It’s all a part of life, being who I am. I have to get up and approach life with my own aesthetics about style.
— André Leon Talley
“They don’t forget you’re there,” says director R.J. Cutler of his documentary subjects. “You’re always there, but you’re people who your subjects’ trust, so they’re willing to be themselves in front of you.” Describing his filmmaking process, he sounds convinced that “trust” is a route to a certain kind of self-exposure, even honesty. But though he repeats the concept throughout the commentary track on The September Issue (“You earn their trust by being who you say you are, by believing fundamentally the story belongs to them, not to you…”), the film itself seems almost the opposite of such an ideal.
In part, this seems a function of the industry the film represents. “There is something about fashion that can make people very nervous,” says Anna Wintour at its start. She submits that this reaction results from insecurity, as outsiders misunderstand what they might see, resenting their very status as outsiders. “People that say demeaning things about our world. I think that’s usually because they feel in some ways excluded or not part of the cool group.”
Indeed, the presumption of inclusion and the threat of exclusion appear the primary sources of identity in the story told by The September Issue, recently screened at Stranger Than Fiction, now on DVD and available on digital download. But even as Wintour speaks, the tight shot invites you to wonder at her performance, her confidence in this self-serving fiction. This is the self to which you now have entrée, thanks to her apparent trust in Cutler and crew. As he restates, more or less, in a blog post promoting the DVD release, “During those eight months in 2007, I was given complete access to the process of creating Vogue. At the end of each day, Anna’s assistant would email me her schedule for the following day and my crew and I would plan which of her meetings to film.” The film skillfully represents this fantasy of “complete access,” following Wintour down long hallways at the Vogue offices, listening to creative director Grace Coddington worry that her brilliant spreads will be cut from the Bible (as the September Issue is called by those in the know), observing young designer Thakoon as he recounts his hands shaking during a first meeting with Wintour. Whether the camera is close on faces — apprehensive, judgmental, self-aware — or keeps a distance from two figures bent over a table, the film suggests you’re seeing people “willing to be themselves in front of you.”
Your sense of such access depends on a useful fiction, the same one that produces trust in your own daily encounters with others, that a “self” is something to be, to be shared, and to be believed. It’s not as if denizens of the fashion industry have perfected or even put more time into this notion of self than anyone else. But it is a “world,” as everyone keeps saying, where the performance of self is much appreciated and well practiced. It may be gratifying in some way to imagine that such performance can be genuine or revealing, but it is a process of imagining — always.
This much is made quite plain in The September Issue, no matter how Cutler deploys describes his few months inside (he blogs, “I observed Anna Wintour day-in and day-out as she single-handedly commanded the $300-billion global fashion industry”) — or how much any of the rest of us want to believe in…. believing. It’s not so much that he or his crew has drunk any Kool-Aid, but rather that the film, in its premise, offers performances. That these particular performances are especially showy or seem “artificial” only underscores what goes on in “worlds” where the clothing, gestures, and makeup are less dramatic.
The drama constructed here has a timeframe (“Five months until the issue closes,” announces a title card right away, approximating some sort of urgency) and a set of conspicuous players — from Wintour herself to her editor-at-large André Leon Talley to her daughter Bee Shaffer. The storyline is this: Wintour is tough and Coddington is soft, and their seeming conflict invites viewers to pick sides, based on a vague emotional familiarity with the roles they play. Each woman describes her childhood love of fashion magazine “pages and pictures,” as well as her professional background: Anna suggests her powerful father, editor of The Evening Standard gave her the specific ambition to edit Vogue; Grace recalls her days as a young model, her career-ending car accident, her reinvention as an editor for the British and then American Vogues, 20 years at each.
Repeatedly, Wintour sounds sharp and self-preserving, as well as sure of her influence (she reintroduced fur into fashion in the ’90s, notes publisher Tom Folio, and, she points out herself, she featured a black model on her first cover as editor, even if Vogue‘s record on race representation is sketchy). At the same time — at least according to the film’s allusive crosscutting, Grace frets that she must emulate her employer’s ability to “charge ahead.” According to Coddington, being a “romantic” means she’s been “left behind.” This even though the film represents her well-articulated love of Versailles and her smart, sharp decision-making on shoots as exactly wonderful. She’s not behind at all, the film argues, but only “ahead” in a different way.
As these intersecting storylines provide the documentary with a faux tension, other workers proclaim their true belief, again and again. “You belong to it, you belong to this church,” says Candy Pratts Price, executive fashion director of Style.com, Vogue‘s online incarnation. Ah yes, comes the inevitable off-screen question, and “Is Anna the High Priestess?” Talley affirms his fidelity in his grand outfits and his utter faith in Wintour (he has taken up tennis to become healthier, he says, because she has told him to do it: “Naturally, what Miss Wintour says goes”). And Bee affirms hers by adopting the position of a (well-informed) outsider, and so, seeming to speak for the rest of us. “It’s a really weird industry to me,” she says after saying she’s going to law school rather than following her mom’s lead. “I would never want to take it to so seriously. Some of the people in there act like fashion is life.”
Yes, they act like it. And that’s the point. No matter how much you want to believe the documentary (any documentary) can show you an inside, all it can manage is exteriors. An especially instructive instance occurs near film’s end, as Grace is desperate to reshoot a spread that has been bungled by someone else. On the DVD track, Cutler points out that her use of his own cameraman, Bob Richman, in a photo, allows “you” to be in the shoot. As Bob jumps up into the air, the film shows both his view — jumping — and the result, an edited image that puts him in frame with model Caroline Trentini. Yes, yes, Cutler suggests, this is the moment the film has been waiting for, the immersion into that so-exclusive world of a crewmember as proxy for viewer. The moment is underscored when Anna approves the photo but advises trimming Bob’s belly for the final image, and Grace resists, declaring that he is a real and regular person. “Everybody isn’t perfect in this world,” she asserts, “It’s enough that the models are perfect.” (Reportedly, he has gone on to lose weight, apparently following Talley’s lead regarding Miss Wintour’s suggestions.)
While you might muse further on Coddington’s vexed relationship to perfection (her likely trauma over the post-accident plastic surgery, her visible aging), the film does not. The film remains where it begins, content to show surfaces, and let you imagine subjects who are “willing to be themselves in front of you.”