Hearing the Call

Lena Dunham takes us back to the early, uncertain days of her career.

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For a while in my early 20s, I thought the way to really snag boys was to become an indie-film critic. After all, what is sexier than a woman who can expound upon Fassbinder's lesser films and hold court on the subject of Hal Hartley's use of Dutch angles in his Henry Fool series? Who scores more than a gal who knows her Tom Tykwer from her Wim Wenders? Who deserves more cunnilingus than the chick who gets the difference between Nicholas Ray and Nicolas Roeg

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If hot tail was the goal, you may ask, then why didn't I become a bottle-service girl at one of Jay Z's elite clubs or act like any fun sporty character played by Cameron Diaz between 1998 and 2010? Because, dear reader, I was after something rather specific: a nerd with an unearned bad attitude and a sofa body. A misanthrope in a cardigan. I liked my men the way I like my dogs — broken, afraid of humanity, and obsessed with me. I wanted someone who ridiculed everyone and everything except my beauty and intellect. 

Hence my blogspot, which I tended to like an herb garden: Champagne Wishes and Celluloid Dreams: Lena's Movie Diary. I sat in my freezing Ohio apartment, watching Criterion Collection VHS tapes and recording my thoughts, making my way through the French New Wave, the Czech New Wave, jumping to the British '90s, skipping Japanese film entirely and living to regret it. When our local video store went out of business, I purchased over 200 VHS tapes at 50 cents apiece. I cataloged them by genre, then director, creating a videotape baseboard around my room. The first time I went to third base with my college boyfriend, we were watching the classic lesbian indie The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love. When we broke up, I wept to All the Real Girls for days on end, wishing that David Gordon Green and his fellow graduates of North Carolina School of the Arts would sweep me up and invite me to operate the boom on their next low-budget art-house effort. 

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I was making movies too, little ones, setting my tripod up and filming myself in a blonde wig with an open bathrobe, like some sad Gena Rowlands impersonator from deepest Long Island. Soon, I set to work on my first "feature film," which clocked in at 59 minutes, barely qualifying as a bloated skit. Shot on shaky digital video in dorm rooms and my parents' bedroom, I was only bold enough to think it could qualify as a movie because of the Cassavetes I was checking out of the school library (and the Andrew Bujalski movies labeled as "mumblecore" that had taught me about Cassavetes in the first place). My father told me you had to choose, critic or artist, but I reminded him that Truffaut and his friends had all begun as critics with their own very important magazine. And anyway, my blog ran almost only rave reviews. I've never been particularly interested in hating things.

I graduated and knew I needed to do something but wasn't sure what. One failed internship tumbled into another as I applied to work, unpaid, at a magazine focused on independent film. I imagined myself in a buzzing open-plan office full of adorably shaggy boys, in heated debate on the relative merits of the newest Polanski. "Don't forget he raped someone!" I'd yell, and they'd act put out but be privately moved by the strength of my convictions. I'd edit my movie by night and write trenchant reviews of Swedish thrillers by day, and by the end of my first week I was sure I'd have a boyfriend — maybe even two, fighting for my love via a mixtape battle. 

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But when I reported to work what I found was a single room, windowless and bleak, with two employees, a copy machine, and an elderly landline. My job would consist of calling low-level advertisers to bother them for unwritten checks, taping back together a page of notes ripped up in frustration by our managing editor, and staring blankly at a putty-gray wall. I ate lunch across the street alone, a big piece of naan bread and a Diet Coke, reading the dating column in the free newspaper and wondering where I was supposed to go next. At night, I played with my movie footage on my failing laptop until my eyes went blurry. 

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I may have worked there for three weeks or three months. I honestly don't remember, as time condensed into a single image of an empty Scotch-tape dispenser begging for a refill it would never get. Every day, I counted the hours until I could feign a stomachache and still get credit for an almost-day of work. I liked to read back issues of the magazine, searching for clues about how people got where they wanted to be. The articles were written mostly by freelancers, and occasionally I was asked to do a final proofread, for which I was both unqualified and unmotivated. As I've often said, no one is more entitled or more full of self-hatred than a girl who has just graduated from college with a liberal-arts degree.

I'd edit my movie by night and write trenchant reviews of Swedish thrillers by day, and by the end of my first week I was sure I'd have a boyfriend — maybe even two, fighting for my love via a mixtape battle.

