no matter. Jenny is every person in their 20s still trying to figure out their life’s mirrored image, and also every person in their 20s who has already figured out their life’s nightmare. She is irresponsible, sure, but not in a malicious way. Her first night visiting her brother she goes out, gets blackout drunk, and destroys her reputation with her sister-in-law who doesn’t want her near the baby. Then she starts smoking weed in the basement to the amusement of her brother.

Eventually she tries to earn back her respect. The thing is, I never once sided against her. I get it, she’s not an irresponsible person, she just did an irresponsible thing. I understand her frustrations, her aimlessness. I also understand Kelly’s concern, and I understand Carson’s embarrassment at her friend’s misbehaviour.

Swanberg isn’t trying to be a visual boy-wonder and really he’s more of a writer than a director, except that he gets consistently emotionally raw performances from his cast, which should keep him in the director’s chair for years to come. He is exceptionally talented when it comes to understanding underlying emotions. Drinking Buddies, his previous film, was all about the subtleties of the line between friendship and something more – something most films overlook, something most people overlook. The truth is, real life is rarely so considerate to give us a clear definition of anything. For the millennial generation especially, Swanberg could be a bit of a icon, standing in for the post-college depression that comes with not knowing who you are in a world that demands you to pretend everything is laid out in black and white.

So let’s talk briefly about the improvisation on display here and how naturally Swanberg gets his cast to pull it off. One of the main characters is Jude, Jeff and Kelly’s two-year old, played by Swanberg’s own son. Obviously the kid isn’t acting, but the cast acts around him so perfectly you would actually forget that there’s a camera present, and a script written. Everyone interacts with the baby as though he’s a centrepiece holding the movie together, and more than anything else, Jude sells the realness that makes this film relatable. It’s quite phenomenal to watch.

Ultimately, Happy Christmas is one of the hidden gems of its year. A bracingly honest film that simply takes us into the lives of others in a way that is so relatable and familiar we will forget we’re watching a movie at all. It’s good to have movies like this that can help us experience what it is like to be someone else, even if that someone else is more like us than we realize.

 

Liebster Award!

For anyone who doesn’t know (my past self included), the Liebster Award is a blogging award given out by bloggers to bloggers who have less than X amount of followers, depending on which rules you’ve heard of. Either way, it’s a lot of fun, so I decided to go along with it just for kicks, no?

It’s basically just a way for bloggers to show their appreciation for one another, which is cool, and probably useful.

I will nominate some of my favourite blogs at the end of this post. I heartily recommend them, maybe for their amazing content, maybe for their unique opinions, maybe because they are just grand people. You should follow all of them. Or not. I don’t tell you what to do.

 

So….. yeah.

Thanks to Elsie Ohem of The Black Lion for nominating me! I really appreciate it. She has a kick-ass blog that you should definitely check out.

 

Now on to the questions Elsie has asked me. This is the fun stuff:

 

1. Why do you blog?

I first started blogging to write about movies back in 2011. After a few months I expanded to include poetry, short fiction, and ramblings on life. I was a typical blogger for a while, and then I stopped when it got to be something I was no longer interested in. In January of 2014 I decided to start blogging again with the goal of gaining understanding by teaching. I think if you know something you should pass that knowledge on, and that’s why I blog. That, and it serves as a platform for me to gain a better understanding of my material. I think I’ve grown as a writer more by writing about writing enough to make it worth it several times over.

2. What is your favourite hobby?

Probably playing guitar, but I also like cooking. I don’t read “all the time” but I read often enough that it doesn’t occur to me to think of it as a hobby. Perhaps I ought to, and then that would probably be my favourite.

3. What is the longest book series you’ve ever read?

I think Harry Potter. I never read them until I was 20 and I they’re the kind of books I wish I had read when I was a kid, they’ve impacted me a lot.

4. Who is your favourite author/film director?

My favourite author has to be Kurt Vonnegut. I usually have a runner-up list that includes Dave Eggers, Chuck Palahniuk, and Neil Gaiman as well because I can never really decide on one specific favourite, but I have a Vonnegut tattoo now so that’s “official.”  My favourite film director is Paul Thomas Anderson.

5. Do you prefer books made into movies or movies made into books?

Books made into movies, actually. I love the adaptation process, and try to approach each as its own work rather than comparing them.

6. What is something that no one would ever guess is true about you?

I’m actually very talkative once I get going and sometimes I can’t shut up, but you’d never guess by the way I’m usually too busy watching people from the corner of coffeeshops.

7. Who inspires you?

Neil Gaiman, everything he says makes me feel like life always has value.

8. If you could spend the day with any person of your choice, who would it be and why?

I want to hang out with Emma Watson for a day. I mean I want to be best friends with her, but one day is better than none days. I think that would be just purely enjoyable, and I wouldn’t be intimidated by her unlike say, John Lennon, who I’d probably just make bad puns at.

9. What is your favourite quote?

“Go and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.” – Neil Gaiman

10. What book or film has influenced your life the most?

That’s a tough one because I’ve been influenced in so many different venues, but I’ll give it a shot.

For writing influence, I have to go with “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius” by Dave Eggers and “House of Leaves” by Mark Z. Danielewski because together they blew open the cover on what I thought writing could be and inspired me to write myself. The same goes for the work of Charlie Kaufman.

