I n Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, director Steven Shainberg and writer Erin Cressida Wilson reenvision the artistic and spiritual awakening of the famed photographer along the lines of their S&M heart-warmer, Secretary—as the story of an unformed but avid female’s entry into a freakish underworld, with Secretary’s life-affirming sadist transformed into a life-affirming werewolf. Called Lionel and played by Robert Downey Jr., he’s a hairy fellow (hypertrichosis is the technical term) who moves into the apartment above the Arbuses, Allan (Ty Burrell) and Diane (Nicole Kidman), a husband-and-wife glamour photography team and something of a postwar glamour photo themselves. It’s when Diane (pronounced “Dee-ann”) is acting as a good little wifey and assisting in a shoot for her overbearing parents’ line of exclusive furs—arranging the smart look-alike models, twittering about the appropriate length of a woman’s fingernails—that she gets her first tantalizing glimpse of her masked neighbor. Soon, she finds clots of hair and skeleton keys in her drainpipe, and then she’s tremulously mounting a circular iron staircase to the lair of the man-beast. What a change in the color scheme! The Arbuses’ flat is all cream and ash and oak, with occasional dabs of pale (Fiestaware) mustard, blue, and pink; whereas Lionel’s den explodes with lurid greens and crimsons and a dwarf. Hold on, sorry—a dwarf isn’t a color. Well, come to think of it, he is a color. And so are the giant and the woman with no arms. They’re not characters, anyway. They’re décor.
In a disclaimer written in strangely old-fashioned script, like an invite to Granny’s garden party, the filmmakers note that despite having retained Arbus’s name (and having paid for the rights to Patricia’s Bosworth’s well-regarded biography), they will not be telling the literal story of Diane Arbus, only a story inspired by Arbus’s life and work. Which makes Fur a double downer. You’d expect a conventional biopic to be bland and overly telescoped. But Arbus’s life and work ought to inspire something more than the generic tale of a repressed fifties doll wife who runs off with the circus. As Bosworth’s biography—and reams of dissertations—suggest, Arbus’s late photos divide viewers. Does she bring out the normal in the grotesque and the grotesque in the normal? Or is her work heartlessly clinical—even exploitative? My heart sank when Diane arrived on the werewolf’s threshold and he commanded her to take off her camera. The point, I think, is that before she photographs him, she has to learn to, you know, see him. But Arbus rather famously learned to see through the camera—by taking tons of pictures and reflecting on them in tranquillity.
Fur might work if it had a hypnotic pull, and you can certainly feel Shainberg trying to tug us into this Gothic dreamscape, with its echoes of Alice in Wonderland, Cocteau, and David Lynch. The score by Carter Burwell plinks and plunks and clacks and thrums and even resorts to birdsong. But somehow, the music, the design (by Amy Danger), and the cinematography (by Bill Pope) don’t merge into something organic—a vision. I never felt Shainberg was seeing through his camera.
The tall, cool Kidman works hard to impersonate a woman possessed, but she’s not the type of actress to fill in a role that hasn’t been filled in on paper. She doesn’t have enough personality to draw on. (The personality she has is that of a dutiful actress with a lot of gumption, which in this context is deadly.) Downey calibrates his performance to hers and underplays poetically; even when he’s caustic, he’s a dear. In Secretary, the spankings and S&M role-playing made the sentimentality seem cheeky. But the freaks in Fur aren’t freaky enough to give the movie an edge. No one even has a fur fetish.
Thank god—or, rather, a select few production entities—for the flood of documentaries that illuminate, at least for a sliver of the public, the misbegotten, tragic, and very likely criminal occupation of Iraq.
Did I just write that? There goes my career in country music. Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck’s hugely entertaining Shut Up & Sing chronicles the aftermath of Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines’s assertion, at London’s Shepherd’s Bush, that President Bush was no shepherd. And what a mind-bending odyssey ensues—a tale of good old-fashioned American free expression at war with good old-fashioned American capitalism. As stations across the South (most run by one or two corporations) yank the Dixie Chicks’ CDs out of the rotation, the conflict plays out on the faces of the other two Chicks, sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire. They’re 100 percent behind the sassy, mouthy Maines: That’s who she is. It’s the best thing that could have happened, really—a chance to broaden the audience, to break out of their country-music cage. The death threats were scary, sure, especially with all their little kids, but Taking the Long Way might be the best music they ever made and is very, very big—even if not as big. Martie weeps as she tries to explain how much she loves Natalie. And she means it. And all of the above is true. And Shut Up & Sing should be one of the great inspirational stories of our time.