In 1958, life changed radically for future artist Diane Arbus. The daughter of a successful New York furrier, and married to a talented advertising photographer named Allan, she appeared to have it all. She worked side by side with her spouse, designing the images that he would capture, and together they had two well turned out daughters. But something was driving Diane away from her place, urging her to explore the fringes of society that would soon become her creative canvas. No one in her family understood, and by 1959, she had separated from them. Studying with other famed photographers, she began to gain notice, and by the mid '60s, she was widely regarded as one of the most fascinating and influential shutterbugs of the burgeoning medium. Her tragic suicide in 1971 left more questions than concrete answers, however. Amazingly enough, the "fairytale" biopic by Secretary director Steve Shainberg is guilty of a similar sense of pointlessness. It also fails to resolve many of the issues in Arbus's existence, instead focusing on a fanciful 'imagining' of the event that caused her metaphysical coming out.
Tired of living her buttoned down life as socialite, housewife, and photographer's assistant, Diane Arbus wants a change. Her calm, conservative husband is no fun at all, her children are distant, and her parents - successful Manhattan furriers - think their only daughter is a little...odd. One night, during an important dinner party, Arbus sees a strange fellow move into her building. Hiding his face behind an ornate woolen mask, she is instantly intrigued by his unusualness. On a whim, she decides to visit his apartment, and she learns that her new neighbor, Lionel, is a man who loves his privacy. Over time, he lets Arbus in, and she discovers that he is permanently disfigured, hair growing all over every inch of his body. Yet instead of being disgusted, she is intrigued, and the two form a bond that threatens to destroy Arbus' family. As she explores the people and places that Lionel frequents, she feels a kinship with their outrageousness and eccentricity. It touches something deep inside the soon to be artist, something her normal life just can't provide. Of course, things can't stay so idyllic for long, and as her personal life begins to crumble, her professional life begins to flourish. Yet it will take a fatalistic act to finally free Diane Arbus from the conformity of her upbringing, and to travel the unknown pathways toward aesthetic enlightenment.
Condemned by critics as the most appalling excuse for a biopic ever conceived, Fur (subtitled An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus for patently obvious reason) stands as a startling example of creative hubris. While it has similar elements to Tim Burton's equally fictional Ed Wood, it manages to trump that brilliant film's wacked out whimsy in ways that are far more troublesome and trite. In the words of filmmaker Steve Shainberg, this was never intended as a legitimate look at Arbus's life. With the casting of ultra feminine fashion plate Nicole Kidman in the lead, the resounding cries of "No Sh*T" were deafening. But more than that, what Shainberg was after is a kind of Alice in Wanderlust period depiction of an innocent Manhattanite discovering there was a world outside her glitzy apartment block doorway. It's a story we've seen and heard dozens of times - na´ve society gal has her horizons broadened by a chance encounter with the darker aspects of the human condition. But the choices made here by screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson in collaboration with Shainberg are astoundingly dopey. As her guide into this interpersonal netherland, this version of Arbus is introduced to a sideshow freak, a well-mannered, well spoken wig maker who used to earn his keep as an infamous "dog faced" man (the condition is real, and called hypertrichosis). That's right, for 90 minutes of the movie's two hour running time, our heroine will be awakened - sexually, socially, spiritually - by Bigfoot's far dandier cousin.
Of course, this is all fake. Arbus may have photographed a slew of physical oddities in her day, but she never did a 'beauty and the beast' number with the well-groomed Wookie upstairs. Robert Downey Jr., covered in plenty of humbling hirsute, does everything he can to dignify the role. He singlehandedly keeps Lionel from becoming a glorified joke. As Shainberg surrounds him with more and more elements of strained magic realism, the actor centers the stranger, and turns him into something we can almost identify with. And while Kidman looks nothing like the famed photographer, she does do awe and wonder quite well. Once under his spell, this Arbus takes the standard kook's tour of outsider existence. She meets a dominatrix (and she LIKES the leatherette's brusque manner), she visits a drag show, and even sneaks a peek at a little person party. All the while, Shainberg wants us to witness the transformation - the loosening of the blouse, the tussling of the previously prim and proper hair, the casual inconsiderateness for her family, the implied drug use - and celebrate such a clunky coming of age. We are also supposed to respond to the sexuality sizzling between Arbus and her sage-like Sasquatch. It all gets to be a bit much, and by the end of the second act, we are wondering if anything can redeem this descent into cloying cutesy conjecture.