For filmmaking influence, I think Stanley Kubrick’s entire filmography inspires me more than any one single film in particular, although I could make cases for a lot of movies, because he was so fascinated with film (and other topics as well) and his mentality behind trying out new things to see what he could do really pushes me not to settle for what I think I already know.

Lena Dunham’s various writings have had a lot of influence on the way I approach living, so has Krzysztof Kieślowski, who I think is possibly the wisest filmmaker ever.

11. What is the one thing you want to accomplish before you die?

I want to direct a film and take it to Cannes.

Or you know, reincarnate as Nikola Tesla.

 

 

Thanks again to Elsie!

I nominate the following people:

Ribs
What You Doing Here?
The Essence of Hope
Slightly Chic
Stitch Boom Bang
Cup of Tea and a Movie

(If you’re one of my nominees and you’ve already received a Liebster, TOUGH! Do it again 🙂  If not, congratulations! It probably means I like your stuff, and I think your blog is cute/badass or something like that. Just have fun with it!)

 

And here are my questions for you:

1. What do you love about writing?
2. If you could be best friends with a fictional character, who would that be?
3. If you could change one book/movie/story so that the bad guys win instead of the good guys (or vice versa), how would that go down?
4. Who inspires you?
5. What is your favourite midnight snack?
6. What is the most epic way to die?
7. The Doctor shows up with a TARDIS, where and when do you go?
8. Describe your childhood bedroom.
9. If you were a genie, would you have a rule against people wishing for more wishes or not and why?
10. What is your favourite quote?
11. Do you encounter writers block? If so, how do you work around that?

 

Go forth and be awesome!

Lena Dunham: A Glimpse Inside

If I was a woman I would want to be someone like Lena Dunham, or at least that’s how I’d like to imagine things. I can manage being a man as long as there are people like Dunham writing books like “Not That Kind of Girl,” something I’d describe as my imaginary sex change self-help how-to guide to living. It’s a perfect book for someone like me who thinks everyone is out to get him while simultaneously plotting revenge and sweeping acts of selflessness destined to immortalize me in the history of humanity. It’s a perfect book for someone like me who has never felt comfortable in my own body, unsure of any sense of sexuality, ravaged by ambition, lacking in any sort of purpose. In any sense, it’s a perfect book for my generation, lost in the internet, found in the solace of faux togetherness.

9780812994995_custom-d00451b98fad719e7e291d37e9048eeba78c5d71-s99-c85

Pretentiousness aside, Dunham’s honest prose is unafraid to tackle issues from virginity to rape to growing up to dying. She writes with ease, yet she writes as though she really has experienced her topics, not like she’s some sort of expert because she read Hemingway as a child, or she thinks she understands Sylvia Plath better than anyone else. Dunham’s writing is full of pain, and she finds it difficult to open up and be honest, but insists that she will anyways, and ultimately finds her way of discussing things with us much like a child would – open and direct, but aware of how difficult it is to do so, struggling to find the words to be understood. She shies away from taking too direct of an approach, often changing the topic, seemingly at random, when it gets too messy, but always focusing back in on what she wanted to say, determined to say it, to get it out there. As if talking would help, not just her, but us as well, and though she knows this and she must speak out, she can hardly force herself to relive the experiences.

This makes for a startlingly honest insight into Dunham’s life. Not only do we get to share her experiences, but we get to see a side of her that we didn’t realize wasn’t fictional. Dunham’s HBO show, “Girls” takes on a whole new light after reading this book. You realize that everything you thought was real turned out to be fabricated for the drama of the show, but all the things you thought couldn’t possibly have happened in real life did exactly that. Her biggest surprise in this book is not that she has some new moment of embarrassing hilarity to share with us, but that she is more relevant than we realized. It’s been three years since “Girls” premiered, has it? How many times have we heard reviews raving about how Dunham is “the voice of her generation?” Too many times that we’ve stopped taking it seriously. She really is the voice of her generation, but she never thinks of herself as such, and why should she? Why should anyone? It is this kind of pontification that this book is rife with, making it not only a pleasurable read, but a deeply insightful and unsuspectedly empathetic at that.

Dunham’s book will undoubtably resonate in particular with writers who feel they should have travelled more, or they’re too boring, too trite, too passé to be writers. Her explorative side comes out more often than not and the reader is left to compare their lives with hers, but she never makes that feel like a bad thing. Dunham never talks down to her readers, never thinks she’s better than them. If she were having this conversation with me right now I’m sure she’d be apologizing, shaking her head, insisting that no, that’s not what she ever meant to imply, and then immediately distracting the conversation by talking about how much she hates not living life to the fullest but also she doesn’t want to leave her bed. See, that’s how easy it is to talk to her, in my head anyways, after reading this book. This is not just for writers and artists, however, and the casual reader ought to be able to benefit from this book just as well, recognizing themselves a little bit, understanding a little bit more about the world they feel they’ve never really been able to fully live in. If human connection is the currency of the millennials, then this book is a goldmine.

favorite-quotes-hbos-girls--large-msg-136198946001

I always feel like I’m not living as much as I could, like I’m missing out somehow, like there’s a secret party somewhere that nobody told me about and I’m sitting at home on my bed for no good reason, wasting away. I’ve never really thought that other people feel that way too, but from reading “Not That Kind of Girl” I can understand that perhaps this fear is all too common, and that as artists it is perhaps our most shared curse. Whoever you are, read this book. It’s the best thing you’ll read all year. Well probably. Maybe.