Fantasy Men
Adam Nayman on Girls (episode: “One Man’s Trash”) and Fish Tank

You can tell a lot about filmmakers from their Criterion Top 10 lists. For instance, Nicolas Winding Refn observed that David Cronenberg’s Videodrome was a “great mixture of sex and violence,” which is exactly as eloquent a summation as we might expect from the director of Only God Forgives. Elsewhere, undergraduate keener James Franco waxed philosophical about The Spirit of the Beehive (“it is about the power that movies can hold over us”) while pop-culture magpie Chuck Klosterman went all I Love the ’90s (Rushmore, Kicking and Screaming, Slacker).

Invited to contribute a list on the occasion of her feature debut, Tiny Furniture earning its own prized Criterion spine number (#597, right next to Rainer Warner Fassbinder!), Lena Dunham wrote: “I’m embarrassed so many of these films are in English, but I just love speaking English.” This was, of course, a deceptively self-deprecating joke by a writer-director who makes a lot of them. The seeming parochialism of the statement is at once boldly unguarded and totally in line with Dunham’s carefully finessed persona as an artist who takes that old authors’ workshop chestnut “write what you know” to and past its most solipsistic endpoint.

Psychologizing Lena Dunham has become a kind of national pastime. Girls’ status as a very particular kind of totem—the kind that stands all the more firmly for all the attempts to push it over—has already occasioned its share of writing, good and bad. But no symposium about the new centrality of “quality television” would be complete without Girls, and since the assignment here is to compare an episode of a significant prime-time series with a feature film, it would seem that Fish Tank, the movie that Dunham placed atop her list of favorite Criterion releases, would make for a proper comparison.

“My favorite film of the past decade” is how Dunham describes Andrea Arnold’s 2009 sophomore feature elsewhere in her entry. Superbly photographed in controlled, roving long takes by Robbie Ryan, Fish Tank concerns a stifled fifteen-year-old girl, Mia (Katie Jarvis) who harbors dreams of escaping her Essex housing estate by becoming a great dancer. A loner with a short fuse, Mia practices her routines along to CDs in between screaming fights with her distantly permissive mother Joanne (Kierston Wareing). Her disciplined attempts to master and marshal her blossoming body bump up against the overpowering desire she feels for Joanne’s new boyfriend, Connor (Michael Fassbender). Suddenly, the same lanky limbs she’s able to swing into all kinds of intricate positions slacken along with her jaw in the presence of her devastatingly handsome new (step)father figure.

Fish Tank only really snaps to life when Fassbender shows up, and it’s interesting to remember a time not so long ago when our patron saint of art-house masochism was merely a talented, inventive, exciting young actor. Nobody would ever mistake Arnold for a lazy director, not with her constant shifting of visual strategies—moving from inhabiting Mia’s point of view to distanced, voyeuristic shots of her dancing alone—or her pile-up of deliberate metaphors (as when our bridling heroine espies a chained white horse in her flat’s immediate vicinity), but there’s something about Fish Tank that feels too carefully diagrammed. A fan might say that the overdetermined quality of Arnold’s filmmaking reflects Mia’s own stubborn refusal to relent on her naive seduction of Connor, who plays along avuncularly enough in Joanne’s company before dropping hints of his own in private and eventually letting the younger woman seduce him to the strains of Bobby Womack’s undeniable cover of “California Dreamin’”). But a movie about a teenager in thrall to hardwired feelings should feel more authentically erratic and unhinged. For instance, it would help if we were as blindsided as Mia when Connor, who has been not so subtly coded as a possible means of escape for our ensnared protagonist (a white knight and a white horse all rolled into one lithe package), reveals himself as just another severely flawed, disappointing member of the grown-up world.

