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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 aristocrats.”- Diane Arbus

It was July 26, 1971. Lawrence Shainberg got a frantic call from his friend, Marvin Israel, Diane Arbus’ art director lover. Israel had gone to Arbus’ apartment in NYC only to find her dead body in the bathtub, barbiturates on a table, her wrists slit. He asked Shainberg to come and sit with him while he waited for the police to arrive.

Shainberg, one of three friends whom Israel called to wait with him, recalls seeing the words ‘’Last Supper’’ written on a page of her open diary. What could she have meant? At the original Last Supper, Jesus said that the wine and unleavened bread were his blood and body, containing eternal life – a black-humor analogy for someone slashing her wrists and gulping fatal tablets. Did Arbus leave other clues in her diary? Actually, no one knows. The diary page for July 26th, and for the two pages following, have been neatly cut out.

Perhaps that very day, the stage was being set for the future. Because thirty five years later, respected film director Stephen Shainberg (Secretary, Our Brand is Crisis), Lawrence’s nephew, decided to undertake a filmic investigation into the life of the mysterious photographer.

Fans of Diane Arbus’s photography may initially be disappointed to find out that the film Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus is not an actual biography about her life. However, true fans of the art may appreciate the filmmakers’ take on this subject. Instead of doing a straight biopic, writer Erin Cressida Wilson and director Shainberg took an impressionistic approach and with the help of the prodigious talent of actress Nicole Kidman, created a story true to Arbus’ spirit.

Perhaps her best known work, Arbus’ portraits of people with odd physical conditions, which even she labeled “Freaks,” is the overriding theme of the film. Fur suggests that just as Arbus was breaking away from her studio photographer husband in 1958, she began exploring her own sexuality with the help of some neighbors.

One of these neighbors, Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.), has a condition which causes hair to grow all over his body faster than he can shave it. The film’s Arbus becomes obsessed with his fur and makes him her first in-depth photographic subject. Actually, there never was a Lionel, though the director wanted to make the central relationship of the film someone with a condition that would have intrigued the real Arbus.

“We were flipping through a lot of books of what people would normally call ‘freaks’ but whom we call ‘unusual people,’” said Shainberg in his film’s production notes. “There was a guy from the turn of the century named Lionel who was hairy. That connected in a mysterious, unconscious, tactile way to the fact that Diane Arbus’ real father was a furrier.”

The real Diane (actually pronounced DE-ane) married Allan Arbus as soon as she turned 18. Allan studied photography as part of his military service. After the war, they opened a fashion photography business, but Allan did all the shooting. Diane began selling her own portraits in 1958, which is the year in which Fur takes place.

A lifelong fan of her photography, apart from having a personal connection through his uncle, Shainberg did not want to just put a chronology of her life on film. “From my point of view, the thing we see when we look at an Arbus photograph, and the reason why her photographs are so unusual and moving, is that they’re about a long, complicated relationship that she had with the subject. We get a single frame, one picture of the Jewish giant with his parents standing beside him, the mother looking up at him. But the truth is, Arbus had a 10-year relationship with Eddie Carmel and she took hundreds and hundreds of pictures of him on many, many occasions. She only published that one picture, but that one picture was created and found and taken because of that long relationship she had with him.”

So, there may not have been an actual Lionel, but the kind of relationship the film portrays is true to how Arbus related to her subjects.

Shainberg enlisted the screenwriter of his previous film, Secretary, to interpret his vision of Arbus. Erin Cressida Wilson realized that the photographer’s work lent itself to a sort of Alice in Wonderland treatment. To ensure that point came across, Wilson dropped many Lewis Carroll references into her story.

“One of the most important aspects of Arbus’ work was the melding of fantasy and stark reality,” said Wilson. “This was inherent in her vision of the world.”

Diane Arbus’ unsettling photographs of dwarves and twins, transvestites and giants, both repulsive and inspired, had already become legendary when she committed suicide in 1971, at the age of 48. There was an important retrospective of her work, called “Revelations”, recently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and it’s a menagerie of weirdos we seem to have known all our lives: those two men waltzing at a drag ball, that Mexican dwarf, the grimacing kid with a toy grenade.

Perhaps actress Kidman says it best, when she concludes, “The film is not a biopic. It is a small, small portion of her life and it is called an imaginary portrait because it is more about walking into your creativity, discovering what you are inside and what you want to say to the world.

Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus premiered in NY and L.A. on November 10, 2006, and is now opening across the country. Watch for it at a theatre near you!

www.Dishmag.com / Issue 62 - September 2018
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