Directed by Steven Shainberg, this film was released in 2006 under the title Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus. I missed its theatrical release, so I’m just catching up to it now.
This Star Wars spinoff explores the world of a pathologically shy, sexually repressed young married female photographer (Nicole Kidman) who, with her husband (Ty Burrell), runs a commercial studio in New York City that specializes in fashion illustrations for ads for her parents’ department store. She discovers quite by accident that she lives downstairs from a mysteriously Earth-bound Wookiee (Robert Downey, Jr.).
This Wookiee (possibly Chewbacca, though that’s never specified) goes by the earthling name “Lionel Sweeney.” Preferring to avoid the mobs of George Lucas fans who pursue him for autographs, he wears a mask (reminiscent of Claude Rains in The Invisible Man), but mostly stays out of the public eye, spending much of his time in a swimming pool-sized heated bath he’s had constructed in his penthouse suite in an old New York apartment house, which is inexplicably sound enough structurally to support this extraordinary weight on its uppermost floor.
Fascinated by the Wookiee’s hirsuteness and solitudinous life, the photographer, who calls herself “Diane Arbus” (presumably in homage to the noted photographer of that name), neglects her husband, two young daughters, and professional obligations, overcomes her timidity, and befriends him. He then introduces her to his inner circle, a cluster of ex-habituées of the Chalmun’s Cantina/Mos Eisley Cantina from the planet Tatooine, apparently exiled to Earth like their chum “Sweeney.”
This motley crew accepts the earthling Arbus into their midst and gives her permission to photograph them, which starts her on a new creative path and career trajectory. Sweeney’s empathy gradually heals her agoraphobia, and she in turn heals his — so much so that he invites her to shave him, leaving him fully depilated for the first time in his life. Once hairless he spends a night in bed with her, and then drowns himself. (Not because the Wookiee-human sex was bad, or at least that’s never implied, though she’s clearly not very experienced; apparently he just got tired of being hairy and different from the other extraterrestrial exiles and all those earthlings. Or maybe it was that maddening just-shaved, itchy-all-over feeling.) As the film ends the viewer realizes that the fur coat “Diane Arbus” wears when photographing in a nudist colony in the opening scene was made for her by the Wookiee from his own hair. Moral: It helps to have friends and relatives in the rag trade.
This is certainly one of the most oddball entries in the ever-expanding Star Wars canon — never actually identified as such, though not officially disowned by Lucas, who outsourced it to director Shainberg and distributor New Line Cinema. It’s an eccentric art-film approach to the Star Wars saga, and while I admire its ambition I don’t think it works on any level except for the gorgeous cinematography.
First and foremost, the whole Star Wars conceptual structure — “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away” — that the viewer brings to any story involving a Wookiee gets instantly vitiated by this film’s setting in a realistically depicted 1958 New York milieu. This isn’t a parallel-universe, notably discrepant version of the Apple, but an intentionally credible facsimile in which the Wookiee is an implausible anomaly.
Second, even if the viewer is willing to grant the unlikely “Wookiee in New York” premise, it calls for some serious backstory. How did “Lionel Sweeney” end up on Earth, and what happened to Darth Vader, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker, and the rest of the gang? Unless you explain that Chewie and the Mos Eisley Cantina crowd got sucked into the future via some leak in the time-space continuum they can’t return through and the others can’t enter, the viewer spends a lot of distracted time waiting for R2D2, C3P0, and the Death Star to show up.
Finally, there’s the narrative problem of taking a clearly fictional character extracted from a mythic structure (the Wookiee) and placing that character in a relationship with another fictional character named after and portrayed to resemble closely a recognizable historical figure (Arbus). This generates a conflict between two separate and not especially compatible suspensions of disbelief: “the Wookiee in New York” plus “Arbus meets the Wookiee.” Hard if not impossible to bring that one off.
My rule of thumb: If you intend a biopic (even an “imaginary” one) of a famous photographer, lose the Wookiees. Conversely, if you want to make a Wookiee film, best to set Arbus, Richard Avedon, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, et al aside. (You might get away with David LaChappelle.)
Some too-late advice to Shainberg/Lucas et al: You only muddied the waters by licensing the movie rights to the 1984 unauthorized Patricia Bosworth biography of Arbus and parading that amongst your screen credits. You should have left off that subtitle (“An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus”), not incidentally saving yourselves whatever you spent for those rights plus whatever additional cut Bosworth got for her role as “co-producer.” No one who knows anything about Arbus and 20th-century photography — indeed, not even those who simply read the Bosworth book — will find this phantasmagoria anything but preposterous.
You’d have done much better by your audience had you at least put Arbus at one remove by leaving her name out of it entirely and making your photographer an “Arbus-like” personage. Your viewers would have made the connection without much effort, bringing their ideas (considered or merely received) about Arbus, her life, her work, and her subjects to the filmic experience. But you’d have spared them the tedious and distracting chore of disentangling the extreme exaggeration of your fevered invention from the known facts of a real person’s life while watching Kidman and Downey soldier through a thinking man’s version of King Kong Meets Beauty and the Beast.
Speaking of which . . . If someone decided to make an installment of a space opera in which my own late mother somehow figured, of course I’d rather see her portrayed as having a loving one-nighter with Chewie than, say, embroiled with Jabba the Hutt as his newest sex slave. Still, the whole idea of taking the biography of a person whose immediate relatives are still alive and building an elaborate, strained fantasy around her offends me. I consider the use of Arbus’s name, and recognizable elements of her personal and professional history, to be profoundly distasteful in this context; it’s unnecessary and gratuitous, downright tacky. Whether or not it’s actionable I can’t say, but were I a member of the Arbus family I’d feel outraged.
— A. D. Coleman