But one afternoon something happened — I think their freelance fact checker got sick — and I was asked to make a few phone calls to confirm quotes and details for an upcoming piece on independent-film luminaries with new work on the horizon. I scanned the list, and my eyes lit up when I saw his name. His work was niche, but his breakout film — made in the late 1960s, when he was in his early 20s — was a favorite from my stack of obscure VHS treasures. It told the story of a self-and-sex-obsessed boy with impeccable taste in film. The kind of boy I probably thought I'd meet in the dream of this windowless room. He was now at work on a documentary of some kind, its logline mystical and obscure. I dialed a cell number, and a warm Southern voice greeted me: "Well, hello." 

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I explained who I was, where I was calling from, and proceeded to list the basic facts of the article. "Yup," he'd answer. "Sure. Why not, sounds about right." It took only a minute or so to get our story straight. 

"Thank you very much. I'm … a very big fan of yours," I told him. 

He laughed, pleasant and surprised, which turned into a cough. I had been warned he wasn't well. "Well, maybe I'm a fan of yours too," he said. 

"I haven't done anything," I told him. "I'm working on a movie, but no one really seems to like it." 

"No one likes anything until 40 years later, see?" 

I giggled. I guessed I was the proof. 

"Do you happen to be in New York City?" he asked me. 

"Yes, sir." 

"I am too, just for the night. Staying in something called the Meatpacking District,whatever that means." His tone went deep but soft. "Where are you right now?" 

"Eighteenth Street," I said, hearing a little hitch in my voice. 

"And when are you off work?" 

"Anytime I like." I was subtly imitating his accent. I was … flirting, maybe? I knew he was old now. Older than my father by nearly a decade. That isn't my kind of thing, not even when it comes to seductive banter. I've always felt that we should use our 20s as an excuse to have sex with 20-somethings. But I couldn't see his face, could only hear the voice that had narrated the film, which, come to think of it, was kind of pervy but— 

"What if you came down here to my room, when you were all done, and we had dinner? Steak? You like steak? I'm on somebody else's dime. And we could talk about movies and whatever the fuck." 

"I guess I could, maybe." 

"I like the sound of your voice," he said.

I honestly can't remember what happened next, whether I said I'd call back or whether I simply had to go. I know some form of good sense, the kind that has mostly protected me with a few painful exceptions, kicked in and told me I wouldn't be in any man's hotel room that night, no matter how critically acclaimed their screenwriting work. I would be home, at my parents' house, where I basically shared a bedroom with a 16-year-old girl, Googling this man but never seeing him face to face. On the way home I heard him in my head: "I like the sound of your voice." 

A few days later, I decided that, no matter what I was going to be when I grew up, the uncompensated taping-together of ripped-up paper was not going to get me there. I quit. I also quit writing film reviews, no longer convinced it was my grand Wes Anderson theory that was going to nab me a boyfriend. In fact, I only ever dated one film obsessive, years later. We traveled together to Berlin, where I was walked through the Deutsche Kinemathek museum. As I stared blankly at the bountiful collection of Werner Herzog correspondence, he made it clear just how little he felt I really knew. I couldn't gather the strength to say, "I know plenty. My knowledge is just different than yours." We kissed underground on the U-Bahn and had sex in the small, utilitarian shower back at our hotel, and I felt like a drawer for someone else's papers. 

It was a relief to end that relationship and return to watching Clueless on Saturday afternoons alone, just as it was a relief to quit my internship at the magazine. After I did, I began editing my film with a new intensity, shifting scenes around and grabbing at frames and rethinking the whole structure, until finally someone offered to screen it publicly. I watched through my fingers, recognizing every mistake, but I watched. 

That was seven years ago, and about this time last year I saw the filmmaker's obituary. It wasn't an above-the-fold one, but respectably placed, planted securely in the back half of the Arts section. It didn't pay much mind to the film of his I'd loved so well, but it did say he was a critic and an artist. Both. He never chose. I couldn't help but think men usually don't have to. 

In the time since that phone call, I've received, and resented, the advances of older men who think they have something to teach me. I've written of men leaning too far into the passenger seat to kiss me good night, men who remind me of an aged uncle at a bar mitzvah. I've noted unwelcome back rubs, invasive questions, nearly imperceptible but utterly humiliating disrespect for personal boundaries. It would be easy to dismiss the man on the phone who, sight unseen, invited me to his hotel room for a steak using a voice that could melt butter or scare a small child depending on the mood. But reading his obituary, I felt nothing but gratitude, not just for his work but for the feeling he gave me that day. Of being heard, of being seen in a room with no windows. He had invited me out to play. 

Lena Dunham is not immune to the charms of a Southern gentleman.

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