Knight at the Movies Archives
An inside look at the fashion bible, an outsider looks at folks in the bible belt
What do you suppose was the impetus for Vogue editor Anna Wintour to agree to an insider documentary about the magazine and
ostensibly herself? Did the parade of merciless dragon lady knock offs of her by an increasing list of actresses topped by Meryl
Streeps in The Devil Wears Prada finally get to her? Did she want to set the record straight on her legendary hard as nails, take no
prisoners persona? Show the folks at home that she’s really just a hard working gal? Have the opportunity to outdo her imitators?
The shock of seeing Wintour sit on David Letterman’s couch tub thumping for the movie and deflecting Letterman’s pointed jabs in
favor of her carefully rehearsed rejoinders is to imagine Jackie Kennedy having decided that after all those Kennedy and Jackie-Ari
movies and miniseries she’d jump into the fray and give ‘em the “real thing.”
One can only guess at Wintour’s motives. For the Anna Wintour “revealed” in The September Issue, R.J. Cutler’s documentary,
isn’t much different than the silent, regal Anna Wintour that sits season in, season out in her trademark pageboy and Jackie
Kennedy sized sunglasses at the couture shows, rarely cracking a smile and carefully offering her observations to obsequious
members of the fashion media.
The movie, which details the staff putting together Vogue’s largest yearly issue (the 2007 one is shown here), doesn’t so much
contain a portrait of Wintour as it does another tissue thin layer. She speaks politely revealing nothing, shows signs of irritation with
staff, visits up and coming fashion designers, attends shows and parties, “rests” at her lavish weekend retreat showing off her
fashion-phobic daughter, etc. But through it all she’s so guarded and obviously was so parsimonious with her time (all the talking
head stuff with her seems to come from one or two interviews) that the director’s inclusion of much of the footage of her seems a
kindness rather than a necessity because it’s not even remotely interesting. We don’t even get to see one of her icy tantrums or get
any sense of an inner life. The movie confirms that Streep’s galvanizing, fictional portrayal has eclipsed interest in the real woman.
So with this powerful but boring subject as the centerpiece of his movie and with audiences overdosed on fashion for fashion’s sake
at the movies to begin with, what does director Cutler do? Cutler, who has approached documentary filmmaking from a creative
stance in the past (especially in American High) looks further a field, into Wintour’s staff and luckily finds a camera subject so
compelling, humorous and filled with heart, that one willingly sits through the rest of the bla-bla-bla Wintour fashion musings (“I
think most people are afraid of fashion” is one pearl of wisdom) and the tired Andre Leon Talley big ole queen melodramatics to get
back to Grace Coddington.
“Thank God for Grace Coddington,” Cutler must have thought after encountering Vogue’s creative director (who started at the
magazine the same day as Wintour). This grand dame of fashion, gliding around the narrow halls through the rows of designer
dresses and accessories, muttering witty retorts under her breath in her precise British accent and rolling with the punches as her
impossibly and beautifully styled shoots are cut from the issue, is the secret weapon the movie needs.
The portrait of Coddington – who began as a model herself during the Mod 60s – and her travails with the magazine (read: Anna) is
so pervasive that quickly she becomes the reason for the movie. Finally, even Wintour is forced to acknowledge Coddington’s
genius and her importance to the magazine. Wintour, the easily parodied face of Vogue has certainly been essential to the
magazine’s continuing success but as The September Issue reveals, without the creative Coddington toiling away in the background
her reign has meant nothing – and that’s something worth seeing.
Speaking of Fashion: Valentino: The Last Emperor, out director Matt Tyrnauer’s richly entertaining look at the retired fashion designer
and Giancarlo Giammetti, his life partner is out on DVD with several special features, including a more extensive look into the couple’
s lavish homes. To celebrate the release, a signature red Valentino couture gown giveaway sweepstakes is going on until the end of
the year. Further details at www.valentinomovie.com
Married couple Laura Cohen and Joe Winston, Chicago residents who had dabbled in filmmaking, felt so passionately about Thomas
Frank’s 2004 bestseller What’s the Matter with Kansas? that they optioned the rights from him in order to make a movie of
it. Traveling through the ultra conservative Kansas, a bastion of the right wing, with the author on a book signing tour the couple
(Cohen as producer, Winston as director) ended up filming a series of interviews with residents of the state and eventually focused
on portraits of three conservatives that form the basis of the movie – a female rancher and Christian singer-songwriter, a teenage
religious zealot, and a conservative farmer who represents a farming union.
What emerges is less a filmed version of the book – which attempts to answer how Kansas, once a home to progressive liberals has
become a seemingly proud land of right wingers and religious zealots – but, rather, a sort of sequel which continues to explore
Frank's original thesis and proceeds to capture the waning influence of conservatives on politics (signified by the 2006 midterm
elections) and on social issues.
The filmmakers do a good job of humanizing their subjects. One especially feels great empathy for Dillard who has had her share of
personal traumas which are slowly revealed as we follow her throughout her normal routine but eventually the rigidness of the
evangelical mindset and the two primary hot button social issues that drive it along (abortion, gay marriage) cancel out any common
bond liberals (yours truly included) might feel.
This is emphasized when we see archival footage of prolonged anti-abortion demonstrations on the clinic of the recently
assassinated Dr. George Tiller, the abortionist (who is calmly interviewed here), an evangelical preacher using his pulpit to breach
social and political issues in the name of God, a jaw dropping visit to the Creation Museum with the teenage zealot Brittany and her
Brittany with her hard eyes, pug nose and rigid suspicion of the “liberal agenda” is the creepy future of these religious terrorists who
doggedly wants to return the nation to the “Christian values” upon which it was founded. As always, I wonder after watching a
documentary about these folks what happened to true Christian values which don’t seem to have much to do with the evangelical
movement and certainly not the conservative one. One of the camera subjects, M.T. Liggett, a good ole boy and sculpture artist
summed up my feelings exactly when expressing his opinion about the conservative opposition to abortion and gay marriage when
he opines, “Who gives a shit!”
What’s the Matter with Kansas? is having its Chicago premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center (164 N. State St.) beginning Friday,
September 18 and continuing through the 24th. Director Winston, producer Cohen and author Frank will be present for audience
discussion on Friday and Saturday at 8:15pm. www.siskelfilmcenter.org
Far Away Places:
The September Issue-What's the Matter with Kansas?
Expanded Edition of 9-9-09 Windy City Times KATM Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.
CHECK OUT OTHER KATM FILM REVIEWS IN THE ARCHIVES