Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (2006)

Fur is simultaneously conventional and unconventional. It is an unconventional fictionalized “biography” of a period in famed photographer Diane Arbus’s life. However, it is presented in a rather conventional way (Thanks, Hollywood!). It stars Nicole Kidman as the title character, and Robert Downey Jr. as her mysterious something-or-other. I would recommend becoming acquainted with Arbus’s work before watching the film if you want to understand how it relates to her life. However, it is not essential to the film. I can fill you in on the important bits: she took an interest in photographing marginalized individuals.

In 1941, Diane and her husband, Allan, opened a commercial photography studio. In the film, they primarily shot magazine advertisements most of which forced “normal” (read: white, middle-class Americans) people into sets with sickening amounts of symmetry. I really don’t know anything about Diane Arbus, but I assume that this is the exact sort of thing she rejected in her work.

While her photograph of the twins (above) might seem to display symmetry at first glance, a closer look reveals that this is incorrect. Only one of the twins is smiling. In addition, the line where the sidewalk meets the wall is slanted. The still frame from the film (a composition for one of Allan’s photo shoots), however, conveys nearly complete symmetry even though the subjects are not twins. In a similar way, the film rejects the conventions of the biopic genre, creating a fantastical world. According to the film’s opening intertitles, it is a “tribute to Diane: a film that invents characters and situations that reach beyond reality to express what might have been Arbus’s inner experience on her extraordinary path.” The premise is unconventional; the film however, is not.

Fur is simply a genre film. The genre it inhabits, however, is unexpected. Instead of being a documentary, Fur falls into the category of fantasy. This departure from reality seems to be an attempt to capture the imagination of Arbus. In other words, Fur is seen through Arbus’s eyes. Rather, it is seen through what the director Steven Shainberg thinks is Arbus’s point of view. While Fur as a tribute is a noble gesture, it only ends up pigeonholing Arbus in demonstrating a singular aspect of her life.

Robert Downey Jr. plays Lionel, a man who suffers from hypertrichosis. In other words, he looks like Chewbacca in the way he is covered in hair. Lionel is an eccentric hermit who introduces Arbus to what will be her future subjects: circus "freaks." His apartment is full of mysterious gadgets and it seems as if it is in another dimension. He is originally presented as an enigmatic individual, but as he gets to know Arbus (and her family), he loses his mystique. Perhaps this essential to what Shainberg wanted to convey: as you get to know individuals like Lionel and Arbus’s marginalized characters, it becomes clear that they are still human and do not deserve the title of “freak.”

As Fur is a film seen through the eyes of a photographer, it seems fitting that meticulous care went into the composition of the mise-en-scène. Nearly every shot, and every frame, seems as if there could be a print of it hanging in an art gallery. Shainberg utilizes unique perspective in addition to the meticulous composition as a tribute to the influence of Arbus. Shainberg toys with symmetry, a tactic reminiscent of Arbus’s photo of the twin girls.

The film is worth watching for its picturesque qualities and its unconventional look at the life of a 20th century icon. However unconventional it may seem, there really is nothing special about the film. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with conventionalism, except that it is an unfair portrait of such a unique, influential woman. I doubt that Fur as a tribute truly does Arbus justice.

Grade: C+


Joan said...

I like the new layout alot. It's so pretty. By the way, your essay is pretty great too!

Mitch said...

Thanks! Its still a work in progress (the layout). If you have any suggestions, let me know!