I am a compulsive movie re-watcher. It usually happens accidentally, or at least unexpectedly. I watch a movie, wander off, usually unimpressed, and months later suddenly think of it, and find myself thinking of it more and more. “Huh, (insert random film title here), interesting.” I ignore this. Then some time later, it happens again, but instead of a Huh it’s more like a ? and I really just can’t say no to a ?. Historically, this has resulted in midnight trips to the nearest video rental place. Here, at the Nowhere Nickelodeon, it is more difficult. Always, always, the film is unavailable via Netflix streaming. Or, even in the rare event it is, the internet has decided to do its best 90’s dial-up impersonation, rendering Netflix’s streaming capabilities impotent and embarrassed. Error messages abound, each more ashamed than the last. Finally, I relent. I visit my Netflix mail-order queue. For those who are curious, my Netflix queue is 363 films long, as of this very moment. Sometimes I view this queue with despair; how will I ever watch all of these films? When, if ever, will the mood strike me to bump the Orphic Trilogy or Julien Donkey-Boy to the number one spot? According to my Netflix account, I have seen at least 2,160 films. I look at that number and think, bah, not so many, but then I really start to attempt to calculate, according to standard movie length, the amount of time I have spent as a cinematic voyeur and I balk, and not only because I loathe math and lost my calculator.
So, understand me when I say that I have 363 films on my queue, 2,160 in the bank, and I sometimes watch the same film twice. Nay, more, if it is a true re-watch. It has to be a wake-me-in-the-night, can’t-rest-until-I’ve-seen-it-again type of urge. A few days ago I had that urge. As ever, its object was an unexpected one—a film that seemingly had no staying power upon its initial viewing. In fact, I may have disliked it the first time around. Even been bored by it (though given this particular film, that’s hard to believe.) And suddenly, last week, my brain said to me, unbidden and ever-stubborn: Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. Odd choice, brain. I rented the film via random video rental store for the first time shortly after its initial DVD release. I had seen the trailer and been intrigued; my father had given me a large book of Diane Arbus’ photography as a birthday present some years earlier, eliciting hours of fascination and horror. The film’s subject was, thus, intriguing, and its premise even more so: an “imaginary portrait?” I was immediately taken with this upending of the traditional biopic. Rather than the usual, a The Blind Side-esque claim of “based on a true story” this film was rejecting that entirely, favoring instead an openly fictional interpretation of a real person’s life. This I liked, particularly given its subject matter. If anyone was destined for a macabre film representation, it was Diane Arbus. And then there was the director. Steven Shainberg, whose resume still fell rather short on imdb. However, one of the few films he had directed was Secretary (2002). I adored Secretary. It was exactly the kind of film you could recommend to prudish romantic-comedy loving Meg Ryan’s, cackling to yourself. I remember offering it to a particularly straight-and-narrow college acquaintance, relishing the experience as one might watching your homophobic in-law watch Brokeback Mountain.
Anyway, Secretary was fabulous. So, when I saw this intriguing trailer, populated by a cast of interesting enough talent (Robert Downey Jr., Nicole Kidman) I was filled with glee. The kind of glee that film majors get over Quentin Tarantino, but better-deserved. On a side note, fuck Quentin Tarantino, and all the male films majors who worship him. Also, fuck Memento. Not because it wasn’t entertaining or vaguely innovative, but because the word was something like a mantra to the same previously mentioned male film majors. Say it three times fast. Memento Memento Memento. Tarantino Tarantino Tarantino. Congratulations. You now have a B.A. in Film and Digital Media.
Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. I expected great things. This expectation was dampened by the somewhat lackluster, confusing reviews it received from film-criticism-publications I usually trusted and admired. If my bizarre, compulsive urges to re-watch certain, peculiar and seemingly unrelated films have come to teach me anything, it’s that I should really stop reading or trusting film critics at all. Inevitably, it turns out that the film I once looked forward to, then was disappointed by, and then woke in the night desperately needing to see again was one maligned by critics, and usually for no apparent reason. Often they are the films that garnered a rare bipolarity in film criticism: half loved it, half loathed it. Examples? Dancer in the Dark. The New World. Both films that I had a rather so-so reaction to until later, when frickin’ Björk haunted my frickin’ dreams.
Fur is a completely off-kilter piece of film. Its production values make it almost seem mainstream, but its subject matter feels more John Waters than Jerry Bruckenheimer. It takes a loose biography of Diane Arbus’ life and fills in all the blanks. How did a beautiful, upper-middle class white woman come to be the photographic autobiographer of the American freak? That the films immediately embraces its own make-believe is genius; its storytellers assert that the most honest way to tell the story is to fictionalize it. What results is an oft-gothic, pleasantly disconcerting film. It takes the apparent mental epiphany/breakdown Diane Arbus must have had before endeavoring to capture what would become her disturbing body of work and externalizes it, personifying revelation as a fur-covered circus freak living just through the ceiling of Diane’s austere 1950s home. It is all very Blue Velvet and very Secretary and very, very Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete all at once, which is no mean feat. Think Beauty and the Beast meets sex, lies, and videotape (another now-beloved re-watch-film). Bipolar critical reception is all you can really expect of a film that marries Disney to Soderbergh. Downey is divine all covered with fur, and Nicole Kidman’s oddly manic-mannequin-like face really lends itself to her character. And the weird part is that it all really makes some kind of crizational sense, given Arbus’ work and life. It’s as if someone read her actual biography and was like, Ahem, I think not. I hope to live a life so absurd that someday someone is forced to fictionalize my entire biopic in order for the events within to make any sort of psychological sense. So, take that film critics. Take that, Walk the Line/Selena/The Aviator/Ray/etc. We don’t need your lip-synched musical numbers to appreciate the lives of our nation's mad geniuses! Nay, kind film-makers! Give us Robert Downey Jr. in a bear suit. Yes, please.