I recently saw a pair of films of such vastly different worlds as to make me wonder if they didn't issue from separate planets. One was Wartorn 1861-2010, an unmissable HBO documentary (screening tonight, Nov. 11) that chronicles post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the history of America's military. The second was the premiere at the Museum of Modern Art of Tiny Furniture, a droll feature by the richly gifted young filmmaker Lena Dunham about her awkward post-college re-entry into society. Both films deal with worlds of pain -- but again, virtually issuing from different planets. In Wartorn (executive-produced by James Gandolfini) it's psychological distress of the life-smashing, suicide-inducing variety. In Tiny Furniture it's privileged misery -- the romantic humiliation of a plumpish young woman allergic to gyms.
The HBO screening of Wartorn, co-hosted by USO of New York, was more peopled with military types and gents in wheelchairs -- vets of WWII, it turned out -- than the usual tastemakers and media folk. In the theater a seat "reserved for Shinseki" made me feel particularly secure. Introducing herself as Chief Usher, Sheila Nevins, presiding genius behind docs at HBO, extended a special welcome to the twelve WWII vets in attendance. Wartorn, she said, was "the most difficult and rewarding film I've worked on in twenty years," adding that at a recent screening for the Pentagon, generals in the front row were crying (better they should not have put American boys in harm's way).
Spanning 1861 to 2010, the film carries an epigraph from Homer: "Must you carry the bloody horror of combat in your heart forever?" The answer, according to Wartorn: if not forever, pretty damn close. Drawing on searing archival footage, the film details how since the Civil War our fighting men have not only been traumatized -- their condition has remained invisible, though occasionally dubbed "shell-shock" or "combat fatigue." Many military brass simply called it being "yellow," as in the comment, attributed to General Patton: "Send that yellow son of a bitch back to the front line."
Wartorn offers raw testimonies from families and returning soldiers, their lives shattered by the nightmare of battle, that are moving, illuminating and enraging all at once. Says a mother, "The United States Army turned my son into a killer. They forgot to untrain him." And a suicide note from a soldier: "I have taken lives. Now it's time time to take mine." And a vet: "The Marine corps teaches you to be like an animal. I don't know how to get rid of it y'know?" One caveat: unless I missed it, nowhere in Wartorn is the distinction made between WWII, a necessary war, and the American military adventures that have followed.
Unburdened by much plot, the lauded Tiny Furniture follows the romantic trials of Lena Dunham playing herself as a college grad who moves back into her parents' Tribeca loft. She takes the de rigueur dead-end job as a hostess in a restaurant; spars with her teenage sister and mother (played by Grace, her real life sister, and Laurie Simmons, her real-life mom); hangs with an outrageous party girl (scene-stealing Jemima Kirke), a mooching comedy writer and a casually abusive sous-chef. What the film has in abundance is sass; a cool vibe; rapid-fire dialogue that's part private-school brat, part Borscht Belt, part Juno. Furniture joins The Social Network in putting on the screen characters barely out of their teens who, in the phrase of John Updike, are "bringing the news."
What's especially fresh and distinctive about Furniture is the way Dunham plays the porous line between autobiography and invention; the way she uses herself -- pudgy, stringy haired, acne'd -- as the butt of the film's humor. It's a clever reworking of self-deprecation-as-comic schtick. And Lena's reversals, one senses, are an accurate commentary on the humiliating treatment the average girl who ain't smokin' hot can expect from less-than-average males. My favorite moment: After a guy boinks Lena in a large hollow pipe in the street, he kind of absently pats her flank, like an old sheepdog. Dunham also explores mother-daughter-sister tensions with an honesty that puts studio films to shame. Some viewers, though, will be turned off by the characters' world of privilege, which goes unacknowledged. Yeah, as if we could all just work out our issues in a gorgeous, cool Tribeca duplex.