I was lucky enough back in April to watch a limited viewing of The September Issue at the Full Frame Documentary Film Festival in Durham, NC (a festival that I highly recommend to everyone who is any sort of interest in ANYTHING). Grace Coddington and Andre Leon Talley, two of the “stars” of the documentary, spoke in a panel after the film along with Director R.J. Cutler.* The film’s mass U.S. theatrical release occurs on September 11.
*Unfortunately, the moderator of the panel, Robert Krulwich, asked awful questions like “How mean was Anna Wintour?”
Of the nearly fifteen documentaries I viewed that weekend, The September Issue was one of the best—if not the best—edited and produced. The September Issue follows the production of the 2008 September issue of Vogue, the largest issue of the year. In 2007, the September issue weighed five pounds. Let me be clear: I have no interest in fashion. Make no mistake about it. The September Issue is about individuals and how they interact. If such characters had existed in a delicatessen, it would make little difference to me.
Anna Wintour, who was the basis of Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada, is the editor-in-chief of Vogue and will certainly be the personality who attracts the masses to the theaters—and rightfully so. Wintour has a reputation, largely cultivated by The Devil Wears Prada, of being cut-throat, unforgiving, and abusive. What we see in The September Issue is a much more nuanced (and obviously, more accurate) depiction of Wintour.
Well, this is a bit misleading: You probably expect me to say we see her at her most vulnerable, that we see her break down and cry. Well, we don’t. And no, she is not secretly cuddly and empathetic. But, what Krulwich mistakenly referred to as meanness is really assertiveness and decisiveness. It’s common to interpret assertiveness in a woman as bitchiness or capitalism at its worst, as this review does. The reality is, as editor-in-chief, Wintour needs to be decisive; she is, after all, the editor-in-chief, and the editor-in-chief’s job is to make tough decisions in a timely manner. The film’s intrigue—and ultimately, its success—lies in this portrait of Wintour, one that leaves judgment to the viewer and provides a wonderful experiment in perception and expectations.
The tension between Wintour and Grace Coddington (Vogue’s Creative Director) is repeatedly apparent, such as when Wintour cuts the majority of a shoot that costs significant time and money for Coddington and Vogue. This tension is already getting much of the focus of reviews of the film. Coddington offers pithy lines and behind-the-back criticisms of Wintour that certainly would never be cut at the editing board like so many of Coddington’s photographs. But, the fact is Coddington and Wintour have been working together for 21 years, since they were both hired in 1988. Certainly, the tension is nothing new. Seeing how it plays out is an extremely intriguing subplot, if not the main focus of the film.
Andre Leon Talley, Vogue’s editor-at-large (and native of Durham, NC), provides comic relief at various points in the film. Anna Wintour wanted him to lose weight so she encouraged him to take tennis lessons. What’s he wearing during this lesson? A diamond-encrusted watch, a Ralph Lauren shirt, and a Louis Vuitton beach towel around his neck. You could preview this spectacle on New York magazine’s fashion blog.
Of course, an interesting storyline and good characters are not sufficient to make a documentary plausible. The editors did a great job of editing. I can’t think of any particular scene that went on too long, and, believe me, excess length is a major problem with most documentaries. And, The September Issue won the Excellence in Cinematography Award at Sundance.
I have purposely not described in detail many of the most poignant scenes, but suffice it to say, this is a film you should see if you have any interest at all in human psychology, gender roles, entertainment, or, um, fashion.