Creative Nonfiction, Lena Dunham’s 2009 debut feature, begins with the then-22-year-old filmmaker saying, “Ok, so there’s this girl,” over a closeup of herself. Then as now, the question of where “this girl” ends and Dunham begins is an open-ended one, which is very much the point. As Girls approaches its season finale on June 17, it’s something the show’s very many recappers continue to ponder; a couple of nights later, at 8:10pm on Tuesday, June 19, we’ll attempt to provide some supplementary material when Creative Nonfiction screens at the Nitehawk as The L Magazine’s selection for the Northside Festival's film component.
Girls gets much of its resonance from the appearance of neurosis-baring, anxiety-purging honesty from Dunham, with its jokes at the expense of her character’s imperfect self-awareness vis-à-vis creative aspirations and romantic prospects. The show’s quality, though, is down to what has turned out to be Dunham’s actually very acute self-awareness, her ability to shape and order sloppy experience. This has been her game all along—recall Tiny Furniture’s study of post-graduation drift, undertaken shortly after college—even back to Creative Nonfiction, which throws a bit of collegiate reflexivity into the mix as well.
Compared to her similarly named Lena surrogates, Creative Nonfiction’s Ella seems less exhausted than Tiny Furniture’s Aura, and responsive to pressures more internal than external, unlike Girls’s Hannah. At a school that may as well be Dunham’s alma mater Oberlin, where the college scenes were shot, Ella is working on a screenplay, about a talented high school poet abducted by her teacher, then fleeing from him across America. (The stagings of Ella’s synopsis, described to friends as the story evolves, are swift and clever in their literalness, like when the student clutches to her breast a paper marked with an enormous “A+”.) On her walkabout, Ella’s protagonist, played by Dunham in a series of terrible wigs, meets characters who echo, in off-center ways, Ella’s life (though not as closely, per interviews, as many of Ella’s travails echo with Dunham’s own). Meanwhile, Chris (David Unger) is sleeping on Ella’s floor, claiming an outbreak of mold has rendered his own dorm room uninhabitable; he soon takes up Ella’s invitation to sleep in her bed, both all the while finding each other’s signals much more ambiguous than we do.
In one early scene, Ella critiques a classmate’s choice of imagery in a bad breakup poem; she responds that her ex-boyfriend really did leave a rotting fish in a pan in a corner of her room: “I write from life.” Creative Nonfiction had its roots in a screenplay much like Ella’s, which Dunham quickly abandoned; her first-person salvage makes Creative Nonfiction, to continue with the writing-workshop metaphor, something like an exemplary version of the retreat to “write what you know.”
Because Dunham’s writing is exemplary. (And Creative Nonfiction is well-thought-out visually: the operators of the digital camera squeeze into Ella’s single bed with her and Chris, for that dorm-room claustrophobia feel.) Creative Nonfiction, like Girls, shows her to be a savvy writer of, well, guys: the way that, for instance, a passive, less than confident young man might mislead a woman with his fear of giving offense, then take her embarrassment as an opportunity to appear wise. (After Ella has made a move that’s less unreciprocated than unacknowledged: “Sorry I brought it up.” “It’s ok.”) Ella finally presses Chris on his motivations until he says, “You assume that I actually think about things,” which is so funny and spot-on that you’d figure someone once said it to Dunham even if she hadn’t copped to it in an interview.
That’s not a criticism: Creative Nonfiction sees Dunham building up greatest-hits editions of undergraduate banter and types, like the girly-girl in the baby-pink dorm sweats who complains of feeling objectified; or the paragon of accessible sophistication played by Dunham’s best friend, Audrey Gelman. Creative Nonfiction is, in short, the notes of a scrupulously observant person.