Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The September Issue: A Documentary or An Alternate Universe?

I have had a cinematic experience that I just have to talk to someone about, and that someone, dear reader, is going to be you. The September Issue, a documentary by R.J. Cutler, follows Anna Wintour and her staff as they prepare the yearly spectacle that is the September issue of Vogue.

Like every other woman over the age of 15, I have seen The Devil Wears Prada, which is based on the book of the same title, which is based on the author's experience with Vogue/Anna Wintour. If you, however, do not fall into that category, The Devil Wears Prada follows the trials and tribulations of a bright young girl who becomes the assistant to the tyrannical editor of "Runway" magazine. The eponymous devil is played to perfection by Meryl Streep and while the movie is a delightful confection, I never took seriously the idea that the book could in any way be true to life.

Dear reader, I stand corrected. TDWP, it turns out, is to real life Vogue as the reenactments on "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant" are to real life rednecks - prettier people, better dialogue, but the basic thrust of the story rings true.

Now, let's be clear - Anna Wintour does not come across as the petulant monster that is portrayed in the movie. She seems to be a very reserved and demanding person, which comes across as quite cold, but not evil.

The self-seriousness of Vogue, however, was no exaggeration at all. This has a variety of effects on me, but first, let's address some of the amazing quotes that crop up in the film:

"I don't find her to be hidden - I just don't find her to be accessible to those who she doesn't need to be accessible to. She's just busy and she's not warm and friendly."

"It's a famine of beauty, honey - my eyes are starving for beauty!"

"The jacket is the new coat."

"The look is sexy, the look is granny - you need to know."

"People are frightened of fashion and because it scares them or makes them feel insecure, they put it down... They feel excluded or not a part of the cool group so they mock it."

So, yes, there are certainly moments when the good folks of Vogue seem to be a little myopic in their view of what is important in the world. It's also important to note the timeframe of the movie - though it was released in 2009, it was filmed in 2007, which was before the crash of 2008. Thus, some of the more tone deaf elements surely trace to the fact that we were living in a more opulent time.

But what has struck me about the film is how it forces the viewer to consider the current landscape of high art that is accessible to the common person walking around. Where are our great works of public art that are actually beautiful, at least for those of us in North America? I know we have a plethora of odd modern pieces that are plastic-y abstractions of a flower, or something, that pass as public sculpture. But I, at least, don't find these very moving. For most of us, the most beautiful pieces of art that we can consume in our day to day life are the fashion billboards we see on our commutes or the window of department stores as we do our Christmas shopping.

I kind of love that this movie highlights and celebrates this realm of applied art. The ethics of the industry are complex, so for the sake of this discussion, I'm not going to touch the rich trophy wives who sustain the high end of fashion or the disenfranchised third world children who are all too often the grunt work behind what we in the West wear. These problems are what I typically ponder when I think about fashion. But what I forget is that the work itself, as photographed or arranged by the industry, is beautiful. Truly beautiful. And that creating beautiful things for people to enjoy in their every day life, at whichever end of the income spectrum they fall, is kind of an amazing and great thing.

In this kind of art, it quickly becomes clear that Grace Coddington (the real-life equivalent of Stanley Tucci in TDWP) is one of the most important artists we have today. Watching her work and seeing the way she creates a story around the opulent clothes was staggering. Her blunt wit certainly doesn't hurt, but what is fascinating is how romantic her point of view is. She creates entire worlds that you want to immerse yourself in. At one point, she says, "You have to have that fashion story - polka dots or stripes or full skirts or straight skirts or whatever. But I try to make that secondary. I try to make it about the girl and what she's doing, what she's thinking, who she is." This philosophy shines through every frame that she directs. In that way, her work reminds me of medieval portrait painters. The richness of the world and the invitation to consider the inner life of the subject pulls you into both of them.

I really enjoyed the thought that this film provoked in me about what is art, what art means to us in our daily life, how art can form a common experience, and at what cost we can seek to bring beauty to the world.

Plus, watching Grace provoke Anna is pretty hilarious.

What is the acceptable balance between the frivolous and the sublime in fashion?

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