More than other genres, documentary films tend to be political and, sometimes, combative. Their intent is to document something, and it's hard, if not impossible, to separate the importance of what they document from the skill with which they document it. One suspects that Restrepo, an important film that's not particularly well made, is the odds on favorite this year, especially because the first living GI to win the Medal of Honor since the Vietnam War fought in the combat operation Restrepo documents. (I jotted down some thoughts about Restrepo earlier this year.) But it's entirely possible that the Academy will decide that the global financial crisis or what natural gas producers are doing to the environment outweighs the war in Afghanistan, or even that the artistry of Waste Land or Exit Through The Gift Shop deserves the Best Documentary award. The Academy often surprises me. Last year, when I commented on Hollywood's Real Glass Ceiling, I was convinced the Academy would hand Kathryn Bigelow the Best Director Oscar, but wouldn't -- couldn't afford to, really -- give the Best Picture award to The Hurt Locker in the face of Avatar's overwhelming box office and the massive build-out in 3D venues that was going on all over the world. The Academy proved me wrong. They showed me they did "have the heart to take on the real world." (Unless, of course, it was those pesky Palestinians who did Avatar in by painting themselves blue in Bil'in -- a case of bad timing for James Cameron.)
Documentary films about current events and living people are very much about timing. In the Sixties, Fred W. Friendly and Edward R. Murrow's Harvest of Shame ran an hour and was considered gutsy journalism. Fifty years later, a CBS follow-up on migrant farm workers merited only 5 minutes of air time.
The September Issue (2009), directed by R.J. Cutler and filmed by Robert Richman, is a documentary film that illustrates the importance of -- and the surreal nature of -- timing. The film is a portrait of Anna Wintour, Vogue's U.S. editor-in-chief, and Grace Coddington, her creative director, shot in the context of the roll-out of Vogue's collossal September 2007 Fall fashion issue.
Vogue Cover, September 2007
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The September Issue is an examination of power and manipulation, and, especially, of power in the hands of a competent and confident woman. Most film portraits of women executives show embattled women, under fire and hanging on by their fingernails. In 2007, Anna Wintour was firmly entrenched and riding the wave of a booming economy and fashion industry. The sub-text of The September Issue is an examination of a successful collaboration, of the way editors and artists work in the real world, and of the way auteurs like Wintour and Coddington make signature art out of the work of creative people. And it is, finally, a comment on relevance, satisfaction, and the underlying insecurity that saps joy from even the most successful celebrities.
Formally, The September Issue is an example of cinema verité in its simplest, least challenging form. It mixes more or less coherent shots of live action with interviews. The problem with that approach is that it turns the film into a contest of sorts. The film maker tries to get at the truth, the subjects of the film try to hide it — or, at least, to slant the truth. Interviews are like testimony, the characters tell you what they want you to know.
Not surprisingly, the live action scenes tell us more about Anna Wintour than she tells us about herself. Her center stage seat at shows and the nervous fawning of the designers she visits deliver a convincing picture of her position atop the world of design in 2007.
The September Issue was filmed in 2007, just before the beginning of the global financial meltdown and the Great Recession. If the world's business cycle were depicted as a giant rollercoaster, the lift sweeping up to dizzying heights, the first drop plunging down at the steepest angle the human body can tolerate without blacking out, Anna Wintour and Vogue were, in September of 2007, poised on the brink of the fall. The September issue of Vogue, essentially an extravagantly produced catalog of designer clothes and accessories, ran 840 pages. The issue has become a collector's item, selling on ebay for as much as $500 a copy. In 2007, it was a celebration of the fashion industry, a self-congratulatory revel in wealth reminiscent of Versailles with one important difference: the world of fashion and the incomes that sustain it have barely taken a hit from what has been, for the ordinary men and women who used to pick up Vogue on their way out of the supermarket, a devastating recession. To be sure, Vogue's advertising revenues are down from 2007, when one of Vogue's advertisers, Burton Tansky of Neiman Marcus implored Anna Wintour to pressure the designers she had under her thumb to deliver their creations faster. (If you want to see how a powerful man on the verge of a rant can be reined in by a beautiful woman, watch Wintour's pat on the hand settle Tansky down.) But the drop in ad revenue may be more a reflection of a general feeling of discontent in an industry whose players were personally bilked by money managers than a reflection of specific worries about the global demand for designer clothes or the bang for the buck of advertising dollars. After all, weren't most of those ads in the September issue a display of plumage, a demonstration of the wealth and importance of the advertiser?
