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THE FIRST MONDAY IN MAY (2016) dir. Andrew Rossi

20 May

I would’ve loved the director to have taken a hammer to the mirror of society we were privy to. If English-speaking aliens were to come to Earth tomorrow, they could deduce many things about the way we live and contemporary attitudes from this documentary. Perhaps they could ascertain something of the psychology of the masses, the state of being human, the racial impression we’re dressed by every day and with every lasting breath. The First Monday in May is also known as The Met Ball movie, a behind-the-scenes documentary of the Costume Institute’s annual fundraising party, the number one event in modern fashion society’s calendar.

How many of the glitzy celebrities attending the party live in squalor-like conditions with dirty dishes in their sinks or coffee rings on their bedside tables? It wouldn’t hurt to obliterate the self-perpetuating machine of celebrity culture. Instead this documentary reinforces the great separation people insist upon because they exist on another plane, they exist in images, their words are immortalised in interviews, their music now—in the spinning of the world around the sun—is playing at a rate of a thousand laps a moment. Famous people, like gods, are immortalised. What they do supposedly reaches everyone and retains a legacy. Anna Wintour (editor of Vogue, creative director of Conde Nast, household name), will be Anna Wintour for all the scrutiny and eternity and awesomeness there is and was and ever will be. The party is at her command. The party opens an exhibition. This time round the theme was China.

Why am I taking the tack of celebrity culture? Well, you see, there’s this sub-text running through the narrative from the opening first five minutes. Is fashion art? Are clothes art forms? The answers are presented in a subtile way. Dame Wintour thinks the Alexander McQueen exhibition in 2010 changed public perceptions of fashion as art. Baz Lurman, who acted as creative consultant along with Kar-wai Wong, makes some comment about art appearing in galleries and fashion not belonging in a museum context. Not necessarily his own views, I should add. Karl Lagerfeld skirts around his own opinion by talking about dress maker and clothes designer Coco Chanel.

Some people don’t perceive photography as art. I mean it’s a recent development to appreciate certain art forms as art and not mere arts. Applied arts, I think, was the term used to describe the living and breathing art forms residing a shelf higher than the craft category.

When I worked in an art gallery between 2002 and 2005, somehow it was apparent that in their art and in their everyday existence there were many people like myself who were blurring the lines between being alive and being an artist. When MySpace came about, it was fascinating to have found so many other people in the same ideological realm. MySpace was instrumental in the evolution of society in this way. Art became something people were living. People did more than one thing, too. It was possible to be many things all at once. There was no need to apply one label upon oneself and adhere to the label. In fact, why fix any label? MySpace challenged and changed like art itself does. Art is the fluctuating background we create in order to design ourselves new fluctuating camouflage. Art is evolution actively at work.

Passing MySpace it seems strange to question whether certain art forms are art or not. Plus the ideal of celebrity has altered—possibly due to MySpace’s influence on culture. The distance between the Other and ordinary people closed in a little. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram: they’re ways to be closer to your out-of-reach idols. Nevertheless, why do we think celebrities are special people and why do we query whether an art form is an art form is an art form? MySpace delivered.

My number one celebrity moment in the movie was Chloe Sevigny’s disappointed face when she found her table: tucked away in a remote corner. Anna and an assistant had been heard talking about the very same table. “There aren’t any celebrities on here, are there?” asked Anna. No worries, Chloe. I wonder if she felt relegated. There are some superb shots of other celebs dancing and being pally. Dresses that looked great on the red carpet seemed stripped of their glamour once inside. I guess the ordinary person doesn’t get their photograph taken on the red carpet so even jeans and an old t-shirt could look amazing on a famous body there. But under the disco ball you can’t help but wonder what you would make of it if you walked into a local gig and found your friends as overly dressed. Even if it was the Met Ball, the famous faces seemed too familiar, too dressed.

Kar-wai Wong dealt the most Chinese moment. “To see too much is to see nothing,” he said. I was thinking about it for a little while to follow.  They wanted to put pictures of Chairman Mao in a room full of Buddhas, which seems vile from this angle. Imagine Elizabeth II pictures in a room given over to Jesus? Too weird, yeah.