Mia pursues Connor back to the suburbs, where she finds evidence of another life and another family. Her response is to pee on the floor in his deserted flat—a territory-marking gesture with an unmistakable masses-against-the-classes subtext in addition to its eruptive bodily implications. The scene feels borrowed from Lynne Ramsay’s great 2000 debut, Ratcatcher, which also featured a scene where a council-estate kid urinates in an empty (if much more dilapidated) house, a movie that’s no less determined than Fish Tank but also infused with a sense of spontaneity—and a better array of doomed symbolic animals to boot. Still, Mia’s solo sojourn in her lover’s hidden digs is probably Fish Tank’s highlight, and not only because it is in many ways the emotional climax of the film; the simple staging and impressively hollowed-out sound design have a force that Arnold’s other, more fussed-over set pieces (like an eventful family trip to the lake) never quite achieve.

Fish Tank concludes with a thuddingly obvious pas de deux between Mia and her mother, scored to a CD player rendition of Nas’s narcotically catchy 1994 “Life’s a Bitch”—their mirrored movements are clearly meant to reflect a continuity of shared, miserable-yet-defiant experience, but the scene is too cleanly conceptual for the messy emotions to really bleed through. It’s an example of a filmmaker using a soundtrack cue to sum up what a movie is supposed to be about, a widespread phenomenon that has been particularly visible over the first two-and-a-half seasons of Girls as well. The use of Robyn’s “Dancing on My Own” to score a scene where Dunham’s Hannah Horvath rocks out in her bedroom, or Belle and Sebastian’s “I Don’t Love Anyone” as a capper to a particularly alienated half-hour are as clever as Arnold’s deployment of Nas (or Bobby Womack), and yet on Girls, there’s often at least a smidge of satire to counterweight the literalism of the lyrics. (One amusing example is when Allison Williams’s Type-A BFF Marnie performs an atrocious karaoke rendition of Kanye West’s “Stronger”—she can’t get much wronger, indeed.)

But what really cinched the connection between Dunham and her idol Andrea Arnold was Girls’ fifteenth episode, “One Man’s Trash”—more commonly referred to by fans and detractors alike as “the one where Hannah moves in with Patrick Wilson for 24 hours.” Perhaps the most authentically polarizing installment of a show that tosses off provocations with grueling regularity, “One Man’s Trash”—written solely by Dunham and directed by high-end-cable-craftsman Richard Shepard—is Girls’ stab at what television writers call a “bottle episode”: an (almost) entirely self-contained narrative that plunks down in a single location and refuses to budge. The first great modern bottle episode is probably Homicide: Life on the Street’s first-season centerpiece “Three Men and Adena,” in which Andre Braugher and Kyle Secor interrogate an implacable murder suspect in what feels like agonizing real time; a little later on down the line, other keynote shows like The Sopranos (“Pine Barrens”) and Breaking Bad (“Fly”) have wrung their own idiosyncratic variations on the format, as have self-reflexive comedies like Community and The New Girl

Girls is unique in that so many of its half-hours feel like bottle episodes: they trap the viewer in confined spaces with variably unbearable twenty-somethings, which supporters will cite as evidence of Dunham and co’s neo-Sartrean sensibility and haters will point to as the primary reason for their hatred. To give Girls the benefit of the many, many doubts it raises—about its cloistered, strategically (?) whited-out New York City; about the half-critical, half-aspirational vibe of its generational portraiture; about the absolute phoniness of so much of its plotting and dialogue—the show can be pathologically watchable when it dispenses with any pretenses to urban anthropology and plunges into its characters’ headspaces. Sometimes, the show’s depths are kiddie-pool shallow, but occasionally, as in “One Man’s Trash,” there’s a bit of an undertow.

The title of “One Man’s Trash” refers to a little rebellious gesture on educated-wage-slave Hannah’s behalf that quickly spins out of control. After spending a few weeks dumping her coffee shop’s garbage bags in the bins of a neighborhood brownstone, she’s confronted by its irate owner, who takes his frustrations out on Hannah’s boss at Grumpy’s Ray (the excellently hangdog Alex Karpovsky). One of Girls’ through lines is its protagonist’s reluctance to take accountability for her actions, which is why it’s suprising when Hannah marches over to the guy’s house and basically invites herself in. She’s glad she did, because, in typical Brooklyn fashion, the unprepossessing façade disguises a palatial interior. And the most deluxe item of all is her host, Joshua (Patrick Wilson), a prosperous doctor who accepts her apology with wary amusement before deftly and enthusiastically maneuvering Hannah into bed.

