Thursday, March 2, 2017

Girls (Season 6)

Lena Dunham's Girls, now in the sixth season, continues to develop and maintain high standards of excellence.  It's my understanding that the program will end with this season and, presumably, Dunham and her creative partner, Jenni Konner, want the show to conclude on a high note.  On the evidence of the first three episodes, this objective will be achieved and, then, some. 

The 2017 series begins with a throwaway episode, amusing but unnecessary and slight.  Dunham and Konner know that, for better or worse, much of the program's appeal lies in its exorbitant use of nudity and graphic sex -- accordingly, the first episode keeps Dunham's character naked for half the show and features some spectacular sex scenes.  The bare naked ladies and the unblinking eye for sex in its most demystified form is the hook that the show's producers set firmly in the viewer's jaw.  (The plot is slight and unconvincing:  Dunham's character, Hannah, has been dispatched to write about a "surf camp" for wannabe female surfers at Montauk -- the camp is basically a cover for sexual hook-ups with the handsome instructors.  Hannah ends up in bed with the character played by Riz Ahmed, the hunky Pakistani dude cast as the victim in The Night of.  Predictably, she gets her heart -- not exactly broken -- but, rather, slightly bruised.  Sex is often weightless in Girls, a minor diversion, and this is the case with regard to the liaison displayed in this episode.)  The show uses Dunham's lumpy and mostly shapeless physique for some slapstick about her ability to surf.  There's not much to the episode except the show's trademark nudity featuring the heroine's pleasant but unexceptional body.  Someone has told her that you can become more attractive and healthy by exposing the interior of your vagina to the rays of the sun and so Hannah obligingly irradiates herself for the camera's eye. 

The second episode is much better, and, indeed, both frightening and memorable.  Again the action takes place outside of Manhattan.  Mernie and her selfish folksinger husband, Desi, go to a cabin in the woods near Poughkeepsie.  I'm not sure exactly why Hannah accompanies them, but she becomes a witness to an explosive confrontation between Mernie and Desi.  It turns out that Desi is addicted to opiates.    When Mernie throws his drugs away, a ferocious battle ensues.  People get flung around the room and Desi, banished to the outside of the cabin, stalks around shrieking threats.  Finally, he smashes his hand through a window and cuts himself badly.  The quarreling between husband and wife has a savage and brutal intensity and the physical violence is shocking.  The episode ends with Hannah retrieving the bleeding and exhausted Desi from the woodpile where he has collapsed outside.  To the tune of Joni Mitchell's "Free Man in Paris", the trio stagger to their car and, numb with fatigue, drive back to the city.  There's not much to the episode, but what we see is startlingly realistic and alarming.  The show doesn't exactly achieve tragedy, something that would be difficult in the scope of 27 minutes, but that's not the objective -- rather, Dunham wants to portray the real squalor and desperation of drug addiction, the sense of claustrophobia that ensues when people who don't like one another very much are trapped together for a long and hideous weekend. 

Girls third episode is a classic, a fully accomplished and brilliant piece of film-making, sharply written with a tightly argued dramatic trajectory.  After a couple of establishing shots, we see Dunham standing before a posh Manhattan condominium checking and rechecking her address.  There is just a slight hint of hesitance, even shyness, in her approach to the building.  In the next shot, we see her proceeding past the doorman in the condominium's elegant lobby -- she walks away from us in the middle of the image and the camera tracks forward very slightly, imparting a curious sense of importance and portentousness to the shot.   This is followed by symmetrical shot taken from the front -- now, Dunham is walking in our direction, the camera again moving very slightly and slowly toward her.  This combination of symmetrically disposed shots of Dunham walking away and toward us, linked by the device of the very slight, almost imperceptible camera movement, suggests a highly classical film grammar.  It appears that the episode will be designed as a sequence of matching shots that are carefully composed -- the slight motion of the camera, not a zoom, but an actual tracking shot, imparts a weight to the imagery and foregrounds the concept that the mise-en-scene will be built from matching book-ended shots.  And this is how the show proceeds:  Hannah has been invited to the apartment of a famous novelist that she has impugned on her blog.  The program is structured as a sequence of shots showing Hannah in one frame, then, the novelist in a separate frame, devising a back-and-forth rhythm cutting between the two equally matched antagonists in the debate that follows.  Gradually, the two characters come to occupy the same shot and, finally, at the episode's X-rated climax, we have a vertical shot showing the novelist and Hannah occupying the same bed.  At the end of the episode, the distance between the two characters has been re-established and, indeed, if anything, they are now more remote from one another.  We see Hannah at one end of the room, the novelist as far apart from her as possible, and, between, them the novelist's teenage daughter who is playing a flute.  There is a close-up of the novelist, now portrayed as an attentive and doting father, followed by an identically composed close-up of Hannah looking at the novelist.  Then, I think, there is a scene on the street showing Hannah walking away from the novelist's apartment, an image like the opening establishing shot that signifies the show's ending and the closure of its formal system of images.  Throughout the show, the use of space between the antagonists, the way the characters are framing, and the very slight camera movements create a sense of intensely lucid clarity -- the positions of the characters in the frame and vis-a-vis one another are both formally beautifully and, also, thematically meaningful.

In this episode, Dunham reprises to some extent the violent two-character confrontation central to David Mamet's underrated 1991 film Oleanna.  Indeed, I think the show is designed as a counter-punch to Mamet's sexually charged imagery and debate in that film.  (Mamet's daughter Zosia is a regular on Girls.)  In Oleanna, a female student accuses her professor of sexually harassing her and the issue is debated throughout the picture.  Dunham's rejoinder involves Hannah's assertion in her blog that the charismatic novelist has abused his power to coerce unwilling young women into giving him oral sex.  The novelist doesn't exactly deny the charge but engages in a self-pitying, if intensely intelligent, justification for his behavior.  Hannah responds with a claim that she was sexually abused as a child and staunchly argues that the novelist's behavior verges on the criminal.  Of course, neither side can convince the other and underlying the debate is the sexual tension between the two antagonists that renders both of their positions intrinsically uncertain and, even, perhaps, inauthentic.  All of the smart and hyper-articulate talk, on its face, combative and profoundly antagonistic, may also be about something else -- indeed, may also be some kind of predicate to seduction or seduction itself.  And, in fact, Hannah ultimately finds herself slipping into the position of the other young women seduced by the novelist, although not in exactly the same way.  The program is brilliantly written and realistically observed, although the dialogue has the heightened aphoristic quality of a play by Wilde mixed with some Shakespearian poetry.  In the end, we are left with an understanding that, of course, issues involving human sexuality are unfathomably complex, that "no" doesn't always exactly mean "no" and that "yes" is equally ambiguous.  Girls has the courage to allow its characters to be flawed, indeterminate, and, even, profoundly annoying -- all of which we see in this very fine, and brilliantly designed, episode.  (Matthew Rhys plays the novelist -- it would be fun to know who he is imitating; one certainly has a sense that the show's observations are satiric.  Dunham, who wrote the episode, surely had some well-known writer in mind.)   

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