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Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Every couple of weeks there’s that report on the news about some bony artist that made a poop-statue of Queen Elizabeth, or painted Christina Aguilera vomiting sardines into third-world children’s mouths. The story is called something like “Art or Garbage?” and debates whether or not we should be angry because we don’t understand what this thing is. The creator of the work comes on and explains that it is an expression of some hopeless emotion, says it was meant to shock us, then chuckles condescendingly at the fact that no one has been “enlightened enough” to purchase it. The subject then deteriorates into an argument about censorship, because parents and political leaders have a stifling fear of genitals, and art types are worried that President Bush will break up their wine-sniffing party. And as always, amid the hand-wringing and name-calling, we forget the most important question of all: Was the thing even any good? The problem with high art is that, for those of us who don’t understand it, it can become whatever the artist says it is. When we see a collection of morgue photographs that form a mosaic of a smiling baby, we can’t immediately figure out that it is meant to be a statement on global warming. We have to trust the people who “know” to tell us, and we believe anything they say. Because of this, uppity snobs have been able to take over the whole idea of art. And, in a calculated move, they have secretly decreed that anything that totally confuses and infuriates over ninety-eight percent of the public is automatically genius.

Luckily, we’ve been relatively safe in the movie world. The studios need only to look at box-office receipts to tell them that audiences demand a steady, soothing diet of brain mush. But every so often an art film seeps through the cracks, usually because some glossy-eyed actress wants to prove she’s intelligent. Her side of the transaction is paid in nudity, which she is more than happy to provide on behalf of her craft. Recently this Faustian deal was made once more, and the innovatively pointless film Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus came to be.

The movie’s premise is very similar to the notion of art I mentioned earlier. If you happen to be on the “inside,” you can make up whatever you want about anything. Common sense need not restrain you, nor do facts or entertainment value. In this case, the transition of reknowned photographer Diane Arbus from housewife to creative icon is “imagined” by novelist Patricia Bosworth and brought to screen by Steven Shainberg. None of the events depicted are purported to be real, and the idea is that we can take what we don’t know about a famous figure and create a vision of our own in the spirit of the person’s work. Arbus was an art-house hero in her time, so it would be logical that a new crop of snoots would try and make art out of her life story. What this film is, in the best nutshell I can provide, is an art movie about an artist and how she came to find her art. Of course, the movie itself is art, since it is a play on the conventions of a biography. This is the kind of stuff that makes people hit mimes.

Little is known about the early life of photographer Diane Arbus, only that she was a wife and mother of two until 1958, when she left it all behind to begin a brilliant career. This is not a value judgement on my part; I have never actually seen any Arbus photos. But like all bourgeois slaves, I trust the filmmakers when they tell me she was good. We open with Diane (Nicole Kidman) taking the first of her “beauty of the grotesque” pictures (that was her bag) at a nudist colony. The movie camera, like Arbus’s, does not shy away from male nudity, but apparently it is enough to be considered “graphic” by the MPAA. As a man, I find that insulting.

As she readies the lens, we go back in time to three months prior, where we meet a much more genteel Diane before the monumental change. In the life she may have once had, she assists her husband Allan (Ty Burrell) in his clean-cut photography business, doing ads for Sunbeam and other wholesome conglomerates. Her parents (Harris Yulin and Jane Alexander), rich owners of a fur empire, seem to be less than nurturing, and find ways to undercut poor Diane’s freedom even when she has already resigned herself to the life of a house mother.

But Allan is a good, supportive man, and encourages Diane to take photos of her own. Her sense of worthlessness has become so engrained, though, that she doesn’t even try. That is, until the day she sees a mysterious hooded man (Robert Downey, Jr.) in her apartment building and decides to investigate him. These sequences of strange interest by Diane are filmed by Shainberg as though this were a horror movie, with odd point-of-view camera angles that suggest something is lurking in the walls. The shots are interesting, but way out of place considering the big payoff. The man upstairs is not an omnipotent specter, as the movie makes him seem for awhile (he creepily speaks Diane’s name to her through the intercom even though they have not met), but rather a former circus performer that is covered completely in hair.

