PRINT November 2006


Diane Arbus

ADAPTED FROM the 1984 biography by Patricia Bosworth, the new Arbus biopic has been a long time coming—twenty-two years, to be exact. Bosworth’s article in the August issue of Vanity Fair, detailing the two-decade odyssey that brought her book to the screen—as Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, with Nicole Kidman in the title role—is a classic story of development hell, full of the Molièrian drollery that characterizes the genre. And yet, as I read her tale of dropped options, fired writers, litigation, and really bad ideas (The Singing Photographer, starring Barbra Streisand), I felt more trepidation than glee. For one thing, there was the subtitle. Earlier reports had stated that the film would be called Fur—a reference, presumably, to Russeks, the department store owned by Arbus’s father that specialized in mink, etc.—but the “imaginary portrait” part was new. Leaving aside the fact that the locution suggests that the film itself is imaginary, the phrase seemed odd in its old-fashioned, arty preciosity, like something out of an obscure mid-century “little magazine.”

Then there was Bosworth’s comment that director Steven Shainberg and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, who also worked together on 2002’s Secretary, had conceptualized Fur not as a traditional biopic but as a “leap into fantasy.” As I tried to picture what a fantastical, “imaginary” cinematic portrait of Arbus might look like (Maya Deren meets Midnight Cowboy?), it became clear that there were a lot of ways this film could go wrong. But Shainberg and Wilson surely deserved credit for taking a risky approach, and, having been an Arbus devotee since adolescence, I felt a certain proprietary interest in the whole project. So I put my misgivings aside and hoped for the best.

This charitable mood lasted about a quarter of the way through a screening of Fur, at which point it began to seem that The Singing Photographer might not have been such a bad idea after all. The film takes place over a three-month period in 1958; Diane is living with her family in a Manhattan loft, where she and her husband, Allan, run a photo studio. She has been flirting with the idea of “serious” photography for a while, but has yet to take it up in earnest. So far, the scenario correlates with the facts as put forward in Bosworth’s book, but pretty much nothing else about Fur does. Played by Kidman with a kind of timorous intensity, Diane is repressed, stifled, cowed by her controlling parents, struggling with the constraints of ’50s conformity. Bosworth, however, portrays a woman who, although indeed conflicted about her role as helpmeet, flouted social and sexual conventions more or less blithely throughout her adult life. In Fur we find Diane wearing a tight brocade gown to please her mother; from the relief she expresses when she unbuttons it, we gather that it makes her feel as if she were in a straitjacket. This is hard to square with Bosworth’s description of the young married Arbus carrying a paper bag as a purse, eschewing lipstick and underwear, and wearing the same old shirtwaist dresses over and over despite her parents’ remonstrations (and despite the fact that, as one friend recalls, the dresses were see-through in certain lights).

Fur attributes Diane’s artistic awakening 
to the disinhibiting effect of her relationship
 with a fictional character named Lionel 
(Robert Downey Jr.), an upstairs neighbor.
 Lionel has a fondness for outré fashions
 and for artfully decrepit, cluttered decor; he 
says that he is self-employed (making wigs),
 but seems to spend his days just sort of
 lolling around. New York is full of people
like this—but Lionel is
 distinguished by hyper
trichosis, a disease that 
causes hair to grow 
luxuriantly on every
 inch of his body, including his whole face. Since he’s a love interest, the filmmakers have given him long, wavy, rather attractive tresses, making him resemble the offspring of a Wookie and King Charles II. Such a person, you’d think, would lead a lonely life, but Fur conceives of a convivial network of the stigmatized: In the film’s jolly social imaginings, dwarfs, drag queens, and dominatrices all know one another and hang out together, and Downey’s character is a popular figure on the scene. (“Don’t you just love Lionel?” a dwarf, who looks like she might also be a drag queen, asks Diane at one point.) Guided by her hirsute Virgil, Diane begins to explore the darker recesses of city and psyche. She pulls away from her husband, her children, and her parents and discovers her subject matter and her desire to make art, as the sexual tension between her and Lionel builds to a climax laden with shaving cream and tristesse.

All this plays out in the register of the hyperreal. In their leap into fantasy, the filmmakers, evidently taking their cue from Arbus’s well-known pictures of circus performers and Coney Island freaks, have contrived to land smack in Carnival Gothic territory. Thus in her building’s basement Diane discovers a cache of artifacts from a Forty-second Street dime museum (Hubert’s, one of Arbus’s favorite haunts), presided over by an armless woman with a feather duster between her toes. Dialogue and mise-en-scène are intensely stylized: Lionel and Diane communicate in an erotically charged verbal semaphore; an apartment key is no ordinary key—it’s the kind of filigreed tchotchke that looks like it should be dancing alongside the candle-stick and the teapot in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.

