Fur is, as noted in its subtitle, an imaginary portrait of a real
photographer, Diane Arbus, a woman who made a rather sudden transition from a
repressed 1950s housewife to a daring photographer of the fringes of society,
as well as a participant in those fringes. When she was about 35, she separated from
Allan Arbus, a successful commercial photographer who later became an actor
(he was the Sydney the psychiatrist on the TV version of M*A*S*H), and started
her own career. In her twelve years as a solo act she managed to test the
outside of the envelope of alternative 1960s lifestyles in New York City, all
the time chronicling with her lens the people she met along the way. She
photographed visions of bourgeois ennui, but she specialized in the
downtrodden, marginalized people of society.
In Arbus's own words, "Freaks was a thing I photographed a lot. It was one
of the first things I photographed and it had a terrific kind of excitement
for me. I just used to adore them. I still do adore some of them. I don't
quite mean they're my best friends but they made me feel a mixture of shame
and awe. There's a quality of legend about freaks. Like a person in a fairy
tale who stops you and demands that you answer a riddle. Most people go
through life dreading they'll have a traumatic experience. Freaks were born
with their trauma. They've already passed their test in life. They're
Her work became popular enough to warrant one-woman shows in the important
New York museums and galleries, and to inspire a collection of articles by
Susan Sontag, On Photography, in which the formidable essayist tried to
expressed why she was simultaneously fascinated with and repulsed by Arbus's
In 1971, at age 48, Diane (DEE-ann) swallowed a vast quantity of
barbiturates and cut her wrists, thus assuring that she would die from one or
the other, and elevating her to the pantheon of rebellious, romantic,
troubled, unconventional 1960s artists who would die from suicide or O.D.:
Joplin, Hendrix, Sylvia Plath, Jim Morrison, etc.
The movie Fur pays essentially no attention to Arbus's career as a
photographer. In fact, if you do not already know about her work and its
themes, you will leave the theater no more enlightened, other than to realize
that she was interested in freaks. The film never really shows the part of her
life when her career had blossomed, nor does it not explain how she developed
her technical or artistic skills. (It wasn't from her experience in fashion
photography with her husband. When she decided what she wanted to do, she studied the art of
photography under a master.) What the film does do is to ask a theoretical
question, "What set of circumstances could have transformed a Good
Housekeeping housewife of 1957 into a kinky fetishist in 1967?" It imagines
those circumstances as follows: Arbus meets Lionel, a sideshow freak with a
condition that makes him appear to be Michael Landon in that Teenage Werewolf
movie. (This is a completely fictional character.) She is immediately
fascinated by him, then attracted to him. Through her Beauty and the Beast
affair with the human werewolf, she meets the people who used to be his
colleagues on the sideshow circuit, and is transformed by her fascination with
their world, and is astounded to find out how essentially normal and mundane it is beneath the
sensational exterior. She begins to ponder the nature of normality itself.
Fur was directed by Steven Shainberg, who also directed the kinky
Secretary. He seems to have a bit of the Arbus spirit in his own soul.
Shainberg does an excellent job at capturing the tension inherent in Arbus's
point of view, as she takes her first tentative steps from the mainstream into
an underculture which both excites and terrifies her.
The presence of Nicole Kidman and Robert Downey provides some real
heft to this project, but the film still ultimately fails - for two reasons:
First, Downey's wolfman make-up is inadvertently hilarious when it should
convey dark mystery and an ominous sense that the forbidden and outré are
nearer than they seem. The film works perfectly when Downey is covered by
grotesque masks, but falls apart when the teenage werewolf faces the camera
squarely and makes us giggle.
Second, the film drags on and on as we wait for Diane's transformation and then
fails to show us the results after the great awakening finally arrives. It
feels as if the Ben Hogan story ended with the car accident and a question
about whether he could ever come back. In fact, the film never shows any
examples of the art which Diane would develop after her cultural epiphany.
Fur is Diane Arbus without the photographs, just as the recent Paltrow movie was
Sylvia Plath without the poems.
It might be a better movie if it had committed to being 100% fictional or
100% biographical. With a better make-up job on the Beast, the movie could
stand by itself with no anchor to Diane Arbus as the Beauty, since
the story treats the biographical details as mere background elements in the
dream-tale of how the Arbus metamorphosis might theoretically have happened.
As it stands, Fur is an earnest and slick art film with only cult appeal. Most
people are reluctant to watch a pretentious real biography of a
tortured artist, let alone a make-believe version of same.