Thursday, February 6, 2014

"Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus"...

I love a good bio-pic (‘biographical film’, for those of you who need the clarification), and have seen some great ones over the years. Many of them have fallen under the ‘independent’ heading. The film that serves as ‘subject’ of this post is no exception.

These days, I tend to veer away from the theater experience. Sticky floors, antiquated and creaky seating, and stale popcorn are all that is available to me these days. I prefer to wait until films that I want to see hit digital and disc formats. Media I can view in the comfort of my own home. That means I see many films after they have been in wide release for a number of months. Generally, I don’t mind the wait. True, there are some movies I chomp at the bit to see…any of the current (and future) Marvel hero films, for example. Then there are other films. Ones that fall under the independent heading that I mentioned earlier. Some of which pass completely past the scope of my radar.
“Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” (2006), did just that. I wasn’t aware of its existence until I happened upon it during a night of relentless button pushing, many years after its release. My remote was getting a workout as I searched for something among the myriad of channels my cable service provides (which is really sad…all of those channels and nothing worth watching…blimey). It was luck in the truest ‘movie lovers’ sense that I found it. Found it, and was drawn in by it.

At first glance of the title, one might not register the exact implications of the word “imaginary”. At first glance of the title, one might think it to be one of the aforementioned bio-pics. There are nuggets of ‘the’ Diane Arbus, and her life that do pepper the film. However, I think a better way to describe “Fur”, is to call it a bigger budget form of “fan fiction”, and a very entertaining one, at that.

There are many who know of Diane, and her work (myself included). For the sake of this post (and the uninitiated who may read it), Diane Arbus (1923-1971) was a photographer. Like a number of artists, she garnered her fame posthumously. Known for her black and white images, she was known to photograph people who many would consider among the odder sect of humanity. Circus performers, those with certain defects, people who existed on the societal fringe.
(Allan Arbus & Diane)

(Allan Arbus as "Dr. Freedman")
She was married at one time to her high school sweetheart, Allan Arbus, who exposed her to what would become her art: photography. (If his name jumps out at you, you will most likely know him as actor Allan Arbus, who played “Dr. Sidney Freedman”, on the TV version of “M.A.S.H.”. He started as a print photographer.) After his marriage to Diane ended, Allan dissolved his photography business and delved into acting.

As Diane’s career carried on, she rode a rollercoaster of mood swings and bouts of depression. She was plagued with fears that she would always be known as the “freak photographer”. The label still holds, but it is her art that has made her one of the most distinctive photographers of the twentieth century. Sadly, Diane’s mental and emotional trials would lead her to committing suicide on July 26th, 1971. She slashed her wrists after consuming a large number of barbiturates. Her work would gain notice on a wider scale soon after she passed.  This account is more of a Reader’s Digested version…you can find more about her life via Google.

Written by Erin Cressida Wilson, and directed by Steven Shainberg (both also know for the film “Secretary”), “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus” (2006), centers around an imaginary relationship Diane has with a neighbor in her apartment building. I assume it to be imaginary as I cannot find anything online to prove that said neighbor is/was an actual person.

I WILL TAKE A MOMENT HERE TO CRY "SPOILER ALERT"! Be warned that there are some spoilers from this point forward as I do give some key plot points. 
(Diane & Allan in the apartment studio)
("Lionel Sweeney" in mask)
The film begins with Diane (Nicole Kidman) on a bus. We soon learn that she is en route to a nudist colony where she plans to take pictures. This setting serves as the jumping off point for a flashback. We are transported back to New York and her apartment. One that she shares with her husband, Allan, and her two daughters. A photo shoot is taking place. Diane’s father is the owner of a department store, and Allan is serving as his advert photographer. The subject of the shoot? Fur, of course. During the scope of the shoot, we learn of Diane’s domineering mother, and Diane’s proclivity to the occasional act of public exposition (she goes out on their balcony, unbuttons her dress, and presents her bra covered body to the neighboring buildings). ‘Awkward’ is the best word to describe Diane. Meek, and apologetic. It is when she goes in search of fresh batteries for her husband’s camera that we see her curious side appear. Through one of the windows, she notices an odd man with a mask on his head standing next to a moving truck. They lock eyes for an extended appraisal of one another before she is called back to her task by her husband. Her new neighbor has arrived.

