Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Film review: 'September Issue' oddly lightweight Wintour's tale

Legendary Vogue editor Anna Wintour,
in The September Issue.

By John Thomason

Caricature can be an incredibly damning cross to bear. Just ask Yoko Ono, Joan Rivers and Sarah Palin, to name a few prominent women whose names have been partially or forever sullied by the media’s manipulation of their characters.

When perception becomes reality, truth blurs into fiction: Sarah Palin never said, “I can see Russia from my house,” just as Marie Antoinette, another victim of caricature, never proclaimed, “Let them eat cake.”

This is not an effort to launch a pity party for Palin – just to provide context to which Anna Wintour, the longtime editor of Vogue, certainly can relate. In Lauren Weisberger’s bestselling The Devil Wears Prada, cruel and heartless fashion editor Miranda Priestly was the Charles Foster Kane to Wintour’s William Randolph Hearst, and Meryl Streep’s wicked onscreen portrayal of Priestly all but cemented the caricature of Wintour as an icy witch who treats her numerous underlings like ratty pairs of Levi’s.

Even her name sounds chilling: Wintour, a word evoking the frostiest of the four seasons while simultaneously suggesting a kind of dinosaurish creature out of Final Fantasy: Be sure to buy this potion for the best defense against the winged wintour!

But if The September Issue, a new documentary about Wintour and the development of Vogue’s fattest issue ever, accomplishes anything, it humanizes the lithe fashion mogul, whose pageboy haircut and no-nonsense demeanor have been staples at every major international fashion event for decades. Sure, she can kill careers with – literally – the blink of an eye, and she doesn’t have much tolerance for anything less than perfection, but since when did this become a negative attribute? Since when did your boss need to be your friend?

Wintour’s perceived ruthlessness could just as easily be labeled “efficiency” without any spin. She knows what she wants and is not one to waste time. And the results speak for themselves.

But aside from revising Wintour’s polarizing public image, this documentary, directed by War Room producer R.J. Cutler, is too puffy and lightweight to challenge anything about the world of fashion journalism, a term many would consider an oxymoron. It has plenty of amusing moments, mostly stemming from the day-to-day quarrels between Wintour and Grace Coddington, the magazine’s model-turned-creative-director and one of the few members of the Vogue establishment willing to stand up to, and even defy, her boss.

But unlike Cutler’s War Room, a timeless and essential political document, one gets the impression that he’s sacrificed some of journalistic objectivity for the starry appeal of insider perks. Nobody comes off looking negatively here, and as the magazine risks a crash-and-burn just a week before its biggest issue closes, it’s hard to believe there wasn’t more backstage drama than the restrained snippiness Cutler presents.

Nor does Cutler address the controversy surrounding some of Wintour’s decisions. He credits her as a trailblazer for placing celebrities on the magazine’s covers, but fails to mention the outrage from animal-rights activists over her single-handed revitalization of fur.

The film’s finest and most illuminating moments find Cutler interviewing Wintour and her daughter at home, digging beneath the showbiz glitz and office grind to probe the editor about what the rest of her family of esteemed political journalists and activists think about her career (“They’re amused by it,” she says, revealing some self-awareness with a tinge of melancholy).

Her daughter Bee has no interest in the fashion world and instead is pursuing a law degree. This discussion leads to an awkward moment between daughter and mother in which Anna is seemingly unwilling to accept this reality. Bee elaborates in a one-on-one sit-down with Cutler in which she criticizes the silly, life-or-death importance of her mother’s industry, which will come off as a voice of blasphemy or rationalism depending on the viewer.

Would that Cutler have taken this distinction a bit further and looked at the social and cultural implications of Vogue and its multimillion-dollar industry – or at least provided more of Wintour the person, less of Wintour the editor – it could have been more than a myopic vindication story debunking his subject’s caricature. But that’s about all it is.

Wintour closes the film herself by asking Cutler, “So what else?” I couldn’t help wondering the same thing.

John Thomason is a freelance writer based in South Florida.

THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE. Director: R.J. Cutler; Distributor: Roadside Attractions; Opens: Friday; Venue: Most area theaters

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