DOASKDOTELL MOVIE REVIEW of Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus, Absolute Wilson


Title:  Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Release Date:  2006

Nationality and Language: USA, English

Running time: 120 min

MPAA Rating: R (quite explicit in a few places)

Distributor and Production Company: Picturehouse/Riverroad/Pressman

Director; Writer: Steven Shainberg; book by Patricia Bosworth

Producer: Andrew Fierberg

Cast:  Nicole Kidman, Robert Downey, Jr., Ty Burrell

Technical: Full 1.85 to 1

Relevance to DOASKDOTELL site:  fetishes


On the surface, this sounds like another biographical movie about an artist, but even the disclaimer at the beginning of the movie warns us otherwise.


I had a boyfriend in New York City (where this film is shot, set in 1958) in the late 70s who would say, “You know how I am about hair.” Well, this film must have something like that in mind. Shainberg builds up to the fetish thing with fashion shows about fur coats (ignoring the animal rights crowd today), and then photographer Diane Arbus finds her apartment plumbing getting stopped up with fur from the walkup apartment above. She thinks her neighbor has many show dogs.


Not quite. A man, Lionel Sweeney (Robert Downey, Jr.) with a mask lives there, and the movie builds up some suspense to his revelation. The man exhibits lycanthropy or hypertrichosis. He looks like a werewolf. He is quite tender, and he introduces her to a world of circus “freaks” for her to photograph.


I digress here with a bit of biology. Humans have lost most of their body hair, compared to other primates, and what they do have occurs in somewhat different patterns. We don’t know exactly why. Among some Caucasian populations, in the male a moderate amount of limb and chest hair came to be perceived as sexually attractive by some women and conferred reproductive advantage. Probably the distributions in some other mammals (like the mane on a lion) is related to attracting mates, too. You could even say that about the bright colors in the plumage of some male birds. Among gay men, the subject is variable and controversial; you are never sure who at a circuit party has really shaved his chest. An issue of The Advocate in 1984 raised the question of whether “hairy men” are more masculine and even had a short story “The Body Shave.”  I can recall a Sunday School lesson around 1956 or so where we read the Genesis story of Jacob and Esau, and the (female) teacher went out of the way to say that Jacob was every bit as much "man" as Esau. 


In this movie, Diane builds up some fetishism as she learns that Lionel is dying of his genetic disease; eventually his lungs will fill up with cystic tissue and he will drown alive. The poor breathing is odd with this, as in many men, poor circulation and breathing (as from cigarette smoking) is associated with hair loss, as from the legs. In fact, there is a lot of cigarette smoking in this film. Finally, he says to her, “I need you to help me out” and gives here a shaving brush, cream, and lather.  He then wants to swim out to his death off the Hamptons. Arduously, she completes all that body shaving. There must have been an enormous makeup job on Downey to paste on the animal hide. But the actor’s own original 40-year-old body obviously gets shaved (but not torn apart like Steve Carel in “The 40 Year Old Virgin”), with bloody nicks, before they have sex. Now, something that might be a sadomasochistic ritual or hazing rite of passage in some communities here comes across as sterile, unerotic, and artificial, because you know the whole thing is a mechination. (She does shave him for a long time, rather like he was Robin Williams getting repeated prepped for “Mrs. Doubtfire” or even “Hook”). There is no real sense of violation, as there is an a notorious scene in “The Andromeda Strain” when a researcher’s body is blasted hairless by a photoflash in order to sterilize him to work.


The movie is framed as a flashback when she visits a nudist camp to photo it, and you guessed it, has to go nude herself.    


The music score by Carter Burwell sounds a little like Phillip Glass, with a lot of triple time repeating phrases, giving a haunting effect.


Absolute Wilson (2006, New Yorker/HBO, dir. Katharina Otto, USA, 105 min, NR but would be R because of brief total nudity,p-5,r-1,a-5) is a documentary and biography of playwright-choreographer Robert Wilson (1941-    ).  Wilson appears frequently, getting to talk about himself, and his life certainly presents interesting parallels for me to consider, on some basic points. He grew up up in Waco, TX in a segregated southern Baptist environment, where people reported others whom they saw sinning in "prayer buckets." He had early learning and speaking difficulties, but he overcame the stuttering when a teacher encouraged him to speak more slowly. He was not a good student, but seemed to find himself when he moved away to New York and went to Pratt. Nevertheless, when he came back to Texas, he fell into depression, attempted suicide and wound up in a mental hospital for a while. At this point, he had to deal more openly with his homosexuality, which is mentioned a few times; yet his personal adult relationships are not presented in the film. He went back to New York and got his career as a playwright going. His style emphasized visual choreography and expressionistic lines and shapes, with relatively few words. Gradually, he gained recognition and formed the Byrd school. He adopted an African-American disabled youth, who acted in his plays but was able to go on to college and live on his own. He also encouraged an autistic teenager to act in his plays. The film presents his role as a parent or father figure in a positive way (without mentioning the political controversy in some states over gay adoption; New York is obviously much more progressive on this matter than many other places).  What is interesting is that his fathering role grew out of his chosen work and career; he did not, as many gay men of his time, marry and father children and try to have a conventional "competitive" career in ordinary business or politics. So, in a sense, he was able to "pay his dues" in helping raise the next generation because he did follow his artistic calling first. That sets an important example.


His opuses include The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, Death and Destruction in Detroit, and Einstein on the Beach. His enormous project Civil War, for the Los Angeles 1984 olympics, got cancelled. The film mentions that fame does not always bring wealth, which may or may not follow. But he got the good graces of his previously homophobic father when he bragged that he lost $150000 in producing the Einstein play "independently" at the Metropolitan Opera (Philip Glass composed a lot of his music).


The film is shot in 4:3, without even the normal aspect ratio, but there are a lot of black-and-white originals from the 1950s.


The title of the film is humorous. Does anyone remember that "Wilson" was the name of the tennis ball in "Castaway"?     


Related reviews:  Freaks   Pollock


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