Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Steven Shainberg, "Fur" (2006).

I'm sometimes a bit of a sucker for biopics. What could be better than learning about a historical figure by watching a dramatization of his/her life? I've also been especially interested in biographical films about artists and writers. There's certainly a well-known romanticism to be found in the lives of such people. So when I spotted Steven Shainberg's Fur (2006), I expected it to be aligned with my interests. The movie concerns the life of Diane Arbus, well-known American photographer who worked in the middle of the Twentieth Century. It didn't take me long to realize that this wasn't a conventional biopic. A few elaborately designed plates at the beginning of Fur alert the viewer to the fact that this is a highly fictionalized and loosely constructed story about the inner life of a well-known artist. It's an imaginative retelling about someone that actually existed.

Naturally this movie is a product of a controversial methodology. Whenever you appropriate the life of a former celebrity, you risk alienating a lot of people. Historians are often aghast at the liberties taken in such works. Friends and family of the deceased may also take exception to the way their loved one is portrayed. Finally, fans can be vehement in their opposition to any potential challenges to their sacred interpretations and perceptions of their heroes. It's a pretty ballsy thing to do indeed. But Steven Shainberg doesn't get intimidated by potential controversy. Years ago he made a lot of noise with Secretary (2002), which was loosely based on a short story by Mary Gaitskill. It followed the developing and loving relationship between an employee and employer... a masochist and a sadist. Certainly anything that strays much past conventional norms of American sexual behavior is immediately scandalous. I loved Secretary. The performances, the writing, the scenarios, the direction.. I found it all deeply satisfying.

I also tracked down Shainberg's debut feature, Hit Me. This was another example wherein several of my interests were combined into a single project. It starred Elias Koteas in a biographical tale adapted from a memoir written by pulpy noir author Jim Thompson. The look and hard-boiled qualities of Hit Me appealed to my aesthetics. While I didn't find it wholly successful, I definitely enjoyed it enough to keep it on my shelf. I realized that Shainberg would not be constrained by a literal interpretation of the works he is inspired by. He grabs the essential themes and selected trappings, and concocts a stew of creativity. I shouldn't have expected that Fur would be an appropriate learning tool to study the career of Diane Arbus. Even if Shainberg had not warned us ahead of time, anyone familiar with his work should have predicted that this would be a depiction with many side trips along the road of reality.

While it is true that Arbus (played here by Nicole Kidman) assumed a collection of odd subjects for her photography, I think it's safe to assume that she never left her husband and family to have an affair with Lionel, "The Dog-Faced Boy" (Robert Downey, Jr.). It's clear that Shainberg had a specific type of tale he wanted to tell, and he was uninhibited in his appropriation of Arbus' life. That choice invoked a lot of criticism when Fur was released. In a way that's a bit of a shame, because Fur is such a well-made and interesting film. More than anything else it is about two people who come to see past the surface of things, and manage to peek at the freaky underbelly of society and each other. It is assuredly not centered on an examination of Arbus' personal evolution as an artist. Her independence from her husband relies on an extramarital affair with a person whose extreme differences become fetishised in Arbus' mind.

In fact if I had to identify a criticism of Fur, I'd say the thing that bothered me most is its romanticization of betrayal. It's great that Shainberg's Arbus is willing to try to get past her initial superficial reaction to Lionel's appearance. But there are some strange inversions in the film. For one, the director is frank in his assertion that Arbus is deeply attracted to the defects in the physical manifestations of her subjects. Yet somehow Shainberg feels it necessary to have Lionel go through a radical normalization before an intimate affair can be consummated between his two stars. Thus Arbus is not only betraying her husband (who clearly loves her and makes constant efforts to save his troubled marriage), but also her own artistic sensibilities. In my opinion, that validates much of the criticism of the film. Having said that, the art direction and performances are uniformly excellent. If viewed as merely a quirky romantic drama, Fur is an unqualified success.

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Anonymous jefg said...

I had debated for some time adding Fur to my Netflix queue. Now, I'll take a look at it. Thanks for the review.

8:45 PM  

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