Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Yin and yang on the runway

The publicity for The September Issue (2009) all focused on Vogue's famous editor, Anna Wintour (on the right). But the film tells quite a different story. It is about the tense and productive partnership between Wintour and her chief stylist and creative force on the magazine, Grace Coddington (on the left here). Together, they are the Lennon and McCartney of fashion publishing, each self-sufficient, yet each needing the other to complete themselves creatively, making the other better, sharper, more inventive and continuing to lead their respective fields.

Naturally, the marketing promises a film about fashion, but it is really a film about collaboration, the nature of it, its difficulties and rewards. On a first viewing, the film is frustrating because it purports to reveal the process by which the keystone September issue of Vogue is put together. But the actual process is impossible to observe at first viewing. The film is a cineastes delight because there is so much to entertain the eye--color, design, form--and because these visual people communicate almost non-verbally. Shrugs, eyebrow tilts, mumbles--these are the way messages are delivered. If you are looking for someone to explain, "This person begins an article by doing this, and then these people get together and do that..." you will be disappointed. How this immense thing comes together is nearly as mysterious when the film is over as when it started.

Along the way is a huge amount of detail, more than can be assessed in a single viewing. Take any scene in this film and count the number of shots, especially the cutaways. The fact is, that cutaways are used to abridge scenes that ramble on in real life and need to be given economy and shape in the finished film. But these cutaways are so often to telling and unexpected details. Yes, of course, darting eyes, tapping fingers, lists being crossed off. But sometimes they cut to shoes, pictures on the wall, scenes outside the window--every bit of visual stimulus that could have an effect on the final product.

September Issue is a remarkably pure example of Direct Cinema. If you do not know what a collection is, what a stylist does, what couture is and how fashion journalism shapes it, this film will not make that clear to you. There is no narrator, and the only titles indicate the amount of time until the September issue closes. So you don't get explanation. What you do get is total immersion in this world, to the point where the filmmakers become part of the story, in an amusing final incident reminiscent of Albert Brooks's film Real Life.

Every detail of how Vogue makes it to your newsstand or mailbox may not be made crystal clear (for example, I have no idea what Andre Leon Talley, the third most important character in the film, actually does. He seems to just run around being amusing.) What is clear is the dynamic tension between the two principal figures, and that--plus the ticking clock until the closing date--makes a good movie story.

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