September Issue, The

Docu (Fashion World)

 

Sundance Film Fest 2009–Now that you have seen Meryl Streep impersonating (or channeling) Anna Wintour iin the 2006 hit comedy “The Devil Wears Prada,” it's time to see the “real” woman behind Vogue magazine, as captured by the gifted documentarian R. J. Cutler (“The War Room”) in “The September Issue.”

 

The docu world-premiered at the 2009 Sundance Film Fest and is now getting limited theatrical release in major cities.  Dealing with the fashion world, “The September Issue” serves as a nice companion piece to the recent work on Valentino.

Set in the glossy, pre-recession fashion milieu, “The September Issue” is an authorized portrait of the famous magazine and its chief, which raises several problems, including access to footage, selective material, who is interviewed and who is omitted, editing and presentation as forms of censorship, and so on.  I don't know exactly the terms that were struck between the filmmaker and the subject and her magazine, but it's important to bear that in mind while watching the docu.

 

For example, Vogue's publisher states that Anna Wintour is greatly misunderstood by those who label her cold and ruthless (“ice princess”).  Is he trying to humanize her figure by showing her to be more synmpathetic than her public persona suggests?  Indeed, despite some mild criticism, respect and admiration prevail: One employee depicts Wintour not just the high priestess of fashion, but its very pope.

 

Essentially, the docu aims to present an account of what it takes to put together a fall edition under Wintour’s ever-watchful and critical scrutiny.  It's therefore not surprising that she appears decisive, confident of her taste, but also nervous and anxiety-ridden, on and off camera.  In most of her sequences, Wintour appears to be sensible and rational—just watch how she interacts with various mamebers of her staff and collaborators, among them creative director Grace Coddington, who comes across as warm, friendly, and coherent, willing to discuss most issues at hand.

 

Wintour and Coddington make an interesting team, sort of an odd couple, based on their dynamic relationship, division of labor, and power lines.  A former top model, Coddington is comfy with her adavnced age, often appearing sans make-up. Wintour, by contrast, is slender and very conscious of the way she looks, dresses, moves, and talks.  Some interesting facts emerge about Wintour's past.  She was ambitious and driven even as a yougster, stating that her goal was to edit an important fashion magazine, like “Vogue.”

 

With remarkable attention to necessary details, “The September Issue” shows how the “baby” is born, the labor involved in the process of creating not a design or a dress but an eagerly-expected magazine. The September 2007 issue chronicled here turned out to be to biggest and most crucial—ever.  Just try to lift the issue, which reportedly weighs over two kilos.

 

Along the way, we meet other colorful persona, such as Thakoon, a young fashion designer Wintour believes in and pushes into a GAP contract, and the in-house eccentric André Leon Talley, who has taken up tennis because Wintour thought that he was too fat.  “Whatever Ms. Wintour says goes,” he says tellingly.

 

One of the most telling images of Wintour and Coddington’s strangely charming partnership comes when they attend a fashion gala in Paris for the launch of the fall season, depicting Coddington taking down notes meticulously on each and every outfit. 

Occasionally, you get the ipression that Cutler wanted to restore the creative balance between Wintour, who gets most of the credit, power, and glmour involved in the magazine, at least in the outside world, and Coddington, a loyal and talented exec, who does the hard and steady work.

 

Though entertaining, well-produced (nice images as expected) and revelatory to outsiders like me, “The September Issue” is not particularly deep or thought-provoking, and at the end, you are left with some lingering questions that the film raises but doesn't—or is unable—to answer.


The problem with a docu like “The September Issue,” is that as soon as it is shot, edited and presented, it almost beomes obsolete.  Two years is a long time, particularly in light of the techical, economic, and logistic changes (the new Internet world, for exmaple) of the past several years.

And back to the great Meryl Streep: it turns out that her Oscar-nominated portrait of Wintour was subtler and softer than we thought at the time, compared to the image projected by the real thing in this docu.