The September Issue
(dir. R.J. Cutler | USA | 2008 | 90 mins.)
Review by Hugh Lilly
A profile of Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and the making of the September 2008 issue of the magazine, R.J. Cutler’s new documentary is chock full of style—which unfortunately means there’s not much room left for substance. Playing out like a considerably extended episode of Queer Eye for the Straight Guy or one of Louis Theroux’s more esoteric Weird Weekends, the film presents Wintour as an unapproachable, cold authority figure at the head of the world’s “fashion bible.”
The titular issue is, we’re informed, the most important of the year: “In the fashion world, September is January,” remarks a commentator near the beginning. The final tally for the issue was 840 pages—the biggest in the magazine’s history to that point—and, to its detriment, Cutler’s 9-month odyssey leading up to the publication of that issue would have those unfamiliar with the magazine believe that its glossy pages are composed almost entirely of photographs and advertising. There are no interviews with any writers, and the film doesn’t explore in any particular depth any of the photographers or other artists or stylists. It does, however, follow quite closely Grace Coddington, a former model for the magazine-turned editorial stylist. Coddington, essentially Wintour’s right-hand woman, sets up and directs the magazine’s photoshoots and becomes the film’s focus. Her story and persona is a welcome relief from the stereotypes that populate the rest of the film.
British-born Wintour, notorious for being an ‘ice queen,’ is shown as such; aloof and “accessible only to those who she needs to be accessible to,” it almost seems as if the angularly-coiffed, heavily-botoxed icon of the fashion world is putting on a show for the cameras; surely someone in as presumably enjoyable a job as hers, jet-setting around the world and meeting titans of industry wouldn’t really be that unhappy? Because she almost never lets her guard down, Wintour presents herself almost as self-parody, and this quickly becomes tiresome.
The film travels with Coddington and her team as they chase photographers, stylists and that month’s cover girl Sienna Miller around Europe, scouting locations and preparing shoots. There’s a shoot in Rome, and one at Versailles, a much-used location recently fetishised in Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette and visited by the makers of Annie Leibovitz: Life Through A Lens—a far more in-depth, fascinating documentary about fashion, celebrity and artistry than The September Issue. Cutler’s film is clearly designed to appeal to a specific market: devotees of fashion and entertainment television networks like E!, and in this it succeeds, albeit not admirably.
The film looks the part—it won the ‘Best Cinematography (US Documentary)’ award at Sundance last year—but unfortunately its flashiness cannot make up for its flaws and anaemic pseudo-insight. The September Issue is entertaining, to be sure, but it explores its subject matter superficially, trying to cover up the fact with quick-cut editing and an oh-so-hip roster of indie pop on its soundtrack. Cutler, whose 1992 documentary The War Room was an illuminating and insightful account of Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign, has here regrettably substituted glossiness for substance, never once provoking his subjects lest they admonish him, and opting for Office-like ‘reality’ camerawork which yields nothing new; traditional ‘talking-head’ interview footage, which is used for barely ten per cent of the film, would doubtless have given audiences something to think about, instead of being mindlessly entertained by flashing lights and zippy editing. For an industry that many see as ridiculous and pompous to be presented as such is unfortunate to say the least. Perhaps the rarefied world of haute-couture will be better served by Matt Tyranauer’s Valentino: The Last Emperor, a profile of the world-renowned Italian designer.
The September Issue screens in the upcoming New Zealand International Film Festivals in Auckland’s Civic Theatre on Friday July 10th at 2pm, and Saturday July 11th at 7pm.