I’ve got to start getting ready for Toronto and Fantastic Fest. I’m on the road for most of September, and I’ll be expected to file a ton of reviews. So if I’m going to do that, I’d better start pacing myself now, like I’m practicing for a marathon. How better to start that than by writing a review of a movie I saw at Sundance in January?
Roadside Attractions is just now opening R.J. Cutler’s latest documentary feature, “The September Issue,” in theaters around the country. When I first read a description of the film in the Sundance catalog, I wasn’t interested at all. Cutler’s name is what got me to take a chance on the movie, though. He’s a prolific and consistently classy documentarian, with a resume that includes films like “The War Room,” “The Perfect Candidate,” “Thin,” and the series “American High,” among others. The participation of someone I trust as much as I trust Cutler trumps subject matter in my book.
I’m glad I took the chance, too, because “The September Issue” is arresting, absorbing human drama that just happens to be set in the world of fashion. That’s a world that means nothing to me personally, so if the film were just “about” fashion, it wouldn’t be something I’d have much enthusiasm for. Instead, Cutler uses the production of Vogue‘s annual September issue, the most important of their year, as a way of peering into the personal dynamics that play out within the magazine.
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Anna Wintour, famously parodied by Meryl Streep in “The Devil Wears Prada,” hardly comes across as a cartoon monster here. If anything, Wintour seems both strident and fragile, a combination that humanizes her in a way no magazine profile manages. It’s fascinating when Wintour’s teenage daughter talks about what her mother does for a living with a combination of amusement and contempt. It’s a potent reminder that even someone as powerful as Wintour wields that power only because people allow her to, and our kids rarely care about our job titles. The people closest to us are the ones who are generally least impressed by our professional lives.
Wintour may be the icon that people identify with Vogue, the public face, but she’s not the best character in the film. Grace Coddington, a stylist who started with Vogue the same day as Wintour, is one of the most interesting people, real or imagined, who I’ve seen on any movie screen this year. Wintour’s the editor of the book, the final word on what appears between those two covers, but more often than not, Coddington’s the one who creates the iconography that has made Vogue such an institution. The two of them have an artistic collaboration that spans decades now, and it looks to me, based on what we see here in the film, like it’s anything but routine, even after all these years. Coddington, who started in the industry as a model, seems to be genuinely gifted, but she’s constantly having to alter her vision to fit into the larger overall picture that Wintour imagiens. That friction is what makes Vogue, or really any creative endeavor, great, and the accomplishment of Cutler’s film is how he captures that process on film without interfering with it.
Here’s how I know the film got me: I actually found myself in suspense about how the issue was going to turn out, about which layouts would survive the process, and about how all the effort would add up to a finished thing. I still can’t imagine I’ll ever pick up Vogue on a regular basis, but thanks to R.J. Cutler, I now have a deeper respect for not just the effort behind the magazine, but the personalities as well.
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