Personas, Personalities, and Hybrids on the Screen

TINY FURNITURE, IFC Films, 2010
PUTTY HILL, Cinema Guild, 2010
ON THE BOWERY, Milestone Film and Video, 1957

As the Hollywood studios crank out their late-winter run of knock-offs, sequels, and other lightweight products, it’s a good time to reflect on independent films that don’t fit cookie-cutter patterns. This is a particularly interesting season for indies that blur the boundaries between fiction and documentary, blending on-screen personas and off-screen personalities into relatively seamless wholes. Film is a liminal zone by nature, depicting people, places, and things that might appear quite different if we sought out their real-life counterparts. Movies usually play down this conundrum, pretending — and encouraging us to pretend — that they’re trustworthy likenesses of the world, not stylized spectacles that entertain more than they illuminate. But some adventurous filmmakers acknowledge the gap between art and actuality, and try to bridge it by allowing real people with authentic emotions and experiences into their stories. When the experiment succeeds, fiction and fact become mutually enriching qualities, opening fresh possibilities for empathy and understanding. A few current releases make noteworthy efforts along these lines.

One of them is Tiny Furniture, which belongs to the tiny subgenre of fact-fiction hybrids wherein people play characters who resemble themselves. Written and directed by Lena Dunham, it stars Lena Dunham as Aura, a twenty-three-year-old college grad who returns to her mother’s apartment in lower Manhattan to recover and regroup after getting dumped by her boyfriend. To this end she takes a tedious job as a restaurant greeter, hanging out with friends and socializing a bit in her many spare hours.

Aura is smart, likable, and open-minded. But she’s also a bit of a droop, lacking focused ambitions or plans for a career, acting as though the future will magically take care of itself. She’s also ungainly in appearance, and so apathetic about her pudginess that she’s posted a distinctly unflattering video of herself on YouTube, earning a meager 357 hits for her trouble. She meets a couple of possible romantic partners during the story, one of them an obvious creep, the other attractive but unreliable. At home she has to cope with Siri, her preoccupied mom — the title refers to miniature furnishings Siri uses in her work as a photographer — and Nadine, her smart-alecky sister.

Taken at face value, Tiny Furniture is an amiable comedy-drama with an unlikely heroine and an assortment of quirky supporting characters. The picture is more intriguing, though, when you consider its unusual casting. In addition to playing Aura, hardly the most glamorous role in current cinema, Lena Dunham recruited her real mother, photographer Laurie Simmons, to play her screen mother, and enlisted her real sister, Grace Dunham, to play her screen sibling. Other parallels between the actual and the fictional also weave through the movie. Aura has left college with a film-theory degree, for instance, while Dunham herself has a creative-writing degree (from which she’s deriving vastly more benefit than lackadaisical Aura is ever likely to get from hers).

These background facts would hold little interest if Tiny Furniture didn’t succeed as a movie, and while I can’t call it a major achievement, it rings true as a character-based domestic comedy, a sardonic coming-of-age story, and a tantalizing glimpse at the inner life of its talented writer-producer-star, who has admitted to being “a little bit of a sad sack” herself. The ugly-duckling aspects of the tale sometimes lapse into mumblecore clichés, and the movie is less radical in its fact-fiction interplay than The Talent Given Us, a deliciously eccentric 2004 production by Andrew Wagner in which members of his family play themselves all stops out, even keeping their own names. This said, Tiny Furniture is the work of a very promising filmmaker. We’ll surely hear more from her in time to come.

Another writer-director who draws ideas and inspiration from the places where he grew up is Matt Porterfield, a native of Baltimore, the city I now call home. Unlike the city’s more famous filmmakers — campy John Waters, polished Barry Levinson — Porterfield gravitates to outlying locales that even The Wire sees fit to overlook. His new picture, Putty Hill, takes place in the kind of scruffy suburban area he learned to love during his youth: “wild with unkempt hedges,” in his words, “disheveled lawns and porches, yards full of car parts and swimming pools, and a church or bar on every corner.” More important than the milieu itself, of course, are the people who reside there — folks from blue-collar families who work, play, dream, and live their lives without giving too much heed to the wider world around them.

Porterfield’s brand of cinema is less story-conscious than Dunham’s, or almost anyone’s for that matter. Teaming up with a young, nonprofessional cast, he set to work on Putty Hill with a five-page plot outline, a single line of dialogue, and fifteen locations where he wanted to shoot. What brings the bare-bones narrative alive is the mostly improvised dialogue created by the actors as the camera prepared to roll. Porterfield accurately describes the outcome as both documentary and fiction, rejecting “anthropological, lyrical, and romantic” elements in favor of a resolutely earthbound vision.

A similar sensibility underlies Porterfield’s previous picture, the 2006 feature Hamilton, but there he eliminates storytelling almost entirely. Putty Hill is a tad less drastic in this regard, organizing its nuanced, understated scenes around the impending funeral of a doper whose aimless, troubled life intersected with those of other people in the community, from friends and family to cellmates and accomplices. All are played by actors who make up in authenticity and intuition what they lack in credentials and experience.

I know of only one filmmaker who has built a sustained career by directing spontaneously created films with untrained local casts: his name is Jon Jost, and his best pictures, such as Last Chants for a Slow Dance (1977) and Sure Fire (1999), are one-of-a-kind originals. Porterfield is a similarly audacious talent, equally willing to bypass Hollywood’s hyperactive patterns and let events unfold in real experiential time, complete with strange detours, slow-motion revelations, and flashes of psychological truth that strike like lightning out of the blue. Here’s hoping he gets to make many more pictures along these fascinating lines.

As creditable as I find Tiny Furniture and Putty Hill, they have a common ancestor that’s arguably the greatest fact-fiction amalgam of them all: On the Bowery, first released in 1957, reissued in theaters a few months ago, and now available in a superbly produced DVD edition. It was conceived and directed by Lionel Rogosin, an unjustly neglected filmmaker with a powerful social conscience. Disturbed by American society’s willingness to ignore the countless lives being destroyed by alcohol in skid-row districts across the country, he put together a small crew and set up shop in New York’s notorious Bowery neighborhood, where alcoholics of every age, gender, and background drank, staggered, collapsed, and perished in plain view of anyone who cared to look. Once on the scene, he and writer Mark Sufrin scrapped their minimal script and started off-the-cuff conversations with an array of men and women in saloons and on the streets, eventually choosing three to portray “characters” based on themselves in a “story” based on their experiences.

The result is harrowing and heartrending, and all the more so when you realize that the people on the screen died mostly miserable deaths, with only this little-known work of art to memorialize them. Some portions of On the Bowery were rehearsed and staged; others were shot documentary-style as they occurred; and all remain as urgent and moving as when I first saw the film decades ago. Everyone who values independent cinema owes a debt of gratitude to the makers of the bravely inventive films I’ve reviewed here, and to the distributors who make them available in theatrical and home-video formats: IFC Films for Tiny Furniture, Cinema Guild for Putty Hill, and Milestone Film and Video for On the Bowery. Long may they prosper.

Tikkun film critic David Sterritt is a film professor at Columbia University and the Maryland Institute College of Art and guest editor of Film Quarterly. His most recent book is Spike Lee’s America, published this year by Polity.
 
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