Global Visions Film Series: Fur An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus


Madi Whitman

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Global Visions Film Series: Fur An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus

Norman Mailer once said that “giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like putting a live grenade in the hands of a child,” and this description begins to be unraveled in director Steven Shainberg’s Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. Fur, a fictionalized account, tackles the life of the enigmatic Diane (Nicole Kidman) who is immersed in her 1950s existence with her photographer husband (Ty Burrell). She leads an unfulfilling life that doesn’t quite satisfy her sense of curiosity, which is limited by the dreary confines of the period.

When Lionel (Robert Downey Jr.) moves into her building, Diane’s life shifts as she notices a stream of events outside the range of her day to day experiences. As she spends more time with Lionel after an incident with a clogged pipe, Diane is increasingly seduced by him, his lifestyle, and the gateway to unusual individuals opened by their growing relationship. Diane turns her attention to photographing these perceived abnormalities, which include dwarves, transvestites, and other people with lives and characteristics that situate them outside of the boundaries of “normal.”

Diane Arbus’s photographic career has provoked controversy in terms of her subject matter and the artistic quality of her work, themes that are echoed throughout the film. Indeed, both Fur and Arbus’s work confront the notion that the “freakish” can be beautiful, transformed by the medium of photography from grotesque to art, and further, that beauty is inherent in the subjects.

The Chicago Tribune claims that the “film's message [is] that art, like beauty, can be found everywhere we look.” In addition to boasting strong performances from its cast and vivid displays of cinematography, Fur is a film that engages its audience with questions about the nature of art and beauty while providing a provocative glimpse into Arbus’s life and work.

Madi Whitman

Anthropology Department

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