Before Lena Dunham (Girls), There Was Lena Nyman (Yellow)

The slow-building surge of publicity for the third season of HBO’s Girls is beginning, with ads, cast profiles and soon, no doubt, magazine covers. Lena Dunham knows how to capture an audience. I find Girls’ characters sometimes tedious, but the series is compulsively watchable — and I can identify with some of their concerns? After all, I spent my 20s in Brooklyn, fresh out of college and scraping for work and romance as a creative type, back in the Jurassic Age.

While I’m waiting for the new season, I’m wondering about the significance of the show. The NY Times can scarcely go a day without mentioning it in some context. So daring, so of the era it is.

But how controversial and pathbreaking is Lena Dunham compared to another Lena — Lena Nyman, who starred as “Lena” in the 1967 Swedish movie I Am Curious (Yellow), which was banned from being imported into the U.S. for being obscene. I remember reading about the obscenity case as a kid and I was always, well, curious about the film. The movie posters with the pouty, direct gaze of Nynam said nothing about the content, other than it featured a pouty Swedish actress.

Time passes. Courts rule the movie is not obscene and it becomes a huge art-house hit in the U.S. Forty-four years after the movie squirms its way into the U.S., rocking the moviegoing public with its boldly uncompromising Euro-New Wave style, I finally get my sweaty, trembling paws on a copy of what must be a sizzling piece of cinema — at the Westport, CT, Public Library. There’s the history of American morality in one movie, from banned in the U.S. to a safe little nook at the library (I expect Deep Throat will show up one of these tolerant days).

And that brings me to Lena and Lena. For all the hats thrown into the air in celebration of what Lena D. does with Girls, Lena N. paved the way for her on the sexual front in the 1960s (albeit in black and white). Topless meditation? Check. Sex in her father’s apartment? Check. Public copulation? And she did it all without a lot of distracting, skanky tattoos. The two Lenas even bear a physical resemblance, in the bare sense. They’re not beauties, fleshier than the scrawny model types, but they’re ready to make the most of what they’ve got and put themselves out for their art. Both are fearless in front of the camera.

The degrees of different in the limits of sexual expression between late 1960s and now are instructive. Yellow has full-frontal nudity, which Girls hasn’t yet leaped into yet. That must be a taboo Dunham can’t quite break. Yellow has also more roughly physical sex, enough to trouble the sensitivities of modern viewers, although Girls has its share of uncomfortable couplings. The men of Yellow and Girls show lots similarities — sneaking around and keeping their relationship secrets, working on their careers, wheeling and dealing emotionally.

The two works differ most sharply, tonally, in the ferociously political world of Yellow versus the withdrawal from politics in Girls. The first part of Yellow, to the point of tedium, involves Nyman interviewing Swedes, like an investigative reporter, about income inequality in Sweden, class issues, even their thoughts on vacationing in Francisco Franco’s Spain. She’s quite the fearless interviewer, going right into the labor union headquarter to pepper leaders with her questions. How much is real, how much is scripted? That’s part of the film’s charming mix of fact and fiction; it even includes interviews with Martin Luther King Jr., (interviewed by director Vilgot Sjöman on civil disobedience during a trip of his to Sweden), a backyard interview with Olof Palme, who later became the Swedish prime minister, and a presentation by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Nyman and her friends protest against the Vietnam War, the Swedish military and other issues. The film is a time capsule of its era.

And Girls? I’ve seen every episode and I can’t recall anything political, unless you want to say the personal is political. The ailing economy looms over the characters, Wall Street financiers are loathed yet longed-for, real estate prices are in the background (how can marginally employed characters live anywhere?), but my impressions is that Dunham and friends live in a time warp slightly distant from the realities that surround them. That’s OK with me, I’m not looking for political lectures, but the contrast is stark.

For all the differences, I’ll always link Yellow and Girls. They get people talking and stirred up, they reflected distinct visions, I was sorry to learn than Nyman died in 2011 at the age of 66. A meeting between the two Lenas, pathbreakers in their own ways, would have been enjoyable, two women talking about their times.


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