Sunday, January 14, 2007

Fur and Further Afield

A few years back I had the misfortune to be stood up in New York by an awful Californian woman; I didn't know at the time quite how beastly she was though I should really have heeded the warning signs given off by the fact that she shared a birthday with Adolf Hitler. Thankfully there were a couple of friends of mine in the city at the time and they arranged alternative accommodation for me for the duration of my stay. The lodgings in question were with two women, one Canadian and one Japanese, who were subletting an apartment from a renowned Japanese artist in the Westbeth building in the West Village, just a stone's throw from the White Horse Tavern, where Dylan Thomas had his last twenty double whiskeys before keeling over dead. The Westbeth building houses an artists' colony, and among its past tenants have been Gil Evans, Merce Cunningham (his dance studio is still located on the ground floor) and, most famously Diane Arbus. This sparked an interest for me in Arbus' photography, and, as well as being one of the most significant American photographers of the past fifty years, she was also a fine writer on the subject. And so I was slightly intrigued by the prospect of Steven Shainberg's unconventional biopic of her entitled Fur: An Imaginary Biography of Diane Arbus. Despite the fact that biopics of artists are usually laughably clichéd and badly-made affairs, and also despite the fact that the lives of few photographers are in any way interesting. The photographer, is by his or her métier, part technician, part bureaucrat, and their work is given to drama and action about as much as that of an architect or an engineer is.

As the subtitle indicates, the film is not your run-of-the-mill biography and Shainberg, whose first film was the modest but diverting Secretary, makes little concession to biographical accuracy, most of the characters, including Arbus' own family, being completely fictionalised. The main invention is a character Lionel Sweeney, who moves in upstairs from the Arbus family and who is afflicted with a chronic hirsuteness, and with whom the as-yet-fledgling photographer Diane becomes first fascinated and then falls in love. He in turn introduces her to a whole cast of 'freaks', whom she was later to use as the subject of much of her work. There is a clear debt to Cocteau's La Belle et la bête here but Fur is strangely a lot duller than the magical love affair between Jean Marais and Josette Day. Indeed the opening title caption gives the game away immediately, telling us that the 'imaginary' retelling of her story serves to illuminate a few steps on Arbus' 'extraordinary journey'. So it is a clichéd, conservative biopic after all. There seems to be little way of assessing Arbus' work without viewing it in terms of a hackneyed epiphanic teleology; she feels such and such an empathy for freaks because of a subconscious experience that she has only partially felt. Artists, it seems in the movies, have those sort of things quite a lot, just as certain characters played by Christopher Walken and John Travolta do.

It is hard to tell if Fur is bad only in parts, completely bad or a decent enough film, which it might be if one can discount completely the significance of Arbus' presence, which one can well do, her character and her art being nothing more than peripheral in the film. Certainly there are some sequences that are both touching and entrancing, and Robert Downey Junior, whose jaded insouciance has saved many a worse film than Fur, is great as the slowly-expiring beast Sweeney. Nicole Kidman plays Arbus much as she has played every other type of emancipation-seeking housewife in recent years, in films such as The Hours, The Stepford Wives and Birth, sympathetically enough but without any real recourse to genuine emotional depth. Still, it is not her fault that so many directors that should know better choose to typecast her in such restrictive roles. And restrictive, and reductive, is the view the film takes of Arbus' art, which was more than a simple freakshow. The film is bookended by Arbus' visit to the nudist colony that was to provide her first show of prominence; the implication is that it was only by an imaginative orientation towards freaks that she could finally start on the project. A notion that is as depressingly familiar as it is simplistic.

There is no doubt however that The Fountain, the new film by Darren Aronofsky, who made the pretentious and overrated Pi and the very good Requiem for a Dream, is a very bad film, so bad in fact that I could not take my eyes off it. Hugh Jackman plays a loving viviesectionist who endeavours to find a cure for brain tumours in time to save her wife, played by Rachael Weisz, who is about to cop it any minute from one. You really can't make this stuff up, but someone evidently did. His wife manages to overcome the script's wilful casting of her as a wistful bimbo to pen a study of sorts on the Tree of Life (the same referred to in the Book of Genesis) which was guarded in a old Mayan kingdom and sought after by a Spanish queen eager for eternal life and thereby save Spain from the Grand Inquisitor. If you find that scenario of medieval Spain a bit fanciful, well let's just imagine it as Star Wars with auto da Ď. When Jackman and Weisz both pop up as a conquistador and the queen respectively the effect is rather like Blackadder, and that is in no way a compliment. The eternal life theme is further mined when Jackman decides to devote his experiments to eradicating death altogether; it is 'a disease like any other'. Weisz for her part wears Wynona Ryder-style cropped hair as if to emphasise her impending mortality. The whole film resists simple synopsis however, it is so bad. Aronofsky, a director not naturally given to subtlety, clunks along with a script of his making and the celestial, sepia-toned photography recalls Guinness ads from the mid-nineties. Clint Mansell, ex of Pop Will Eat Itself, is once again providing the music, all overblown, plangent strings. I liked him better when he was singing about being touched by the hand of Cicciolina.