Sadly, the salvation never arrives. Lionel is given a terminal issue, Arbus starts to fall apart, and somewhere between his eventual death and the closing credits, our heroine takes the reigns of her reality and starts snapping masterworks. Of course, we never see a single photograph Arbus actually took (probably a rights issue with the estate, though one could conceive of a more mindblowing dumb directorial design) and that is part of the problem with this film. Fur assumes that the audience is well aware of the photographer's canon while simultaneously supposing we know nothing of her life. It's a fallacy of course, a frame of reference the movie can and should never presuppose. In order for these made up events to having any meaning, we need the creative context that eventually forged them. Watching Kidman's expressive eyes light up when she sees Lionel, or first spies her nudist colony subjects is just not enough. Art is subjective and expressive, needing to be seen to really resonate. Sheinberg just hopes that his own visual acumen and attention to detail will provide the perspective. And it almost does. No matter its many narrative flaws, this is a fascinating film to look at. It's period without being distant, evocative without being completely extraordinary. Housed inside all the optical opulence could very well be the kind of motion picture metaphor this filmmaker is looking for. But for all its analogous aspects, Fur is a failure. It never does achieve the reflective relevance the creators crave.
As noted before, Sheinberg pours a lot of his aesthetic abilities into this movie, and New Line responds with a ridiculously good looking transfer. The 1.85:1 image is frequently stunning, the juxtaposition of colors and contrasts as visually fulfilling as the photography featured. Thanks in part to Bill Pope's brilliant cinematography, and a real denseness to Amy Danger's production design, we get a real sense of space and place. Granted, the journey that takes place inside the setting is less than effective, but the look of the film is without cinematic equal.
There is nothing particularly interesting about the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix presented. When Lionel's character is moving in, we do get some directional noise from the loading and unloading of unseen objects. But for the most part, the sound is centered in the middle, with only limited used of the multi-channel options ambient qualities. The dialogue is easily discernible and Coen Brothers' favorite Carter Burwell delivers another of his signature scores. Overall, the aural elements are good - they're just not as great as the other technical specifications.
Since it took a real beating come theatrical release time, the limited added content offered by New Line is perfectly understandable. No amount of bonus features can make a sale through silk purse out of a cinematic sow's ear. Still, we are treated to a very nice - if highly self-congratulatory - full length commentary from director Sheinberg, as well as a pair of deleted scenes (with optional explanations for their exclusion by the filmmaker). Finally, an HBO First Look EPK is offered, and while wholly driven by hype, it's nice to see the actors explaining themselves. Back to the alternate audio track for a moment. In some ways, Fur demands two viewings - once to get down the narrative basics, and another with Sheinberg chugging along to clarify it all. He does a terrific job of defending his unusual choices while skipping over the relatively unexplainable. In some ways, his discussion makes the movie much better, delivering it from its high minded histrionics to more of an indirect symbol of Arbus' gradual artistic development and growth. There's still a lot of pie in the sky satisfaction here, but Sheinberg more or less saves his substantially flawed film.
It's rare when a single supplemental element can change a critic's perspective on a film, but the explanation offered by director Steven Sheinberg as part of the DVD release of Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus did just that. Originally, this movie was balancing along the precipice of a Skip It/Rent It rating, the inherent ludicrousness of the film's approach making it almost unwatchable. But thanks to the elucidation provided, and a chance to allow the reasons and rationales to sink in, the film now earns a rather reluctant Recommended. Those familiar with Arbus' mythos and legacy should really avoid this deranged daydream, however. They will feel nothing but cruel contempt. But for anyone unaware of who this movie is referencing, the less you know the better. In fact, had Sheinberg simply created a wholly fictional fable about a woman named 'Leann Lardus' and her mentorship by a man covered in fur, we'd have a Charlie Kaufman level of romantic dramatization going on. But with any famous face comes the collective cultural baggage he or she brings. Arbus's luggage is so overwhelming it completely hobbles all of Fur's fancifulness. Luckily, Sheinberg is able to gain some of it back.