The documentary about the inner workings of the American version of Vogue, and about its famed editor in chief, Anna Wintour, is playing at the Cedar Lee as of today. I took a look at a review disc of "The September Issue" last night (that's one of the reasons I am way behind on my Thursday viewing, but let's move on) ...
... and was far more impressed than I at first expected to be. As regular readers know, I have some class issues when it comes to fashion, especially the suggestion by elitists like Rachel Zoe that couture is something that ordinary Americans cannot appreciate. At the same time, I have an admiration for fine clothes which makes it relatively easy to recognize how I would spend some of the money if I were ever so lucky as to hit the lottery big. (So far, I have just spent the dollar(s) and not fulfilled the dream.)
But R.J. Cutler, an admirable maker of documentaries, has made an effective piece in "The September Issue" by focusing primarily on how Vogue's September issue gets to press, a process which involves creativity, business acumen, divas in sundry trades and, ultimately, Wintour herself. She is quite an impressive, and frightening, personage, especially when her stony face is so thoroughly masked by hair and dark glasses that she might as well be wearing Batman's cowl. No matter what anyone else at Vogue thinks, no decision is final until Wintour has said so. Yet Wintour is also shown to have at least one vulnerable moment, when she details the very serious pursuits of other members of her family and notes that they are "amused" by Wintour's choice of career. By that time, we know that billions of dollars ride on Wintour's decision -- money not only to be made by Vogue but by the fashion designers whom she may or may not favor and by the stores who sell the clothes Vogue displays. (In one oddly funny scene, a major store exec pleads with Wintour to improve designers' pace of delivery of fashion; he pushes ever more awkwardly even after Wintour and her crew have made clear this is not something they want to deal with.) Still, she sadly emphasizes the way her family is amused.
That said, a film about Wintour alone probably would not have worked. She is glacial in her guardedness, and her occasional sidelong glances at the cameras underscore that she is always aware of their presence. Indeed, Grace Coddington, creative director of American Vogue, rather gleefully notes that she has brought up one issue with Wintour on camera just because she knows that will affect Wintour's answer. So we see other people in either telling glimpses -- Andre Leon Talley's tennis lesson is a gem -- or, in the case of Coddington, extended examination. A former model and Vogue veteran, Coddington gives "The September Issue" another strong story to tell, one that complements Wintour's and which reminds the viewer that, as much as Vogue is Wintour's, there are complex collaborations going into its publication. (Just watch the elaborate dance between the magazine and a self-important photographer.) Coddington is visionary, outspoken and much admired by Wintour, and a couple of the more joyful moments in the film involve Coddington; looking constantly for inspiration for presentations in the magazine, she even sees a possibility in the documentary crew. But Coddington must bend to Wintour's steely will; while she knows how wise Wintour has been, that does nothing to ease the pain when a painstaking piece of work does not make it into the magazine because Wintour says no.
In sum, this is a strong film, and one where you can see how the importance of looks in Vogue has to be reflected in the documentary itself. There is the docu-quality of following people down crowded hallways with hand-held cameras, but there are also shots of elaborate beauty, like a page out of Vogue. Even in some of the hand-held shots, color will suddenly pop, not least from the sharply dressed Wintour herself.