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"I work from awkwardness." Diane Arbus

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 – 1923-1971

I still hold some of the same ardent crushes I had in the 80s, including black shirts and rum & Diet Coke. I’ve left behind many unspeakable others (ear clips and fingerless leather gloves, for example), so when I revisit an old love, I never know what I'll see. I was happy to find that Diane Arbus is on the list of old flames that still are stoked. More than that, I’m so glad a recent DVD viewing reminded me to look at her work again, because I'm seeing things now that I couldn’t have comprehended decades ago.

Diane Arbus’s best known photographs document physically and mentally different people while provoking the viewer to desire and feel shame at the same time. The documentary-style focus on freaks and discordant images first reminds us of the programming NOT TO STARE (which ironically isolates those who are different) and then invites us to study (which therefore dissolves alienation and replaces it with normalcy and connection.) On some levels, the fulfillment of the desire to enter another's world through an exploration of their body creates feelings of shame; at the same time it can create a desire for our own freakishness to be elevated to art through exposure. Her work presents deconstructionistas with fantastic paradoxes for our playing pleasure. So too does her life as an artist grappling with motherhood, post-mod mores and demons within and without.

So of course I was really jazzed to see Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus (directed by Steven Shainberger, screenplay by Erin Cressida Wilson.) In Secretary the same team created an ironic world dominated, so to speak, by submission to one’s obsession and the exhilaration of finding the thing/person/way that gets your rocks off, which would suggest they would offer an engaging treatment of Arbus. Sad to say, Fur was too pretentious and conceited to pass the laugh test. The invented characters and symbolic rabbit holes in the film weren’t the problem; the meek, lovely, and naïve Diane that Nicole Kidman offered differed vastly from my concept of the controversial artist’s self inquiry and approach to life, and I didn’t know what to make of that.

The part I expected to be symbolic was the title of Fur. But it was in fact a very, very Furry Film. Robert Downey Jr. plays an imaginary hairy Svengali who has a severe hair disorder. His hair is here. His hair is there. His hair is every, every, every where. Long, coiffed hair that shouts “I’m the Beast, you’re the Beauty.” As a treat you will even see him naked, as it were, but not as a raw, erotic beast -- instead as a little lost snooty dog to try to catch and take in for the winter. Unfortunately, his freakishness was so romantically and mysteriously portrayed, so moussed up and curled, that he lacked the vision, connection and destructive qualities of Arbus’s work. The power of Arbus’ freak icon was the opposite of mysteriousness. Their direct gaze into the lens actively destroys any mystery that may have been attributed to them by a superstitious and immature society.

Worse, I was continually distracted by the Downey Dogg’s nose, which featured a feminine upsweep of long auburn hair. Second only to Pirate’s Davy Jones in nightmare noses in film! Maybe, though, we will get a Lionel the Beast toy out of the deal. If they start giving that out in Happy Meals, let me know. I’ll drive around town and collect 6 Nicole Kidman’s just for the chance to get a Lionel Furry Man.

Even though Fur failed, I was mostly able to put my distraction and disappointment aside and marvel at how far both Robert Downey Jr. and I have come since the 80s, which is when he hit the scene and when I became smitten with Arbus, Sexton, Plath, and all of those other tortured crazy mama artists of their cohort. It reminded me who I was when I first tried to scrutinize Arbus’ work, and then see who I am and how I see things now. This type of revisiting is much better than attending the typical college reunion, where I imagine many of my cohorts have less hair, not more, and I might be tempted to wear fingerless leather gloves.

Reader Comments (1)

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April 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterParis Iacobelli

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