Hairy Situation

Photo: Courtesy of Picturehouse

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.

But they’re not as big.

If not for those communications corporations, it’s possible that the contents of Robert Greenwald’s Iraq for Sale: The War Profiteers would lead off every TV news show in the country: In 75 harrowing minutes, Greenwald spells out why the war has been, for this administration and its friends, a windfall no matter which side claims victory and how many Americans and Iraqi civilians die. Eighteen and a half billion to Halliburton? Bring it on! But while they leave you shaking with rage, Greenwald’s talking-heads docs don’t have much in the way of cinematic juice. At the other, non-agitprop extreme is James Longley’s Iraq in Fragments—poetic, allusive, nonprescriptive, and nearly as incendiary.

Iraq in Fragments is a triptych of despair, rage, and terror. Part One tracks an 11-year-old Baghdad boy, Mohammed, whose father was probably murdered by the forces of Saddam Hussein. You think he’d be delighted with the occupation, but he’s in hell. The city is trashed—Longley gives us jumpy blurs of helicopters, smoke from nearby explosions, and the threatening rattle of military convoys. Mohammed needs to make money, but to get out of this place he also needs an education—and he hasn’t managed to graduate from first grade in four years. Part Two is a panorama of the Moqtada al-Sadr movement: Shiites who’d like to purge the blaspheming occupiers and return the country to Islamic law. Men flagellating themselves with chains, blood spattering their faces. Alcohol sellers in the marketplace rounded up and beaten while crying that this wasn’t supposed to happen anymore. Part Three is set in the quiet—quietly devastated—Kurdish north, where they’re happy Saddam was deep-sixed but worried the Sunnis and Shiites blame them for opening the door to the Americans. They sadly survey a country in pieces.

Longley’s material seems to have found its own shape—or, in some cases, shapelessness. Part One feels unfocused, although Mohammed’s face stays with you: He’s viciously abused by his bitter old boss for not being able to spell the name of a father he barely remembers—a textbook case of insult added to injury. Part Two does go on. But in the end, the movie is more than the sum of its fragments. The montages are intense, the images ravishing. The movie is tactile. When you finally feel this place, you understand just how little you understand.

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus
Directed by Steven Shainberg. PictureHouse. R.

Iraq in Fragments
Directed by James Longley. Typecast Pictures and HBO Documentary Films. Not Rated.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

Hairy Situation