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Steven Shainberg: "Discovering how to look at the world"
By David D'Arcy
November 10, 2006 - 12:02 PM PST

"Don't expect the things that you normally get when you go to see a movie about a famous person."

Diane Arbus is one of those photographers whose images are likely to be recognized by people outside the narrow world of art - a dubious distinction, since you could say the same thing about Christo and Andy Warhol. You know the pictures: the Jewish Giant at Home with his Parents, the twins, the old lady in pearls with her hat and purse out for a walk in a stark Central Park, the little people who used to be called midgets, the transvestite in rollers, the nudists who turn out to be utterly ordinary people (i.e., fleshy and grotesque), and of course, the mental patients dressed in costume at a Sunday picnic in New Jersey.

As much as we know a little bit about her pictures, we also think we know something of her biography: a girl born in 1923 into wealth in a family that owned a department store whose specialty was ladies' furs. (Note that Russek's, the once-esteemed emporium for the rich and famous, is long gone, but Arbus is more popular than ever.) She married young, to the photographer Allan Arbus, had two daughters, and then struck out suddenly on her own in work and in life, into the world that seemed populated by the very people that she photographed. Eventually Arbus, dead broke, would kill herself in 1971. For those of us watching from the outside, there seemed to be an odd predestination to all of this.

Fur, directed by Steven Shainberg and written by Erin Cressida Wilson, was inspired by the book Diane Arbus: A Biography by Patricia Bosworth. But Shainberg insists that he's made an imaginary portrait of Arbus, anything but a biopic. Shainberg is looking at a short period during Arbus's 30s, when she seems to be discovering that there's a lot more to the world than what she's been getting from her family, her husband and from the commercial fashion photographs that she's been helping her husband make. Just at that moment, in a coincidence that could never happen in any real biography (certainly not in Arbus's), an odd character who usually wears a mask moves in upstairs. Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey, Jr.) turns out to be Diane's muse and her ticket out of troubled princess-hood. Nicole Kidman, who plays Diane, may strain your ability to suspend disbelief at first, but ultimately this is a story about a character trapped in one world, seeking to find her place in another. Implicit in all this is that Arbus is being drawn into this new world, partly seduced, partly leaping ahead quite willingly, by the very kind of subjects that she will later photograph. Remember: this is an imaginary portrait.

There are allusions to works of art beyond the ones that Arbus will eventually make, plus allusions to the mise en scène of the consumer culture of the rich at the time (in which Jane Alexander, who plays Diane's mother, reminds her daughter that she can't do anything right - as if Diane didn't need another reminder that this world wasn't for her). Shainberg has a sly way of locating Arbus's eye and her eventual vision in the events that we first see on the screen.  Her family and the fashion photographs taken by her husband Allan Arbus have a confected grotesquerie that imposes itself on the camera. This is proper New York society, but it's much closer to Surrealism than to gentility, as Shainberg sees it. Remember that Shainberg has shot his share of fashion commercials. He knows what he's doing.

Then there are some parallel literary lines here. In Arbus' house, which doesn't look like anything I've ever seen in New York (it was constructed at the Steiner Studios at the Brooklyn Navy Yard), Lionel moves upstairs, and downstairs there's an odd woman without arms who does everything that arms would normally do with her legs. We have an Alice in Wonderland situation here, with Diane climbing up to Lionel's lair on a retractable staircase and traveling downward into the basement (is this Hades?) to seek out other freaky encounters.

The other literary line comes from Beauty and the Beast - the encounter sought by the girl who seems to have everything. In the film and in Arbus's own life, this quest seems to go even farther. It's not about seeing the beast or even meeting him, but about defining oneself through the beastly images that one makes. Beyond that, there are scenes in which Arbus as a girl stands on the ledge outside the window and seems ready to jump.

How you feel about this film may depend on how you feel about using an imagined story to explain the life of a real person, or to explain anything else. Shainberg insists that this is not a biography of Diane Arbus. As a fantasy of encounters using the Arbus context as a point of departure, Shainberg has constructed a cinematic fable with a production design that builds an environment of a vision turned inside-out in ways that can be expected from such a story. Leave it at that and it's a compelling film. Fans of Shainberg's Secretary (2002) will probably agree. But there are bound to be literalists who are looking for strict cause and effect, for prefigurations of Arbus' career, and even of her self-inflicted death. They may be dissatisfied, not because Shainberg hasn't made a respectable film, but because he hasn't given them exactly what they want. He should be commended for that.

Diane Arbus:
An Aperture Monograph.
Edited by Doon Arbus and Marvin Israel.
184 pp. Aperture.

Diane Arbus:
A Biography.
By Patricia Bosworth.
400 pp. W.W. Norton.

There are no photographs by Diane Arbus in Fur. Steven Shainberg explains in the interview below that he's not seeking that kind of literalism. Besides, the production design finds its own way into a world that mixes thudding realism with an unblinking oddity.

