Say what you will about Vogue grande dame Anna Wintour. But in a time when print publications are folding at an alarming rate, the notoriously icy editor-in-chief has kept the world’s most influential fashion magazine rolling off the presses and, more importantly, flying off the shelves.
At least that seems to be documentary filmmaker R. J. Cutler’s opinion of ol’ “Nuclear Wintour.” Though Cutler’s name is usually hooked to political docs like 1993’s The War Room and 1996’s A Perfect Candidate, his latest project, The September Issue, turns the cameras on the beleaguered staff of Vogue as they produce the landmark September 2007 issue—a doorstopper of a magazine that tipped the scales at nearly five pounds and contained a record 727 pages of advertising.
For those not in the know (or simply not in the care), the September issue of Vogue is the one all the other issues want to be when they grow up. It’s the Sears Wishbook of the fashion industry, a cumbersome tome that will almost single-handedly shape the couture business for the coming year. It also accounts for a healthy chunk of the magazine’s yearly ad revenue, so there’s no room for error. Cutler’s crew follows the magazine’s creative team through a dizzying series of photo shoots, meetings, and verbal brawls as they attempt to close the biggest issue in the magazine’s 117-year history, all while trying not to have a collective nervous breakdown under Wintour’s not-so-benevolent dictatorship.
Shot in vibrant colors by cinematographer Robert Richman (who eventually ends up in a Vogue photo shoot himself, providing one of the movie’s most amusing and revealing sequences) and set to an upbeat indie rock soundtrack, The September Issue is as appealing to the senses as its subject matter. It’s consistently fun to watch, but it’s a pretty thin affair. So thin, in fact, that it’s tempting to wonder if Cutler was contractually obligated to deliver a product that would earn a seal of approval from Vogue and its publisher, Conde Nast. This isn’t an exposé piece, or one that’s particularly concerned with any sort of social or economic commentary. It only wants to entertain, and it usually succeeds. As one-dimensional as it often seems, though, there’s an undeniable slyness to the proceedings. When Cutler shows us a close-up of Wintour’s throat, are we supposed to notice the high-dollar necklace or the wrinkles beneath it? Both, of course—Wintour isn’t perfect, after all, but she damn well expects everyone else to be.
The September Issue is less about the fashion industry than about creative industries in general—the symbiotic push/pull relationship between the desire to realize one’s artistic visions and the need to earn a buck. At the eye of September’s storm are two very different women: the frosty Wintour and her kinder, gentler counterpart, Vogue creative director Grace Coddington. A former model whose career was derailed years ago by a gruesome car accident, Coddington plays the White Queen to Wintour’s red one. Wintour may be the brains of the operation, but Coddington is clearly its heart. Vogue’s editor gives its models new insecurities; its creative director gives them pie. Coddington also makes for a refreshingly practical counterpart to the flamboyant, often petulant prima donnas who surround her. “You’ve got to have something to put your work in,” she says, explaining her tolerance for the less-than-desirable aspects of her career. “Otherwise it’s not valid.”
In the end, though, even Wintour comes out looking pretty good. Cutler is careful to humanize the controversial icon. She can verbally disembowel a harried Yves Saint Laurent designer with a dismissive “It’s pretty,” but we also see uncharacteristic moments of vulnerability. She turns to her college-age daughter for advice, and seems concerned that her philanthropic siblings are merely “amused” by her accomplishments. It’s a surprisingly fair take on a woman who earned the enmity of animal rights activists by reviving the fur industry in the ’90s.
In the end, The September Issue never takes us quite as deep as we’d like to go. It stays at a thousand feet, even when the events it depicts are worthy of a much closer look. It’s ultimately slight, but, like the industry it spotlights, it sure is fun and pretty.