Last night, ploughing through a copy of Vogue's September issue I brought home from my public library, I was struck by the fact that I had to wade through 313 pages of ads before I encountered the first snippet of text pretending not to be advertising.
Then, in a typical pop culture collision, I found a Rebecca Johnson profile of Michelle Obama, complete with gorgeous photographs by Annie Leibovitz, sandwiched between Grace Coddington fashion spread and a charming essay about life at the top of the New York scene in a Greenwich Village townhouse whose decor, according to the article, was inspired by the Barbara Streisand remake of A Star Is Born.
Vogue September 2007, pp 774,775
Photograph: Michelle Obama by Annie Liebovitz
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Was Hillary Clinton just not fashionable enough for her party's elite? Is Michelle Obama as perfect as the Vogue interview and Liebovitz photographs make her seem? Or were the images of Michelle Obama manipulated like the images of the models in the Coddington photoshoots with their interchangeable heads, bodies and air-brushed skin, photoshopped to perfection? Did Vogue prepare the small town Iowa battleground for an Obama victory? Did a media empire help bring down Hillary Clinton because she was no longer chic, no longer the face of the future toward which fashion -- at least in the mind of Anna Wintour -- must incline. I suppose that's a stretch, more the stuff of fiction than of some documentary that might have been made. But I think it's self-evident that the Obamas' style is rather neatly tuned to the style of Conde Naste publications like Vogue, The New Yorker and Wired.
Of course, there are no scenes of the Michelle Obama interview in Cutler and Richman's documentary film. Successful politicians learned as far back as the Kennedy era to keep documentary film makers at a distance.
The people who get scrutinized in The September Issue are Wintour and Coddington, and the element of suspense that holds the film together -- even documentaries require some kind of glue -- is Grace Coddington's struggle to get her art, intact, into the issue, even though it is often at odds with Wintour's vision. In the end, Grace gets most of her work in -- at one point she observes that she nearly has the entire issue to herself -- because she can do what artists do: synthesize experience. Everything is grist for Coddington's mill and her imagination, even the documentary film makers themselves. Before the film is over, she has Richman jumping -- if not through hoops -- at least up and down.
Coddington may be the resident genius at Vogue, but she doesn't get the cover. For that job, Wintour brings in Italian photographer Mario Testino. And, to my eye, it is Testino, not Coddington, who, in a homage to Fellini, manages to produce the only images that are distinguishable from and rise above the pages and pages of ads.
Vogue September 2007 Photograph by Mario Testino
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The real winner in The September Issue is, of course, Anna Wintour. After living for four years with the rumor -- or the fact -- that she was the inspiration for the The Devil Wears Prada, The September Issue gave Wintour an opportunity of create her own image. She comes across as determined and opinionated, without seeming abusive, a far cry from the editor in The Devil Wears Prada. If anything, Wintour manages, as improbable as it seems, to portray herself as quite vulnerable. She appears to have gotten what she wanted from the film.
The September Issue A&E IndieFilms and Actual Reality Pictures
Not that I'm completely surprised.
Maybe it was the faint scent of expensive perfume still lingering on the pages of my library copy of Vogue or maybe I overdosed on the images of beautiful women, but, watching The September Issue and Anna Wintour, I suddenly remembered filming an interview with Lady Bird Johnson -- a woman I had not thought of as particularly attractive -- at her television station in Austin. After the interview, I rode down in an elevator with her, and I was shocked to find myself suddenly overwhelmed by her perfume, her dark red lipstick, perfect make-up and luxuriant fur coat, her obvious wealth and power. Maybe it was pheromones. I could barely breathe, and, when we got off of the elevator, my hands were shaking and I was feeling weak in the knees.
The September Issue is available from Amazon and Netflix.