Back to the notion of fur for a second. There's an old Spanish proverb (much appreciated by the surrealists) that goes, "Donde hay pelo, hay allegria" - "Where there is hair, there is happiness." Try taking that to its logical conclusions. Robert Downey, Jr.'s character certainly fits that bill. Downey is nuanced and surprising in almost every role that he's played. His fans won't be disappointed here. He may even earn some new ones. It would be hard to imagine anyone else as an aesthete with hair all over his body, the sort of creature that Arbus's father's firm would kill and sell as coats for hanging on wealthy women's backs. Arbus, as you might have guessed, wears this pelt differently.

Fur is an ambitious film. If you're looking to know more about Arbus's photographs, it's better to just look at the photographs. As a look into and out of the prison-houses of family and images, Fur is an adventure.

I spoke to Steven Shainberg in New York just before the film's release.

This film could have had many different titles. Why call it Fur?

My wife Rachel Boynton's mother called up and said, "Does Steve know that Fur has a kind of sexual connotation?" Rachel said, "Well, Mom, I think that's what he has in mind."

To some extent, the film is addressing the mysterious unconscious connection that might have been between the adult Arbus that we know and the six- or seven- or eight-year-old girl who was lying in bed on Central Park West with a father who is a furrier, wondering, perhaps, "What happens when my father kills all these beautiful animals?"

When you look at a fur, particularly the high-end furs that her father was making, they are terrifying and horrifying objects, as if they're dripped in blood, because of all the animals that it takes to make them. They're also unbelievably beautiful and sensuous, and creepy, but you want to touch them. And that is exactly the quality that her photographs have 30 or 40 years later. There is some relationship to be discovered between how her childhood gave birth to the artist years later. The other thing is, there's a tremendous sexual element that you feel in her pictures, her relationship to the subject. And you feel her touching her subjects, in the way that one might touch a fur. So there's a way in which she's connected to sensuality and the beast. You could say that her whole life, her whole body of work, was beauty going out into the world to find beasts, and touch beasts. So that title, just the first word, is part of all that.

And in terms of an imaginary portrait, like the two cards in the beginning of the film, I felt that it was important to let the audience know that this is not a straight biopic. Don't expect the things that you normally get when you go to see a movie about a famous person.

Assuming that, how would you describe the way that the biographical elements from the life of Diane Arbus are used, and how would you characterize the story that you trying to tell beyond the biography?

This movie is trying to do something different than most films about famous people, in that it's trying to be a portrait of an inner process. One of the most mysterious things about Arbus that has always fascinated me is that, at the age of 35 in 1958, with two kids, a husband, doing banal work fashion work in the studio - it's not me saying that; it's how she felt about it - that woman became Diane Arbus. Patricia Bosworth's biography actually jumps literally in time past the question of, What happened? What happened to this person internally, that she picked up her camera, went out into the world to find these people, connect with them intimately, and take their picture. To me, that's one of the great mysteries of the Arbus story, and yet it cannot be addressed literally. She doesn't address it in the biography. I've read probably every article that's ever been written about Arbus and her work, and it's never even asked. And the reason it's not asked is that there really is no answer. If that is a question that fascinates you, and it does for me as a filmmaker - as a person who makes things, it fascinates me - how did this happen,   particularly later on in life. It's one thing for a person to be taking their own pictures at 18, 25, 30, but this is somebody who basically had established her own existence and threw it off, to go and do something totally unusual.

It does happen that artists make radical changes in their lives. What seems to happen is that it's not just just the subject matter of their work that pushes them toward making a change, but it's the fact that other people who are looking at things in different ways are also influencing them. Here it seems to be the subject matter, more than anything else, and her dissatisfaction with the most commercial way of making photographs.

I can only agree with a small part of that. This movie is about something that was living in her, a deep wish for a particular kind of other world. This is a little girl who, at seven or eight, walked through Central Park where there was a shanty town, and when she tried to look at the people who were living there, her mother and her nanny would cover their eyes. That's addressed in the movie. There was a wish to leave home and see the world, and experience the world that existed for years and years and years when she had been locked in a box. That idea of trying to contain your most pressing wish, whatever it is - it can be artistic or not - is something that was powerfully important to her biography. Part of it was about wishing to make art. She had for her whole life been wishing to be a "sad great artist" - and she would talk about that to Allan and other people.

So there was a wish to make art, there was a wish to actually arrive at some kind of personal aesthetic in photography. That's all true, but the thing that interests me so much and moves me so much is the wish to experience the world, the wish to make contact with the world and to not feel that she's shut off from it. And that, I think, is a life-long thing.

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David D'Arcy
Besides reviewing art and film for National Public Radio, David D'Arcy has also written for the Art Newspaper, the Economist and other publications.

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