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John Lichman's third attempt at a personal blog and online savanting idiotic.

The Wolf Knife / Tiny Furniture

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A director’s background will always emerge when attempting a discussion and reading of their work. A brunt of the critics tackling Tiny Furniture immediately praised/lambasted writer-director-star Lena Dunham for casting her own mother and sister to play a version of themselves. It spiraled out from there: was Dunham attacking the “art world” that she grew up in? Was she equally stunted by the (now non-existant to anyone outside of)  Tribeca art scene? No matter what camp you find yourself in post-Furniture, these questions can rise much like Dunham’s own meteoric ascent from festival darling to writing/starring in and co-producing a new show for HBO.

Laurel Nakadate is a photographer and writer-director whose second film, The Wolf Knife, premiered at the 2010 Los Angeles Film Festival. It has nothing to do with the art world and more in line with a coming of age story that unfolds against decaying americana–i.e. it is set in Florida and that place is fucking depressing. Nakadate, however, is best known amongst the performance art community in New York due to her work: she approaches men and then records the entire meeting while performing any request they ask of her. As a friend of a friend described her first film, Stay The Same Never Change: “She is the master of the stilted rape scene.”

So, why compare them? Clearly because they are both women. Petty? Of course it is. That’s also a terrible reason. I actually saw these films back to back and it became the type of double feature that grew on me as I thought about it. Both are products and functioning members of the New York art community; but one via her pedigree and the other based upon her body of work that has mainly stayed within the studio realm save for her two features. That seems like a far more entertaining “petty” reason than “hurr dey women and do the movie picture showz bout the baitin in new forks?”


Dunham’s view of New York is Tribeca and a sliver of Brooklyn kept vibrant and seductive by Jody Lee Lipes regardless of the situation. Her family’s apartment thrives as a massive space or a minuscule living room from which her mother and sister snipe from a couch and chair. While it’s easy to point out the obvious in Dunham’s vision (i.e. HER ASS) it becomes very interesting that for all the functionality within Manhattan, Aura can’t be assed to leave the city-wide identity she associates with Tribeca as a whole. This area is “art” and where people thrive in loft apartments with vague day jobs and overwhelming problems figuring out what it is they do.  This is where Charlotte (Jemima Kirke) figures in. A foil for Aura’s sensibilities of “what if I never left,” she affixes a faux-British accent and never breaks character once. Aura ultimately follows the advice and wishes of Charlotte, whether it’s to stay out for a party or parade around in her underwear to garner attention at a party thrown for 17-year-olds.

Aura’s world is post-collegiate, but Nakadate’s Chrissy (Christina Kolozsvary)  is hovering between adolescence and adulthood; Florida is stucko, palm tree and pool enclosed in cloned home after home after home. Chrissy is bored but she is also well aware of her body, even if she’s not as confident as she forces herself to be. “Coming of age”  is weird and creepy through Nakadate’s lens and the kids want to be adults, but bristle at their jokes: Chrissy’s mother’s boyfriend shows off a pair of panties for her mom and asks Chrissy, “don’t you think she’d like these? You should try them on.” The adults can’t help but be envious of the children–more so, they can’t help but be predatory.  Nakadate’s camera, likewise, is handheld and constant with uneven cuts and natural lighting. It clearly isn’t the godly touch of Lipes, but the premeditated stalking that can only be framed by a lightning storm in the distance while a red lightbulb bathes the girls at night.

Both writer-directors are intoxication personified. Dunham has her crew of ardent supporters ranging from SXSW to film critics and other talent for obvious reasons. Nakadate is a known art presence and as Erin Krause for VBS (or her producer, god knows with these things) Art Talk description: “I mean, the girl has been written or talked about by everyone and their mother, she went to Yale and the equally prestigious School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and she’s hot—and not even in that basic “whatever, she’s attractive” sort of way, but in a way that when Laurel looks you in the eye you understand why Jerry Saltz titled his article about her ‘Whatever Laurel Wants.’ She’s a charmer, for sure, and you immediately see how she gets the dudes in her video to strip and act like babies or whatever it is she wants them to do. On top of her charm, the girl is an amazing host, one of those people that seriously cleans her room before company comes and buys flowers and does her make-up and is just perfectly ready for the occasion.”

Obvious fawning praise is obvious, but the sentiment remains: they are talented, but they’re nice and keep their panties–or body stockings–in glass boxes so we can gawk at them whilst comparing moleskin notes. Because they exist in this realm of self-presentation, the audience feels an immediate connection due to false intimacy showing skin. Dunham’s methodical in her constant exposure of her and her family’s bodies, most striking when Aura (in oversized t-shirt) throws herself onto a couch next to a treadmill. Moments later her teenage sister (in lycra shorts and sports bra) trots her body into frame, sans head,  to begin her workout. It takes only seconds before Aura, in her best Cathy, YYYARGHS her way out off the couch.

Knife isn’t safe though: it takes sadistic pleasure in informing us our scantily clad and self-exploring protagonists are 15-years old over and over. Chrissy’s fetishization of June (Julie Potratz, a returning actor from Nakadate’s Stay The Same Never Change) is mix of pin-up allure and child doll plaything with her frizzy blonde hair and glassy-eyed stare. And yet, there are surreal moments that seems scripted by Tommy Wiseau when Chrissy’s mother calls the girls into a drawing room: “Oh girls, so good you could come…so…there’s been a rapist in the area. He has a white car. Don’t go near any white cars. Now I have other news.” You almost expect  to hear “I DID NOT RAPE HER, I DID NOT OH HI MARK” come through the window.

But the focus on the young woman is one of the most underdeveloped discussions in film, despite every rom-com and cheerful story about empowering woman that most assume are carving strong writers and directors in Hollywood–even in the “independent” festival playpen. For all the grating faults to be found among both (again “master of the stilted rape scene” and Dunham’s fascination with basically making her version of Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn compared to her first feature), The Wolf Knife and Tiny Furniture tackle a theme of maturity (fake, actual, what have you) with a level that has to be endorsed. We need more of these films. Whether they’re primarily based in the actual art house like Wolf Knife, or the product of some film festival breeding program like Tiny Furniture, these works must be encouraged.

And on a final note: pipe fucking. It’s the single best pay-off for those who find Aura to be an utterly horrid and vapid individual.


Written by john lichman

December 25, 2010 at 10:35 pm

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