Arbus’s first photo ever was a portrait of a downtrodden fellow, titled: “Lionel.” This is where the fiction comes in, because this hair-man is supposed to be Lionel. Of course, the fact that the guy in the photo looks semi-normal is of no concern; the film gets to that. It just wants to make us believe that Diane’s penchant for shooting the world’s freakiest uglies may have been triggered by meeting this person. It also poses the theory that Arbus had always felt a sexual compulsion to seek out weirdness. This is evidenced in a flashback scene where a young Diane sees a dead homeless man in the park and stares at him until her mother rushes in and covers her eyes. I get it: she desperately wants to gaze at the hideous face of the real world, but “polite society” won’t allow it. How droll. (Sip from teacup)

Diane begins a perverse (but beautiful) romance with Lionel, and he introduces her to the people and things she’s been urging to see. Every conversation the two has seems surreal, and each line is delivered with the robotic severity of HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. My theory is that director Shainberg felt that the words weren’t so much important as the emotion within them. Or something like that, I don’t know. I often wished while screening this film that some of my favorite gun-toting nutcases from other movies, like Doc Holliday or Critical Bill, would come running in and knock some stuff over, just so everyone couldn’t take themselves so seriously.

The real tragic figure in the film is Allan, as he remains a true and loyal husband even as his wife slips further into her peculiar new life. She may or may not be physically cheating on him, but she does so emotionally. With Lionel, she finds the creative spirit she always had inside her, and we are supposed to cheer that on even though we are aware of the tremendous screw-job she will bring down on her family. The strangeness and journey into the grotesque may be exaggerated for the purposes of this “imagined” account, but the honest truth is she did leave her kids. I hate children as much as the next guy, but if I end up having them, I know I’m going to have to kill some dreams of my own.

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus does have a few well-done elements. Obviously, those oddities that the protagonist becomes so entranced with are pretty cool; stuff like midgets, amputees, and exhibitionism. Kidman has never been afraid to doff clothing for a part she believes in, and I applaud her for that. Primarily because she is attractive. She plays the part of the closeted housewife well, and Downey, acting under the direction of an obvious blowhard, is as effective as he can be. Burrell’s Allan is horrified and saddened, but cannot stop loving his wife. However, the film is terribly unfair to his character, roughing him up and expecting us to feel like his staying married to the woman he loves is killing her. The movie’s structure, as well as its pace, is solid, but the fake material of the story is too pretentious to properly fill the time. It has the properties of good cinema, but the viewer is simply too annoyed to care.

All the yammering that Fur does about opening up to our true selves and discovering the wonders of the bizarre reminds me of the guy at the art gallery who isn’t there for the free booze. He finds the worst looking paintings and talks about them as though they will change the fabric of the universe. Then he mistakenly points to a fire alarm and calls it a “masterwork.” I’m pretty sure Shainberg or novelist Bosworth were once like that, and the lifestyle inspired this narrative experiment. This movie is definitely art, both in idea and execution. But from where I’m sitting, it ain’t nuthin’ special. The Fur DVD is far less artful, and director Steven Shainberg’s grueling, professorial commentary that details every possible real-life justification for his choices notwithstanding, there is not much here about the real Diane Arbus’s career. I would think that one of the prominent features in a false bio-pic would be a real biography, but is absent on this disc. We get French/Spanish/English subtitles, and Dolby 5.1 audio, though, so if you’re a confused Diane Arbus fan, maybe things will clear up in a new, louder language.

Instead we are treated to the half-hour “HBO: First Look” of the film, which presents the cavalcade of notable stars congratulating themselves on making a movie that will undoubtedly lose money. Nicole Kidman is a beautiful woman, but at times comes off like an animatronic Epcot center character in this featurette. She and Shainberg, along with screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, do little more than parrot the themes of the film over and over again, using words like “confinement” until they lose their meaning. The bright spot as usual is Robert Downey, Jr., who could turn my Grandma’s funeral into a fun time. When he talks about the film, he does so sincerely, but manages still to make a few well-placed jokes about sex scenes also. The portion about the “extraordinary people” used in the film (a.k.a. cirus folk) is pretty fun, too.

There are only two deleted scenes, neither very long, but both actually have commentary. The scenes don’t reveal anything we don’t already realize, but Shainberg wanted to explain why he filmed and then cut them to us personally. I bet that if I requested him come over to my house for a symposium on the film, he would send back an eager letter asking when and for how much.

Finally, there is a theatrical trailer and a group of “Sneak Peeks” that preview the DVDs for other independent films that are part of Fur’s clique. The Kidman film Birth, the hopefully good Pan’s Labyrinth, A Prairie Home Companion, and The Painted Veil are all featured here. Maybe they’ll let me hang out with them if I buy a beret and a cigarette holder. Of course, I can’t be seen with my old friends Mean Guns and Super Troopers anymore.

The DVD for Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is just like a gallery opening. Put on by self-important hacks, attended by clueless jerks, and featuring work by someone we don’t really care about. The concept of “imagining” a person’s life as an extension of their achievements (or the other way around) is not a bad one, but when done just to show off to the “insider” crowd, it becomes something unfortunately lame: It becomes art.