The latest film in the sneak preview class at UCLA is FUR, written by
Erin Cressida Wilson and directed by Steven Shainberg. The first thing
that struck me is how the last two movies I have watched have so much
in common. Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette is very much a concoction
of her own imagination, owing very little to the real queen’s life.
Similarly, FUR, is an imaginative take on the creative awakening of
famed photographer Diane Arbus and an experiment in writing into
persona. These two films show how the relationship between
writer/filmmaker and subject appears to be changing. The Diane of
FUR is an upper middle-class woman, a wife, a mother of two
children and an artist with a penchant for the odd, but is not
necessarily Diane Arbus. In both films, the known historical figure
appears to be atrope of the real woman, someone in period costume
or with a similar station in life, but not the actual woman. There
is a total departure from flesh and blood reality, which makes these
films an uncanny representation of a real life.
The first example I can remember that used a famous person as a
canvas was Jane Mendelson’s “I was Amelia Earhart.” The novel is
told in first person, and is an account of Earhart’s life after her fated
crash on July 2, 1937. If she had survived to tell her story, which
points to the amount of conjecture and artistic liberty taken with the
material. Coppola and Cressida Wilson seem to be telling a story
focused more on emotional truth than on historical fact, as if to say,
there is no truth, or history, but only adaptation. This is a
different type of storytelling that could be called “iterative
entertainment” where the same story can be told from many angles.
Then, somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle of understanding perhaps
these women, Marie and Diane, emerge as understandable.
These heroines areresuscitated for what they mean to modern writers,
who pull at the fabric of their lives, and in the end, make new fashions
from old materials.
Without spoiling any of the plot, FUR uses a character, a man who
lives upstairs as a symbol for Diane Arbus’ awakening to her creative
self and acceptance of her ability to see the world through her own
idiosyncratic perspective. The character of Lionel is completely
fabricated as a foil for Arbus’ growth. Likewise, in Marie Antoinette,
the story is set to new wave music and has a lot of anachronistic
elements as foil for presenting Marie as a teenager. Both films
truncate the lives of their subjects so as to keep the story a
romantic swoon. FUR only makes illusions to Arbus’ suicide,
just as Marie Antoinette’s death by guillotine is never mentioned.
For women making films today, the focus is the exploration of the
internal landscape, a Roshomon-like take on multiple perspectives
within the heart and soul. Who needs history when you have stylists
such as Coppola and Cressida Wilson animating creatures of such
renown? But without referencing historical and academic texts,
what are these films? Would it be just as possible to never name the
protagonist and simply place “inspired by the spirit of” on the
screen? And if you strip away historical reality, what is the film
really about? Is every famous person’s life an open code narrative
that can be warped and changed as we fancy?
I hope writers and filmmakers continue to dream into these women
because they are intriguing subjects, beyond themselves. The way
that their lives coincide with the cultural zeitgeist of their times makes
them too complex for any one film, for any one biography. They are
women worthy of the imagination.