The September Issue
Director : R.J. Cutler
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2009
For some, the fashion industry is a beacon of art and beauty, one of the few international industries that celebrates creativity and daring. For others, it is a ridiculous, bloated, and ego-driven paean to shallow materialism. In approaching R.J. Cutler’s insider documentary The September Issue, which depicts the process of putting together the September 2007 issue of Vogue magazine, I found myself falling somewhere in the middle: Appreciative of the beauty and artistry of fine clothing, yet moderately amused by the excesses of the fashion industry, particularly its extreme sense of self-importance. Of course, there is no getting around the fact that fashion is a $300-billion-a-year global industry that largely defines, on some level, what virtually everyone in the industrialized world puts on his or her back in the morning, so it isn’t something that can or should be ignored.
Thus, I was hoping that The September Issue would shed some real light on the subject in taking us inside both the process of putting together the annual fashion bible and the otherwise closed-off world of Vogue’s notoriously icy editor Anna Wintour. And, while the film is sporadically successful in this regard, it mostly feels stranded at the surface, possibly because its insider-ism gets the best of the filmmakers by keeping them so trapped inside the Vogue universe that we never hear any outside voices. The plentiful footage shot inside the magazine’s Manhattan office, lined with racks of clothes and swarming with various editors and assistants and fashionistas vying for Wintour’s time and approval, presents an intriguing portrait of the everyday banality of any business, even when said business is putting together not just the most influential of fashion magazines, but the largest issue of said magazine in its history (a whopping 840 pages).
Yet, it is hard not to feel that The September Issue disappoints in its treatment of Wintour. Although the film begins with an interview with the grand dame of the fashion world, she does not speak for long, and what she has to say is so clipped and limited that you get the sense that she can’t wait to get out of there (although the film exists only by her permission). When she tells us that “people are frightened by fashion” and that’s why they put it down, it feels like such a prefabricated defense that it has no zing. Seeing Wintour at work gives you some idea of why so many people are terrified of her, but her awareness of the camera and subsequent pulling of her punches is obvious. She’s brief and terse and has no problem eliminating someone else’s hard work with a few sharp comments, but she’s no dragon queen. Footage of Wintour at home with her college-age daughter (who wants to be a lawyer, rather than follow in mom’s footsteps) feels similarly thin and staged.
When the film does work, it is when it focuses on the passive-aggressive working relationship of Wintour and creative director Grace Coddington, a former model whose runway career ended in the mid-1960s with a car accident. With her striking shock of fiery red hair, Coddington emerges as the only person in the film who seems like, well, an actual person (when she speaks to the camera, her words sound natural and off the cuff, rather than rehearsed). She seems to have a sense of self that virtually everyone else who shows up on camera lacks, whether it be publisher Tom Florio, whose only contribution is defending Wintour’s stand-offishness, or editor-at-large André Leon Talley, who was already an oversized caricature of fashion-obsessed ridiculousness before he steps on a tennis court shrouded beneath a massive Louis Vuitton towel. Coddington started at Vogue the same day as Wintour did in 1988, and during their two decades of work together have developed a somewhat uneasy, but still functional relationship that is defined primarily by Wintour’s dictatorial control and Coddington’s clever means of passively-aggressively getting her way (they are also wonderfully visual mismatches, with Wintour’s slinky, fur-lined couture contrasting with Coddington’s loose garb and sensible sandals). Wintour probably hoped that the film’s depiction of her right-hand woman’s ability to cut beneath her flinty armor would somehow humanize her, but instead it has the effect of virtually stealing the show. Wintour remains as distant as ever, and Coddington becomes the unlikely star.
Copyright ©2009 James Kendrick
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