Snapshots and Lies
Though Diane Arbus used her portraiture to probe the human condition, “Fur” prefers to pass her off as an adulterous fetishist.
By Billy Frolick
Could there be a more heavily anticipated movie for the cultural elite than “Fur”? Mired in the all-too-common creative and logistical struggles of the film business, Diane (that’s Dee-An, people) Arbus’ story has taken two decades to be realized.
The desire to dramatize her life is understandable, as its basic elements provide the much-sought “fish out of water” conceptual hook. Born to a wealthy Jewish family, Arbus married young and, with her husband Allan, became successful in New York fashion photography. But a fascination with “outsiders”—people with physical oddities and alternative sexual lifestyles—eventually overtook Arbus’ psyche.
Under the tutelage of, among others, Richard Avedon and Lisette Model at the New School, she started creating her own body of work. Her subjects were the aforementioned societal outcasts; "My favorite thing is to go where I have never gone," she said, and validated repeatedly.
The cost, as has been alleged by Arbus scholars for the past 30 years, was not merely her marriage, but her life. In 1971, at age 48, she committed suicide.
The legend has since grown, thanks in part to “Fur” co-producer Patricia Bosworth’s seminal 1984 biography. Arbus’ work itself has had a lasting effect on the culture, from the Aperture Monograph featuring the iconic identical twins—later referenced in Kubrick’s “The Shining”–to a major, internationally-touring retrospective last year curated by Arbus’ daughter, Doon. And the images are undeniably striking—technically impeccable, with a stark, deadpan wit and obvious compassion. Arbus’ enigmatic style continues to influence not just portrait photography but advertising, music video, and film.
The challenges of biographical narratives are vast; despite a recent Renaissance, none measure up to Scorsese’s “Raging Bull.” The would-be epic “Ray” seemed to tell its subject’s entire story in what felt like real time; “Walk the Line” entertained but ultimately painted music legend Johnny Cash as a morose drug addict; “Pollack,” perhaps the best of the bunch, never pretended to be anything but the tortured story of a tortured soul.
2001’s Best Picture winner “A Beautiful Mind”—arguably Ron Howard’s best film—used inventive visual devices, but were equally fanciful with the facts of mathematician John Nash’s life.
Perhaps such criticism motivated the makers of “Fur” to call the film “an imaginary portrait” of Arbus. A wordy and rather precious onscreen disclaimer designed to expand on this oxymoron expands the confusion as well.
Directed by Steven Shainberg and from a screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson (the team behind 2003’s edgy and provocative “Secretary”), the movie opens with an appropriate mixture of humor and shock value, as Diane (Nicole Kidman) arrives at a nudist colony to photograph its residents. Flashing back, we’re introduced to her loving husband Allan (Ty Burrell), and her controlling parents, (Jane Alexander and Harris Yulin). Working as Allan’s stylist and technical assistant on color-saturated fashion shoots with perky atomic age models, Diane’s ennui accelerates.
Outside her apartment window, she is intrigued by the sight of a new resident, whose face is covered by a homemade mask. A plumbing problem forces Diane to confront the neighbor, Lionel (Robert Downey, Jr.), who is afflicted with a disease which keeps him covered in facial and body hair. This more than adequately explains the excessive clumps clogging her pipes.
Diane’s interest in Lionel leads to a portrait session, which is where the story buckles to convention. What soon develops is yet another version of “Beauty and the Beast— only in this one, Beauty introduces the Beast to her husband and parents prior to—spoiler alert!—shaving him from head to toe and deflowering him.
In devoting not just its title but virtually two-thirds of its running time to this “imagined” chapter of her life, “Fur” does a disservice to both Arbus’ work and her recognized mental illness.
Cinema has long contemplated the schizoid nature of the artist, as both outcast and chronicler of society. In a review of Andre Tartovsky’s “Andrei Roublev,” Ben Sachs could have just as well been describing the greatness of the 15th century artist’s work (or for that matter, of Diane Arbus’ photographs), when he wrote that the 1966 film located in “virtually every image something beyond the grasp of everyday experience.”
For production and budgetary reasons, a biopic will often focus on a short, character-illuminating section of its subject’s life. Stephen Frear’s “The Queen,” written by Peter Morgan, deals almost exclusively with Elizabeth’s response to Princess Diana’s death; the result is a triumph of tone, content and theme.
But rather than presenting Arbus’ use of portraiture as a way of expressing her view of the human condition, “Fur” prefers to offer a snapshot of an adulterous fetishist. That there was no actual Lionel in Arbus’ life calls into question the claim that the movie was inspired by Bosworth’s book. The blessing of a living Arbus expert—Bosworth detailed “Fur”’s long trip to realization in last August’s Vanity Fair—was undoubtedly the filmmakers’ strategy.
It was through her work, and not her life, that Diane Arbus came to be an outsider herself. Yet only in a brief scene featuring the freaks and geeks that she was famous for documenting do we get a glimpse of the film’s unrealized potential. How did a shy, sheltered Jewish girl approach these people—so uncomfortable in their own skin—and enroll them in her obsession to immortalize them? The question is unanswered by “Fur,” unless you’re willing to believe that she seduced each one of them.
There are worse ways to spend an evening than watching Kidman in close-up, and the film’s visual style is equally striking. But I can’t imagine what anyone was thinking in casting her as a pasty-faced girl from Brooklyn. Though Arbus herself was attractive, she did not possess anything resembling Kidman’s otherworldly beauty. Kidman also makes no effort to affect a recognizable accent. The whole enterprise eventually takes on the stench of a vanity project; we spend much of the movie watching her watch things. One wonders what the attraction of the role was for her, beyond additional indie cred and hipster appeal.
Oddly enough, there are angles from which Kidman resembled Maggie Gyllenhaal. That’s when I realized what a true blunder had been made.
For one thing, the plodding, French Expressionist pace of “Fur” firmly situates it as an Art film with a capital A. It’s not like it’s going to do any business, regardless of who stars. Secondly, Gyllenhaal ain’t chopped liver—she’s on a huge career roll and has already successfully collaborated with Shainberg and Wilson. And, oh yeah, lastly—she would have been much better for the role.
Odds are that Diane Arbus had no idea how her art would resonate in popular culture. “Fur” ultimately represents the other side of that equation—the empowerment and enduring ability of established actors to make or break their films just by saying yes.
"A photograph is a secret about a secret,” Diane Arbus once said. “The more it tells you the less you know."
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Contributing editor Billy Frolick’s last piece was Tequila Sunset.
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