On Girls…

“If it hurts, you’ll always remember…”

After six seasons, sixty-two episodes, one thousand, eight hundred and sixty minutes (give or take), it’s over. Girls is no more. Hannah et al have moved on, to pastures new, not necessarily together but what joy, cynicism and dark, comedic delights they left behind. Also, it’s probably still in Sky box sets too if you just can’t say goodbye yet.

Following on from her success with semi-autobiographical Tiny Furniture (2010), Lena Dunham turned to television and created Girls. It never sat comfortably within a specific genre, part drama, part sitcom, like an anti-Sex and the City despite covering some occasional, similar ground. Realism wasn’t always its strongest suit but the writing always felt authentic even when certain situations seemed implausible. It dealt with the complications of women (those four with the alliterative names mostly) between the ages of 24-27 – that weird age where you never feel fully adult, have left girlhood behind but still need to navigate the choppy waters of self-discovery and finding your place in the world. These were young women who had all the self-confidence but little to no self-worth, they made each other’s problems about themselves and allowed their selfish anxiety to dictate their emotions. They attempted to be independent yet were reluctant to cut the apron strings entirely.

The series covered many topics including drug addiction, STIs, unwanted pregnancy, alcoholism, abortion, motherhood, infidelity, loneliness, death, and mental health. Whilst attempting to combat or even approach some of these issues, they all – Hannah Horvath (Lena Dunham), Marnie Michaels (Allison Williams), Jessa Johansson (Jemima Kirke), and Shoshanna Shapiro (Zosia Mamet) – made mistakes. Sometimes horribly, a lot of the time irreparably but that just made us root for them all all the more. Or many of you bailed on them around season 2/3 and have yet to go back…

Much criticism stemmed from the characters’ likability. That’s women for you. We’re not all sunshine and light, not all of the time, there are multiple facets, complexities that not many shows manage to depict quite so vividly. The girls’ fallibility and often cringeworthy behaviour (sometimes age appropriate, mostly grossly immature) is what made me latch on. Men have been getting away with being unapologetically “men” onscreen since the dawn of time, apparently women pose a greater problem.

Let’s not pull punches; Hannah Horvath was an annoying character, the one based on Dunham, she who often spoke before thinking, she who, nine times out of ten needed that extra bit of attention. We’ve all had at least one friend like her, probably, we’re not even friends anymore. It happens. The others weren’t perfect, not by a long shot, hello Marnie?  but Hannah, for all her flaws and foibles was the heart of the show. She and her friends became a talking point between you and yours – the question of their friendship and why they were friends was never far from our minds, they never did seem completely compatible but something worked. Until they didn’t. Hey ho, that’s life.

Hannah lived outside of her sexual experiences, she saw her ‘job’ to fulfil certain things so she had something to write about; situations with which to glean as much experience from. Her sex scenes were nothing if not honest, hilarious and convincing. She was weird, surrounded by a cast of weirdos; characters we all empathised with time and again. All they ever wanted was to be happy; being loved was a bonus.

For its duration Girls never seemed far from censure – too privileged, too white, too much nudity (specifically Dunham). Most moans seemed to spend a little too much time on Hannah/Lena’s body. Unapologetic in her own skin, and why not, she doesn’t look like your typical TV star, certainly not the kind of woman to shed clothes so regularly and unabashedly. It was refreshing. Finally somebody onscreen who wobbled a bit having a convincing sex life. It made little difference that she was the creator, writer, producer, director and lead actress, she was there to be body-shamed by… well, it was scary how many. Somebody like Patrick Wilson (see, One Man’s Trash S2 E05) wouldn’t f*ck any woman who looked like that, yada yada yada.

It’s a white show. Written by a white woman about four (white) friends; its creator, co-producer, Jenni Konner and executive producer, Judd Apatow are Jewish too if this is something of interest (side note: must research criticism levelled at Knocked Up or latest show LOVE). One of the first things Dunham did, following comments about the lack of diversity on the show, was cast Donald Glover as Sandy in two episodes (It’s About Time S2 E01 and I Get Ideas S2 E02) which depicted Hannah’s ignorance surrounding the issue of race – they also made him a Republican too. While there have been numerous characters of colour albeit, one could argue, clumsily added, and mostly in supporting, non-recurring roles; still, attempts have been made to address the imbalance. Those same critics who describe the show as whitewashing would probably now accuse of tokenism or misrepresentation. The scrutiny with which Girls was subjected to over the last six years, one could surmise, is down to the gender of its creator. I’m sure there are some male-led shows that are held to account, just not quite in the same way as those by/for/with women.

If you’ve never bothered with it, fair enough, I would implore you to check out the bottle-neck episodes for a riveting taste of just how good the show can be, One Man’s Trash, Flo (S3 E09), The Panic in Central Park (S5 E06), American Bitch (S6 E03). Girls showed women in all their complexities, fallibility, humiliations and vulnerabilities. It was dark, cynical and sometimes depressing; not always a comforting watch but funny – I don’t think it’s given enough credit for its humour. Or for its ability to write men. Specifically Adam Sackler. To listen to Dunham, their show was a collaborative effort, replete with improvising so who knows the *true* author of Adam, regardless he remains amazingly written; the epitome of the sensitive, complicated, masculine male. A man in AA; his sobriety sometimes a battle. His dark, sexual, almost deviant behaviour and the temper… oh the temper. That which exploded usually to save him exposing his vulnerability. He was deep, complex and – just like the rest of the show’s characters – grew, evolved, shifted. It was a joy to watch, Adam Driver is a joy to watch. He (Sackler) was, is, for all intents and purposes, Dunham’s finest creation.