‘Lionel Sweeney’ (Robert Downey Jr.), moves into an attic apartment situated at the top of a metal circular staircase. The presence of the mask (a rough facial image sewn into its front) peaking her curiosity. Diane is moved to find and put to use the camera her husband had given to her. She then begins to go out on excursions within the building to take photos. It’s more about her curiosity with the new man upstairs. With great timidity, she eventually climbs the stairs to Sweeney’s front door. By this time I wanted to scope him out, too, but alas…not yet. He checks her out through his peephole, and instructs her to come back the next day. She is to use the key he gave her.  Key? (Time to flash back a little in the film…)
One of Diane’s daughters is complaining of the drain being plugged in the bathroom. Not able to see any surface cause for the blockage, Diane gets a wrench and goes at the large exposed piping. She gets the fitting/cap off, which produces some excess water, but nothing else. After probing into the pipe she discovers the problem. A lot of hair. What she assumes to be dog hair. Also…a key. She deduces where it all came from, and is a tad freaked out. The key is thrown in the bin out front. Back to my synopsis…

Figuring out that the key he speaks of is “that key”, she dashes out in time to save it from the trash man’s clutches. Getting herself together, she revisits the door at the top of the circular staircase and lets herself in. Decorated in a lavishly eclectic manner, Sweeney’s apartment wreaks of fitting mystery. After she is able to have a look around, we finally get to see the new neighbor. Possessing a condition known by many names (Hypertrichosis, Ambras syndrome, “Werewolf” syndrome) Lionel Sweeney is covered in hair from head to toe (think ‘jojo, the dog faced boy’). His condition is severe enough to be affecting his lungs. There is something both frightening and magnetic about him. I mean, come on…RDJ is under all that hair…of course he’s magnetic. From that point on, their friendship quickly evolves into one of attraction. Lionel probes Diane with questions that allow those aspects of herself that she has tried to conceal (i.e. exhibitionism) to come to the surface. She revels in the “alternative” life he shows her. He takes her to watch a dominatrix in action; takes her to parties attended by “freaks” of society; introduces her to the world of photographs she would later gain fame for. He is introduced to her children (one approves of him, the other doesn’t), and there are scenes where they help him in his “day job” of creating wigs for certain clients.
(RDJ as "Lionel Sweeney"; Nicole Kidman as "Diane Arbus; Ty Burrell as "Allan Arbus")
Allan Arbus (Ty Burrell) is confused and worried about the whole thing. Diane brings Lionel into her home life, but her marriage is hanging by a thread…one that she has power over. Everything dangles on her decision. It is during an emotional moment between Lionel and Diane that she discovers just how deep her feelings go. Lionel allows Diane to shave him from head to toe (hello, RDJ). They do have “one night” together, and the following day she accompanies him to the beach. Throughout the film Lionel is plagued by his lung condition (it will eventually kill him), and it is his aim to swim out to sea…and never return…which he does. Before he swims away, he does give Diane a gift. A “fur” coat presumably made from his “fur”. It is a poignant moment, and it did tug my heartstrings when Lionel is shown swimming to his death. At the end, Diane decides to go it alone, and we end up back at the nudist colony from the start of the film.

As for the performances: Let me start by saying that I think Kidman is a fine actress (that’s a telling opener, I do realize). She has starred in a number of films that I adore, including “The Others”. I think she does a fine turn as Diane in this, but I think the part called for someone with a few more layers to their onion. The Diane of the film is far more complex than I think Kidman conveyed. On the other hand, RDJ is really good. He’s good in everything he does. Many actors would not be able to get their characters past the “dog faced boy” element of Lionel, but he does it with flying colors. I believe I touched on it during the synopsis, but even I experienced the attractiveness of this outwardly “freakish” man (to most anyway). RDJ puts in a stellar performance, as always. As for the character of Allan, Burrell does a great job as the confused and eventually helpless husband to Diane. He is the quintessential ad-man, and father of the time. My impression was that here is a man who is watching another man appeal to aspects of his wife he can’t hope to, and watching helplessly as he loses her bit by bit. He tries to include himself in this new found life she has discovered, and he can’t.

Keeping in mind that this is a fantasy created around some aspects of the real Diane Arbus, do I recommend it?  Absolutely. Robert Downey, jr. fans will enjoy it, and most individuals who are open to thinking outside of the box. A big thumbs up from me for, “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus”.

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