How Lena Dunham’s Directing Style Makes ‘Girls’ More Emotionally Resonant – and More Polarizing
At some point in the last two years it became a legal requirement in the United States to have an opinion about Lena Dunham. So, here is mine: Lena Dunham, the ultimate multi-hyphenate, is a tremendously skilled filmmaker. She also fits perfectly in the original mission of this column, in that while she is often more lauded, or at least more recognized, for her writing and acting work, her skills and choices as a director actually allow her to perfectly convey what she tries to do in Girls and her earlier work. Just as in her writing, her filmmaking choices are pitch-perfect in portraying perfectly timed humor, sadness, vulnerability, and confidence in both exceedingly public and private ways.
Tiny Furniture, the film which launched Dunham into public consciousness, is notable in its commitment to long shots in carefully composed wide frames. The camera rarely moves and much of the action is comprised of Dunham’s character, Aura, either alone or with one other character in a much larger space, usually her mother’s apartment. These wide frames allow the audience to disassociate with the characters’ emotions and become viewers of their behavior. It’s the opposite of manipulative filmmaking typical of romantic comedies, but in some ways it’s actually asking more of the audience because the disassociation forces the viewer to make their own opinion about the characters’ choices. There is no hand-holding in Dunham’s direction, instead, she has the confidence to drag her audience into the deep end along with her characters. Often times this is played for humor; Dunham is adept at placing her physical presence in stark contrast with her surroundings to heighten her character’s ridiculousness. However, she also knows how to use this same tactic of passing the onus of judgment to the viewer in more serious moments, most notably in her now infamous style of portraying sex on screen, beginning with the famous “pipe scene” in Tiny Furniture.
The large pipe inside which Aura has sex at the end of Tiny Furniture allows Dunham to construct a wide frame that has the emotional effect of a close up. The round pipe creates a frame within a frame, focusing all attention very clearly on the act. The audience is not afforded the physical distance a wide shot usually provides, instead, the wide shot forces us to see everything that is going on in the frame but also does not give us the perspective a close up usually provides. We are forced to fully engage, but to fully engage as a third party. There is no audience surrogate in Dunham’s work because that would provide the audience with a comfort she actively works against providing. This perhaps begins to get at why people are quickly forced to such polarized opinions about her work.
Tiny Furniture relies heavily on that cold, distant wide shot in its stylistic construction. It’s a choice that works to get the themes of the film across but ultimately limits the film from being emotionally resonant beyond its main character’s personal worldview. However in Girls, Dunham shows maturity as a director by using her wide shots within a more complex sequence that allows them to function as more than a distancing mechanism.
And now, a quick Film Editing 101 aside just to make clearer how Dunham’s shot sequencing in Girls is operating: Classical Hollywood editing was commonly said to be structured like an accordion. A standard scene begins with a wide establishing shot of the space, followed by a full shot with all the actors in the scene when they begin their dialogue so to have them stand out over the space. Then as a character begins to deliver important dialogue, the next shot will be a medium shot so the viewer can focus on the nuance of the dialogue, followed by close up to focus on the emotional response to the dialogue, followed by the reverse pattern of shots back to the wide. This in and out style of editing (hence accordion) was used because it is considered jarring to go from a close-up straight out to a wide shot. However, as audiences and creators have become more visually sophisticated, what was once jarring is now where meaning and nuance is found.
In Girls, Lena Dunham manages to flip the patterns of traditional film sequencing to bring viewers closer to the physical space of the characters in addition to the emotional space. Throughout the pilot episode, Hannah attempts to engage Adam in emotional intimacy, something he very clearly (and sometimes graphically) rejects. About two thirds of the way into the episode, Hannah is at Adam’s apartment and for the first time he allows her to rest her head on his shoulder. Then unexpectedly and out of nowhere in the conversation, Adam says the first semi-sweet thing to Hannah he has said in the whole episode, and there is no need to cut to Hannah for her reaction of it, we are already there. The line is delivered with Hannah already in close up and all of a sudden without cutting, the shot changes meaning entirely with the emotional reaction of the character. Consider this in contrast to the traditionally sequenced version where we would see Hannah resting on Adam in a medium shot, the sweet line would be delivered, and then we would cut to a close of Hannah for her reaction. The meaning is implicit in the filmmaking choice; there is no grey area. However by already being with Hannah as the character processes the line, we experience it as she does, and are thus able to come to a more genuine emotional conclusion as a viewer. Dunham manages to accomplish what her wide shots in her earlier work accomplished — engagement — and at the same time allows the viewer into the experience.
In the Season 1 finale, Dunham uses a similar technique to accomplish what she likes to do with wide shots but still allow the viewer emotional access. Hannah is talking to Adam about moving in together and realizes after she dismisses the idea that Adam was quite serious about it. Adam gets quickly and uncharacteristically upset in a way that escalates the tone of the scene abruptly. In very quick succession we cut from a close up of Hannah to a medium shot of Hannah and Adam, which then through Adam moving away from Hannah becomes a wide shot with Adam in the background and Hannah with her back to us in the foreground of the frame. Adam delivers his line expressing how upset he is, we see the reverse shot of Hannah’s reaction in a medium shot but almost immediately there is an off screen sound cue of the overly theatrical wedding officiant that distracts Hannah. We then cut back to a wide where Hannah is placed in the bottom right of the frame and the rest of the frame is filled with partygoers cutting the wedding cake; Adam is gone.
Instead of staying with a close up on Hannah as she processes her confusion, we’re thrown into the chaos of the wide shot along with her. However, the feeling of Hannah small in the frame with so much going on around her is a far more accurate representation emotionally and physically to feelings of the character. By using the sound cue and wide shot to link between the two scenes immediately without the classical way of going in and out of a scene, Dunham leaves the viewer in a position of playing catch up, processing one scene while another has already begun and juxtaposing the drama of one moment with the comedy of the next, heightening the effect of both.
While the two above examples are both dramatic moments, the same techniques are used in Dunham’s comedic moments. Girls is equal parts dramatic and comedic and can sometimes eschew one for the other for entire episodes, but the directing techniques remain the same. In knowing how to bring the viewer closer to her characters in vulnerable moments, Dunham also knows how to present her characters at a distance when they are to be laughed at. She allows a comically voyeuristic look into her characters’ most awkward moments, both private and public. Dunham has figured out how to employ what was once considered jarring directing choices to enhance absurdity and vulnerability in her work, choices that compliment her work as a writer as well as her performance as an actor in both Girls and her earlier work.
Brad Becker-Parton is a film person living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter; you’ll regret it during Knicks games.