By James Rocchi (repint from 2009 Sundance Film Festival)
The September Issue , directed by RJ Cutler (The War Room), offers the tantalizing promise of immediate inside pleasures with its synopsis alone, as it follows Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour and her editorial team in the assembly and shaping of 2007's edition of the title issue of Vogue magazine -- the largest issue of the year, the holy writ and testament for the upcoming year in fashion, the big brassy bloated bane of every postal carrier's existence. Immediately, we're promised glamour, high-stakes editorial crisis, the confluence of commerce and style, the manic business of modern magazine publishing.
The good news is not only that The September Issue offers much more than those immediate inside pleasures -- although it does, commenting on celebrity culture, digital image-altering technology, power and privilege in the distraction-industrial complex and much more -- but that it delivers those immediate inside pleasures superbly along with the nitty-gritty, so we get to witness a mix of high fashion and near-fascism with Ms. Wintour as the iron fist inside the stylish hand-stitched calfskin glove -- velvet is so last year, darling. And I have no clue if calfskin is hot right now or not, but as The September Issue makes clear, it would be if Wintour thought so. Wintour stands astride the world of fashion like a colossus, and for designers and tastemakers her trademark sunglasses mask a gaze that inverts the legend of the gorgon -- if Anna doesn't look directly at you and your work, you're dead. Watching Wintour tour the studios of various designers to appraise their work for the upcoming season, you understand that in this world, she's the equivalent of a monarch -- and that to her, there's no other world. "What I often see is that people are frightened of fashion, and because it scares them or makes them feel insecure," as Wintour notes in an early interview segment, "they try to put it down." The 300-billion dollar-a-year industry of fashion -- as Wintour defines it, and she does -- is like religion, and to speak against it is heresy.
And if Wintour is the ruler, then her most trusted second-in-command -- who nonetheless is second -- is Grace Coddington, the model-turned-photographer who has served for decades as Wintour's Creative Director. Through the film, we watch as Grace proposes, and Anna disposes -- throwing out photos Grace loves but Anna doesn't, ignoring outfits Grace would love to photograph and Anna couldn't bear to have in the magazine. The two women have a fascinating, frustrating and fruitful relationship, and watching it is one of The September Issue's greatest pleasures.
We don't get much from Wintour's superior, media magnate S.I. Newhouse -- a few nods of agreement and mumbles of enthusiasm about the plans for the September issue -- but while Anna has a boss, The September Issue make it clear that she is the boss; we watch as Wintour, like a crowned ruler of feudal times, carefully cultivates opportunities and patronage jobs for the young designer Thakoon, and his career is made. As Anna dismisses photos, story ideas, outfits brought for her opinion and staff members' suggestions with icy grace, we understand how easily it could have gone the other way.
At the same time, you also get a disarming, fascinating occasional glimpse of vulnerability; Wintour may be a monarch, but uneasy lays the head that wears the crown. We watch as Wintour uses her college-age daughter as a one-woman focus group, trying to get a take on how the next generation thinks and feels about fashion, and you realize that she could never do that with her younger staff for fear of seeming out-of-touch, and you feel a touch of sympathy for The Devil (who) Wears Prada. Cutler and his team got to see everything and go everywhere, and while they find the manic buzz and thrum of fashion week and high fashion (aided by the stylish electro-pop of the soundtrack), they also find the stolid, steady bump and hum of cold cash commerce under it. Cinematographer Bon Richman doesn't just show the gleam and glory of glorious extravagance, but he also finds the cluttered workspaces and hectic studio sets where that magic is messily made.
And there's humor in The September Issue, mostly when Andre Leon Talley, a Vogue Editor-at-Large -- although, really, the title should be Editor-at-Larger-Than-Life --stumbles through the scene dressed like a Bond villain or wearing a piece of camping equipment and acting like a deleted scene from Zoolander. And while there are digressions -- the documentary crew winds up being drafted as extras and tone-setting props for a re-shot piece on "color blocking" -- but when Anna notes of a cameraman's photo that he "needs to go to the gym more" and offers that there's no need to worry about the curve of his belly, since it can be fixed digitally, Coddington puts her foot down to keep the photo untouched and get the look she most wanted, and the digression becomes a demonstration of everything the film's about.
The September Issue also offers a glimpse of both our gilded age and the rot underneath it -- we see Vogue as the transmission vector for a fever-vision of a fabulous, glamorous world of designer gowns and sumptuous couture fashions that are unaffordable, unattainable and impractical, with the occasional outfit or piece you can afford and wear more than once scattered throughout the magazine like crumbs hurled to the starving mob. I'm not especially interested in fashion (I'm interested in style as opposed to fashion, much as you can be interested in athleticism as opposed to pro sports, or movies as opposed to Hollywood), but The September Issue's look at power, money, pop culture and professionalism (and its absence) had me enthralled.