In this respect Fur inverts the stylistic terms of Arbus’s images, whose fantastical qualities seem to derive from everything but their style—or, more precisely, from their assertion that dreamlike strangeness is inherent in the real and is so close to the surface of things that it can be made evident in the blunt idioms of documentary photography. The film’s lush Bizarro World hermeticism extracts Arbus from the everyday, which is the necessary foil to everything extreme and weird in her photographs. And in positing its oddball demimonde as a cozy clique, Fur also seems to negate the complexities—the mixtures of fear, empathy, repulsion, humor, and blank avidity—that one senses in Arbus’s address of her subjects. It is the filmmakers’ prerogative to impose whatever vision they want on their story; the interpretation of any artist’s work is obviously subjective. But to the extent that Fur asks to be understood as an elucidation of Arbus’s aesthetic— an externalization of her inner life—it seems simplistic at best.

This is truly unfortunate, because, simply by virtue of Kidman’s presence, Fur will surely find a prominent place in Arbus lore—a corpus that does not lack for mythologizing or reductive exegeses. One random but telling example surfaces in a bit of jacket copy from Dreams That Money Can Buy, Jon Bradshaw’s 1985 biography of singer Libby Holman, which asserts that the book puts its subject “beside Zelda Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, Diane Arbus, and Sylvia Plath in the pantheon of doomed American women.” In neglecting to establish what sets these particular ladies apart from the hoi polloi of doomed American women, the writer inadvertently demonstrates how a glamorously tragic mystique can undermine a creative oeuvre. Where Arbus is concerned, there is a lot of mystique to contend with—the leather pants and Jane Fonda shag; the Delphic aphorisms (“A photograph is a secret about a secret,” etc.); the sexual adventurousness; the death by her own hand at age forty-eight. Much of this is detailed in Bosworth’s book, which is hardly as sensationalistic as some reviewers charged, but whose juicier tidbits—the ones that helped make the book a best seller—are the ones that have endured in the popular imagination.

Serious criticism would be one way to counter this image of the Dark Lady of Westbeth, but there is less in-depth writing on Arbus’s art than you would expect. This may in part be due to the effects of Susan Sontag’s argument, in On Photography, that Arbus is essentially a manipulative typologist of the varieties of human misery: Making a careful case and backing it up with her clout, Sontag set the course of the conversation for decades to come. Much subsequent criticism seems to start from the premise that Arbus’s oeuvre needs defending on ethical grounds, which inevitably shifts the focus from the work to the life, as the artist’s character and the nature of her relationship with her subjects come under examination. There are also a great many writers who respond to Arbus’s photographs by simply revving up the engines and waxing ekphrastic for a while. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the fact that the discourse skews belletristic may suggest that something—some ambient perception—is foreclosing more rigorous avenues of inquiry.

Take Arbus’s remark that there is always a “gap between intention and effect.” It’s a reference to the haplessness of self-presentation—to the way that a woman’s Cleopatra eyeliner makes her look not like Elizabeth Taylor but like someone who is failing to look like Elizabeth Taylor—and is frequently quoted as such. This is a gap that exists in the world, which the artist observes and records. But the phrase also resonates with other kinds of fissures or ruptures in Arbus’s work, such as the one that opens up between the way she frames her subjects and the way they think they are being framed. (The muscleman posing proudly with his trophy clearly doesn’t understand that he is ceding the pictorial field to his cavernous and dingy dressing room.) This gap is created by the act of photography and is active only in the photograph, when the viewer grasps the discrepancy and is discomfited by it. What such photos exploit is the difference between the way a photo should look and the way it actually looks. They posit a consensus about the conventions of photography—of posing, of shooting, of cropping or the lack thereof—by creating dissensus. Arbus’s jarringly off-hand compositions may reiterate and exaggerate the gaps between her subjects’ intentions and effects, but they also say something about the intentions and effects of photography as a mass medium, a technology, and a social act. All of which is to say that there is more to be said about the photographs’ relationship to their medium, about the correspondences between Arbus’s work and Conceptual photographic practices, and, no doubt, about much more besides.

The traveling exhibition “Revelations” (2003–2006), curated by Sandra S. Phillips and Elisabeth Sussman, was a big step in a positive direction. The show brought together hundreds of Arbus’s images, many never before shown; the catalogue was dominated by an exhaustive time line of the artist’s life, replete with quotes from primary sources. It was as if the curators had decided that when it came to supplementary materials, demystification should be the priority—that the show should lay a groundwork on which future considerations, and reconsiderations, of Arbus could begin. The result was what might be called a reality-based portrait of the artist, which, paradoxically, may actually be the most imaginative portrayal of Arbus’s life and work to date.

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus opens nationally on November 10.

Elizabeth Schambelan is an associate editor of Artforum.