So, how to end it all? (Finale review over at TDF: Latching) 

I will miss Hannah and the gang immensely (even Marnie). The girls may have been maddening and mortifying but we loved them; through their imperfections it allowed us to disengage from reality for a bit and embrace our own flaws.

Adulting can be hard. Womaning is harder.

Behind the Candelabra (2013, dir. Steven Soderbergh)

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Upon hearing the news regarding Steven Soderbergh’s ‘retirement’ I, like a lot of the movie-going public, flocked to see Side Effects (2013) and was left utterly disappointed. For me Haywire (2011), Magic Mike (2012) and the afore-mentioned have not been, well, particularly good. However, any reluctance I felt about Behind the Candelabra quickly dissipated upon reading reviews from Cannes and seeing the odd TV spot/trailer – also general curiosity is hard to ignore.

The film is based upon the memoir Behind the Candelabra: My Life with Liberace by Scott Thorson, which recounts the tempestuous six year relationship between the blonde, animal handler Thorson and the pianist extraordinaire and showman, Liberace. The candelabra referring to the sparklingly opulent piece of tableware Liberace always had placed upon his piano. The interesting thing about the candle tree is that, literally, you cannot actually hide behind it, but arguably be seen through it, part of your features hidden from view. Soderbergh attempts to show the viewer what is behind it, a glimpse of a man who insisted on hiding his sexuality from view. Unable to secure a major Hollywood studio to back the film, the director believed that studio rejection was down to it being ‘too gay’, thankfully, HBO stepped into the breach and produced this biopic. As a result, there will be no cinema release in the States and any accolades that Douglas could be nominated, or indeed deserve, for his portrayal of the flamboyant entertainer, are limited to Europe.

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It is 1977 and the opening scene introduces the viewer to Thorson (Matt Damon) and his simple lifestyle working with animals and living with his Foster parents Rose and Joe Carracappa (Jane Morris and Garrett M. Brown) on a ranch in California. He is picked up in a bar by Bob Black (Scott Bakula) who, upon next meeting, flies the teenager to Vegas to meet ‘Lee’. Thorson quickly finds himself in a relationship with the much older, closeted, devout Catholic star. Spanning ten years, each year displayed upon an intertitle, Scott and Lee’s six-year relationship is very much a give-and-take kind of liaison; Liberace heaps wealth, in the form of gold and diamond jewellery, clothes, cars and a fixed abode in one of the most ostentatious surroundings, and Scott gives him what he needs in the bedroom. The pianist lived the life he chose, believing that ‘too much of a good thing is wonderful’. He, on countless occasions, denied his homosexuality and swiftly sued any tabloid/journalist who reported otherwise. The man purported on screen is one not completely removed from the lovable, warm, smiley entertainer the world seems to remember – perhaps a little darker. There is no denying the attraction to young men, however, the lonely star appeared to want a lover, friend, and son in Thorson and during one bizarre sequence ‘Lee’ and Scott meet with a lawyer to discuss the adoption process.

thorsonTheir idyll becomes too comfortable with both surrendering to food during their extended ‘love-in’ and upon seeing himself on the Johnny Carson show, Liberace declares that he can no longer look so old. He enlists the surgical expertise of Dr Jack Startz (a ridiculous-looking Rob Lowe) and has a full face-lift, eye-lift…the whole shebang – the only side effect being that he cannot close his eyes, even when sleeping. Startz also sets out to recreate Scott too, into a young Liberace, complete with chin and cheek implants. The doctor then prescribes diet pills and Thorson’s spiralling unhappiness and claustrophobia from the reclusive living environment develops into an addiction with the ‘California Diet’ pills making way for cocaine. This then sees Scott sell off his possessions one by one, in order to support his increasing habit. Scott’s despondency, drug-induced mood swings and struggling with the concept of monogamy, Liberace begins to shut his lover out and they begin fighting amid jealous recriminations. It all comes to a head when Rose dies and Liberace insists on flying Scott home for his foster mother’s funeral. Upon return, Lee has already moved in Scott’s replacement and so begins a bitter battle when Scott attempts to sue for palimony – their life together, he insists, was a marriage.

In his first role since his cancer remission, Michael Douglas’ star has never shone quite so bright – not since Falling Down (1993, dir. Joel Schumacher) and Wonder Boys (2000, dir. Curtis Hanson) has he owned the screen in quite the same way – in fact, he is incandescent, sequins and glittering diamonds aside. It is hard to reconcile the virile, ladies man of the 80s and 90s, with this role; I would go as far as to say that this was the role he was born to play. Damon is, as ever, a strong presence as Thorson and the supporting cast including Debbie Reynolds as mother (Frances) Liberace, and Dan Aykroyd as Lee’s manager Seymour Heller is a joy, complete with a hairpiece to rival the showstopper himself. This feels like an HBO production and yet it still retains the richer, stylistic nuances which are associated with Soderbergh: lighting, colour washes, oblique camerawork and point-of-view. Whether his retirement or sabbatical from filmmaking is true, I am quite content for Behind the Candelabra (especially with that fabulously kitsch, blinging and camp dénouement) to be literally, albeit not technically, my last Soderbergh; at least for the time being.