Exploiting Diane Arbus

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Nicole Kidman in Fur

According to the credits Fur is "inspired" by Patricia Bosworth's sober, well-researched and touching 1984 biography of Diane Arbus, the photographer who specialized in making indelible images of the freakish—giants, dwarfs, Siamese twins and the like—in mid-20th century America. The filmmakers, in an on-screen foreword, say that what we are about to see is "a film that invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality to express what might have been Arbus' inner experience on her extraordinary path."

Well, you ask, what else is new? All biopics contain inventions and conflations in their attempts to give coherence and dramatic impact to messy and ambiguous lives. We don't go to such films in search of full factual accuracy. Generally, we want inspiration from them, a sense that we can take meaning, even moral instruction, from the life on view. Fur, however, raises these stakes. It invents an entirely imaginary figure—a grotesquely hirsute man—and brings him to the center of the story. Where he serves as the beast to Diane's beauty, horrifying her, titillating her, then enlisting her sympathetic curiosity and, finally, her love. Once Diane (Nicole Kidman) gets out her razor and shaves him down, this character, who is called Lionel Sweeny, turns out to look a lot like Robert Downey, Jr., and how bad can that be?

This completely fictional figure is, of course, intended to symbolize all the freaks who preoccupied Arbus for the rest of her short life (she is one of those artists whose brief stay among us adds tragic resonance to a relatively modest body of work). Arbus herself is presented as a shy, somewhat dithering, woman, working as an assistant to her successful fashion photographer husband, whose powerful need to make some sort of artistic statement of her own is thwarted by her lack of a subject, something that might mobilize her compassion and engender a style with which to express it. Lionel not only supplies her first inspirational frisson, but also introduces her to the circle of freaks with whom he consorts, thus providing her with the subjects—and the obsession—that would rule his career. The fact that he is covered in fur also provides her with a rebellious cross-reference; her domineering parents were, in fact, famous New York furriers.

Get it? Of course you do. Which leads to the next question: Why should you bother? If so blatant a fiction is placed in a co-starring role into an account of a real life, what can you usefully take away from the movie? That blather about being "inspired" by a good book when what they're really talking about is travesty is an excellent clue. So is that stuff about expressing "what might have been Arbus' inner experience." It is really a statement of desperation. It might just as well not have reflected her inner experience. How are we to know? For we are not talking "untrustworthy narrators" here; we are talking outright liars, people who couldn't figure out a compelling story from the materials at hand and just decided—what the hell!—to make something up as they went along.

They are aiming at the transgressive, something that will shock people down to their boots. But in so doing, they travesty Arbus. Her photographic manner was quite objective. Mostly she just had her subjects stand before her and stare, more or less expressionlessly, into her camera. Her pictures often seemed like snapshots raised to flashpoint and their intention seemed to me to reinsert the freakish back into the quotidian, to make us see the human normality lurking beneath the outer forms nature cruelly imposed upon her subjects. To put it simply, underneath her apparent artlessness there was great artfulness.

The latter is not a word anyone would want to apply to Fur. Or perhaps to any movie as inherently corrupt as this one is. On the one hand, it wants to bandy a famous name about—although what value a cult figure like Arbus has, for the movie audience, even the one that gathers in the upscale specialty theaters, is problematic. On the other hand, it wants to be free to sensationally reinvent her life, mainly in order to provide the audience with images that are simultaneously revolting and sentimental. We're supposed to draw back aghast from the close-ups of Diane endlessly applying her razor to Lionel's pelt. At the same time we are supposed to applaud her humanistic bravery, especially since Kidman always plays her naively, as an innocent eager to investigate the world's dark side but never her own. This, of course, ignores the evidence of Arbus' own unblinking confrontations with the grotesque. It also ignores the fact that she ended her life by suicide.

What we must not ignore is the gross ineptitude of this film. As he previously demonstrated with Secretary, the director, Steven Shainberg, has a thoroughly nasty desire to degrade and humiliate female characters. This is combined with a truly tasteless eye for settings and décor, a staggering ignorance of nuance in performance and an apparent belief that the business of art is to repel rather than to seduce. Or rather to repel and then tack on a little spurious uplift as he finally does here. Another way of putting that is that he is precisely the opposite of Diane Arbus, hopelessly enthralled and self-endangered by her obsession, yet somehow finding in her art the means of controlling it—at least for a time. Shainberg, in contrast, wishes only to lie about her life. And exploit it.