Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Review: "The September Issue"

I must confess that a documentary about the clothing industry faces a high hurdle with this critic. I am so clueless and colossally indifferent to the world of high fashion, as epitomized by Vogue magazine, that 90 minutes of screen time filled with references to things like "color blocking" might as well be alien warp drive schematics.

For example, before seeing "The September Issue," I could not have even told you that the September issue of Vogue is a big deal. But apparently this is the signature annual edition of the trend-setting fashion glossy, in which the new fall clothing lines are made or broken.

It's easy to see where director R.J. Cutler found the idea to make this movie, which takes place in the months leading up to the September 2007 issue, the biggest in Vogue's history. The year before, "The Devil Wears Prada" became a cinematic sensation, based on the novel written by the former assistant to Anna Wintour, Vogue's all-powerful editor. Meryl Streep memorably portrayed a version of Wintour as icy and inscrutable, a demanding boss who feels her job is unfinished unless her underlings are left demoralized.

All the parties involved reliably insist that "Devil" had nothing to do with Wintour, and if you believe this I have some nice Florida swampland to sell you. "The September Issue" was clearly launched as an opportunity to refurbish Wintour's image, otherwise she would not have given Cutler such amazing access to her inner sanctum.

If her goal was to distance herself from the Streep character, Wintour fails miserably. She is not as aggressively demeaning to others, but regards them as obstacles to be ridden over or ignored. Her opinions are the only ones that matter; her employees are merely there to assist in broadcasting them.

The demeanor of everyone who encounters Wintour, from the lowliest assistant to big-name fashion designers, is one of total subjugation. Everyone seems to wear the same bland expression, with downcast eyes and glum speech patterns.

Wintour deliberately makes herself hard to read: The mask she presents is of a bob hairdo resembling a helmet, and sunglasses that are nearly omnipresent in public. Thomas Florio, Vogue's publisher, sums up the wall she puts before most people: "She’s just not accessible to people she doesn’t need to be accessible to."

As a result, we end up learning very little about Wintour. Even a visit to her home and meeting her daughter produces little fruit: Her child seems as cut off from her as her employees.

Perhaps recognizing this, over time Cutler's camera shifts more and more to Wintour's number-two woman, Grace Coddington. A sixtysomething former model, Coddington is revealed as the real genius behind Vogue. The magazine's creative director dreams up the magazine's signature themed photo spreads.

One we get to see produced from start to finish is a 1920s shoot that includes some startlingly beautiful images. But Wintour dismissively cuts most of them out of the magazine, because they don't fit her personal aesthetics of the image she wants to project.

As the only person willing to stand up to the imperious Wintour, Coddington becomes the film's real heroine. She wants fashion to be fun and gorgeous, instead of the impersonal and cold business that Wintour epitomizes.

2.5 stars

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