When it first aired in February of 2013, “One Man’s Trash” inspired more blog-post deconstructions than any episode of Girls before or since: critics wrote about the 18-year age-gap between the characters, about the unlikelihood (or not) of Hannah hooking up with such a spectacularly eligible bachelor; about the strangely torqued sense of time, which made the show’s thirty minutes drag on even as the story itself began and ended with uncharacteristic abruptness. But what still sticks with me a year later, and puts me in mind of Fish Tank, is the idea of Hannah lugging that garbage from Grumpy’s as a kind of prelude to her own arrival on Joshua’s doorstep: the character literally and figuratively brings her garbage with her everywhere she goes.

At no point in “One Man’s Trash” does Hannah actually desecrate the property, but there’s still a feeling of home-invasion to what unfolds, even if Joshua welcomes it with a sly smile. Like Arnold in Fish Tank, Dunham and Shepherd are playing with a scenario that’s more conventionally titillating than authentically taboo—the older man and the ingénue—and mining it for maximum discomfort. The signature scene, where Hannah and Joshua play postcoital ping-pong with the former wearing boxer shorts and nothing else is quite deliberately infantilizing—it establishes a bratty-teen/indulgent-dad dynamic that haunts the rest of the characters’ interactions. Hannah doesn’t overreact when she learns that Joshua has a wife—if anything, such adult complications make him more attractive—but like Mia, she eventually starts having a visceral, bodily reaction to being somewhere she suspects she doesn’t belong. Climbing into a high-tech shower, she runs the water scalding-hot before passing out from steam inhalation; it’s a choice that ties into what we already know about Hannah’s embrace of extremes while also implying that she’s overwhelmed by her environment.

One of the biggest bugaboos for Girls’ critics has been its allegedly mindless treatment of class, and yet “One Man’s Trash” is hardly subtle on this point: in the same way that the fit, fiscally solid Joshua represents an upgrade on Hannah’s other romantic prospects, so too does his brownstone appear as a buttress against the menialness of her job and living situation. When Hannah finally freaks Joshua out by talking relentlessly about her baroque sexual experiences (“One time I asked someone to punch me in the chest and then come on that spot”), she seems to be subconsciously sabotaging her idyll, which ends shortly thereafter.

Fish Tank ends with Mia striking out on her own. Having discovered the source of Connor’s rejection and squared things with her mother (and I haven’t mentioned the ludicrous child-endangerment climax, which should frankly be beneath such an ostensibly sophisticated director) she hits the road with a more age-appropriate boyfriend type. The implication is that she’s no longer the chained-white horse from the early sequences: she’s now a free-range creature. It’s the sort of ambiguous conclusion that’s always in vogue for filmmakers who want to imbue a sense of significance into their work, and as such, it’s actually the perfect capper for Fish Tank, a movie about a wannabe dancer that’s choreographed to within an inch of its life.

The stakes in “One Man’s Trash” are comparatively light, but it’s actually the stickier, more discombobulating piece of work despite its half-hour running time. Hannah’s unceremonious exit (she does remember to take out the trash before she goes) would seem like its own sort of calculatedly vaporous non-conclusion if not for the fact that season two’s concluding arc, in which Hannah is brutally plagued by her long-suppressed OCD, starts up after she exiles herself from this bizarre parody of domestic bliss. There are a lot of things about the long-running narrative of Girls that have been badly handled, yet the rhyming fairy-tale tropes in this happily-ever-after-riff and the season two finale “Together”—in which Adam Driver’s Adam gamely assumes the role of white knight riding to his ex’s emotional rescue—indicate a genuine artistic intelligence at work. (The daringly retrograde imagery at the end of “Together,” with Adam sweeping a mewling, bandaged Hannah up in his arms, is similarly the work of somebody who knows what she’s doing). If Dunham has in fact been influenced by Arnold’s work in Fish Tank, it’s faint praise to say she’s at least matched her inspiration. But a compliment is no less true for being a little bit backhanded.