Confession: When I took Media Aesthetics my first year, I was a little under-impressed by my experience with the class. The discussion wasn’t the best, and A Winter’s Tale was sub-par Shakespeare. But then came my Critical Perspectives English class this quarter, and my intrigue with the relationship between the signifier and the signified has been re-ignited. And then I saw Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, Steven Shainberg’s newest film, and all I want to think about ever again is the process we use to look at other people and things.
This movie succeeds because it is an example of much of what it describes. In this slightly fictionalized recounting of the photographer Diane Arbus’ transition from prop assistant for her husband Allan (Ty Burrell) to a photographer in her own right, we are drawn from the beginning to the way she looks at things. The environment in which Diane (played by a fantastic Nicole Kidman) lives is portrayed in pastels, with her bedroom neutral in tans and grays (an obvious symbol of the conformist roles into which her sex life with Allan fits itself); the clothes, accessories, and living quarters of the beguiling people she observes are shot in more dramatic lighting as contrasting colors show us the allure they hold for her. Facial expressions between characters are perfectly tailored, even down to the crevices of their features.
Kidman quickly shows us that Diane is as worthy of our curiosity as her photographs themselves. She is beautiful, and we often see her as an object, framed by the foreground in accidental portraits, reminding us of her lack of agency over her own life as her husband’s assistant. But Shainberg wants us to know that she deserves to be an agent herself, and we see Diane full of wonder and willing to act on her goal.
This film focuses mostly on Diane’s growing artistic relationship with Lionel (Robert Downey, Jr.), a man recently moved into the apartment upstairs and who is suffering from hypertrychosis, a disease that causes fur to grow from all parts of his body. He is the inspiration for Diane’s fascination with the freakish outcasts of society, and they form an odd sort of friendship.
Lionel plays the role of a child’s imaginary friend come to life for Diane: He lives in a neat-o apartment, he takes her on expeditions to strange new parts of New York, he presents an alternative point of view to that of her husband, just as a make-believe playfellow might do for a small child’s father. He shows Diane an alternative lifestyle, a surreal Wonderland of strange and unexplained circumstances where Diane is our Alice.
We see events through Diane’s voyeuristic eyes; the lens of a camera, and in some strange way the lens of the cinematographer’s cameras shooting this film, have become Diane’s own Rear Window through which she perceives the quotidian goings-on of her apartment building and the neighborhood around her.
Photography becomes a means through which Diane can experience a surprisingly un-trite awakening, and all we want is to watch her do so as she watches her neighbors out the window of her family’s apartment. This film’s stills could easily merit exhibition in any photo exhibit at the MCA; this is no quaintly touching Art Institute stuff, and Shainberg hopes that we will agree.
And like art at the MCA, you should see this film, if only to have an opinion on it, but ideally because you will agree that it is beautiful.