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Articles

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


"You can never feel this way again, there's such a glut of imagery coming at us."

Is it correct, as a lot of people have assumed, that experiencing the world from where she was, from where she was brought into the world, living in a rich family, that this was a downward motion, to a tactile encounter with things that are base and unusual, not just in photographs, but in her own personal life.

That's interesting. In the movie, it's upstairs...

And downstairs.

It's upstairs and downstairs, absolutely. In a sense, she's going upstairs to go downstairs, falling down the rabbit-hole. Besides the fact that it was important to see her climb up to climb down, Lionel could have moved into a sub-sub-sub-basement. But that strikes me as almost too blatant metaphorically. She does go down to the basement and discovers something that leads up. But, you know, to an extent, she's going up into her own mind. And she's also discovering, for her, what is a kind of personal heaven, upstairs. One of the conceits of the film, which we were not able to accomplish, was that Lionel would have vast skylights on the roof of his set, the roof of his apartment. And through the course of the film, more and more of those skylights would open so that the hugeness would in some sense be entering here. To some extent you get that feeling anyway, through the performance. But the question that you ask could be, "Why did she want to take pictures of weirdoes?"

I didn't say that, but I'm sure you asked yourself that question.

Yeah. To some extent, I think she must have felt like one herself. It's one thing to a do a photographic assignment for Esquire on little people, where you spend five or six weeks, two months on it. But we're looking at something that she spent 13 years on. I think she was someone with profound curiosity, wanting to open every door. She wasn't just taking pictures of freaks. She was taking pictures of society women, of people on the street. Her body of work is really quite vast.

Ultimately, it was probably good that you didn't use those skylights. There's always the illusion that the imagination is boundless, but there are limits, even up there on the top floor.

I keep thinking of her up there, looking at the stars in the sky.

 Why are there no Arbus photographs in the film?

To me, a biopic suffers because it shows you things you already know. To me, in the theater, as a viewer, that's utterly boring. I'll give you an example. Ed Harris, a fantastic actor, playing Pollock, looks exactly like the guy, beautiful scene which shows him discovering drip painting. Totally boring. Why? Because you know the scene before it happens. There's nothing in it for anybody.

And the scene in that film that works, probably the only scene that works, is when he's riding the bicycle, trying to balance the case of beer on the handlebars.

And you don't know what's going to happen.

It has the most dramatic truth in the film.

It functions as a metaphor and suddenly it's alive.

Back to the pictures. I think I understand your dramaturgical explanation of that. Was it also a logistical problem, or could you have gotten the pictures if you'd wanted them?

No. It's that it was never a question in plan. When I went in and talked with Ed Pressman and Bonnie Timmerman, who controlled the rights to the Bosworth biography, I said I had no interest in recreating Diane Arbus's pictures. It's a formula for failure. I can't do it aesthetically in such a way that I can match her, and I'm not interested in showing the audience a moving picture of the Jewish Giant being photographed by Diane Arbus.

But what you did achieve, in a moving picture, was that grotesque stillness of models and a family posing for Allan Arbus's pictures. You have this inversion of freakiness, for want of a better term, in the appearances and the emotions within the family. When you're dealing with photography in moving pictures, a lot of directors get locked into the PBS approach, where you zoom in or zoom away from an archival image. In Fur, the glance away from a conversation, when Nicole Kidman as Arbus looks at people and things around her, points to the way that she'll at look her subject matter in the years ahead. Or it points to a way out of where she is.

In a movie about a person discovering her vision, you have to put the camera in the right place, and you have to have an actor who can make her own experience of seeing for the first time, in some sense, be real to you.

There's something special that photography was able to do during that time. For me, it's always important to remember that she was born in 1923. This is when photography began to differentiate itself by capturing that look away, freezing the right moment, sometimes absolutely at random or by coincidence, which connects you to the real vitality of this medium. For anyone with a camera, it can be a snapshot. For the best photographers, like Brassaļ, Kertesz, Berenice Abbott, and later, Robert Frank, we're talking about a vision.

I just went to a show at the National Gallery in Washington, which has some early Arbus photographs, Robert Frank and other photographers working then, and what you get from it is this tremendous exuberance about what the camera can do. You have guys who are so turned on by going under the boardwalk at Coney Island, going out on the road, that they truly are discovering how to look at the world, as if they were blind before. There's so much energy behind their work, so much innocence. You look at these pictures, and you think, you can never feel this way again, there's such a glut of imagery coming at us.

Was Robert Downey your first choice?

I had to push and pull to get him, but yeah.

What's your family connection to Arbus?

My uncle, Lawrence Shainberg, who's a writer, was one of her closest friends, so at a time when nobody was really interested in the least in her work, when she had a hell of a time just surviving as a photographer, mostly doing a lot of various magazine assignments, he would occasionally buy her work to help her out. She would also give him prints. She knew my dad as well, so there were prints literally lying around the kitchen. I literally grew up looking at her photographs from the age of six, seven, and eight. It was a world of imagery that, in a way, I took for granted, but later on, as a teenager, I was really intrigued by, and started to look into.

Did you ever take still photographs?

Yeah. I was Robert Frank's assistant for a year and a half. I did an enormous amount of stills when I was in college and after college.

How does it affect you making moving pictures?

I have a real knowledge of photographic processes. That's just like second nature to me. I can look at something and tell you about it. I can have a technical conversation with a DP and shape things because of that knowledge. I have a big photography collection and I have the history of photography in my head, so I can talk about style and what makes a style and so forth. That's directly connected to filmmaking. It practically is filmmaking.

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Index
"Don't expect the things that you normally get when you go to see a movie about a famous person."
"You can never feel this way again, there's such a glut of imagery coming at us."

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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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