Dragons came into it in a couple of ways. I actually laughed out loud. Information on actress Anna May Wong, then the Chinese Dragon Woman stereotype, then cut to a shot of Anna Wintour in the backseat of her ride. The director next confronted Anna’s public image, which is one of firebreath and terror, though I can imagine her enjoying a cup of proper builder’s tea or a pint of Worthingtons. Dragons later gave another burst of amusement when Lurman gave his consultancy. “How Chinesey… how Chinois-y… do you want it to be?” he says. “Are these dragons?” He quickly passes over the picture of the entrance adorned with two huge lurid green monsters. “Yes,” says Anna confidently. He gives his approval for the less gaudy interior before returning to the dragons, which were then tactfully scrapped.

Making changes to celebrity fees was another matter on the agenda. Rihanna, who wore the most gigantic yellow gown and looked more Hollywood than the sign in the hills, sung to the crowd in another outfit. Rihanna raised the audience’s eyebrows when an assistant e-mailed Anna with, Re: Rihanna’s budget. “It has to come from someone higher up,” says the assistant. “It has to come from you.”

“I feel so much better,” says Rihanna at the rehearsal. Did they or didn’t they pay for her village-sized entourage? Ten thousand people in China could have survived for a hundred years on what we -bleep- we heard she had asked for. Personally, I didn’t think the figure sounded that high. I mean, Rihanna is a famous person. She doesn’t run out of toilet paper or eat baked beans on toast.

We saw the pre-event staff brief taking place but who were the staff? I spotted a glass collector on the dance floor, wedged between some people whose names I don’t remember, kitted out to look like a guest. Discretion is everything. Throughout the documentary there is a sense of it being a last minute affair, which events usually are. What could have been even more insightful for the audience is more focus on the less significant contributors and staff. When the man with the 20 foot perspex rod bamboo garden says that he thinks the light might carry all the way up the rod, what someone with an event background hears is that there is a strong possibility that the light won’t carry all the way to the top of the rods alongside the planned outcome. Once he says this and gives a demonstration on a length of rod, I wished we could watch him suffer as he lies awake at night crossing his fingers and toes that there would be enough rods to fill the space and that his mastermind genius event design idea would come to fruition and work. There’s a lot of risk involved with events.

How could I have written all these words without mentioning Andrew Bolton? He wins the audience’s affections immediately by explaining that when he was asked what he wanted to do in life -as a Lancashire lad aged 17- he had replied with Curator at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan museum. If you please! Remember the universe will help you to achieve your goal and the more extreme or specific the better. Go for it! Andrew Bolton is pure inspiration.

It seemed as though Bolton had decided upon the costumes and done a lot of research before the event was brought on schedule. It seemed pretty early on that he flew to Paris to examine the Saint Laurent vaults. There were just enough of the clothes involved in the exhibition caught on camera. There could have been more exploration of the micro-politics of fashion and the psychology of orientalism. However, we can grasp the sensitivity and questions of taste well from the movie. Without having seen China: Through the Looking Glass I can’t say how much more was in the exhibition.


THE SEPTEMBER ISSUE (2009) dir. R.J. Cutler

15 Aug

If you like reading magazines, or, specifically, fashion magazines, then you will enjoy this documentary. I watched it because I thought I might learn something about producing an issue of American Vogue. If you are tired of changes happening in the world at a snail’s pace, it will come as welcome relief to see fashion power at its snappiest!

Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief and Grace Coddington, creative director get the biggest slice. It’s not really a film documenting or educating about daily life at the New York Conde Nast offices, no that would be altogether too boring, too exposing. It’s more a collection of offcuts of day-to-day activity, which skilled editing has pulled together into what resembles a patchwork of sequential events, the end product of which is the September 2007 issue.

It was the largest monthly ever published, this is sprawled all over the cover (which we don’t see until the end) but the film left me with pangs of emptiness. Where did all the advertising come from? How many people actually worked on it? Vastly more than the dozen or so we meet in the film, surely? What about the time scale? When did they start thinking about it? In February? Before? The mammoth September edition was happening alongside all the other editions, what about them? Do issues of Vogue tend to be made up of leftovers from other editions? What about an explanation of the lifecycle of an idea? It raised a lot of unanswered questions.

On the other hand, I did learn something, in a similar way I learnt something from the House of Eliott television series when into Vogue as a child. Something concerning fashion. Something old-fashioned. Something we need to see more of. Yes, values. Those intricate gossamers of belief structure, the mould out of which we are all cast, the spark of clarity that shines through as style, presented on screen as narrative formed out of the fabric of relationships, working towards a magazine on shop shelves.

Anna Wintour, when asked what her strengths are says “decisiveness” without having to pause. That’s why she’s editor of American Vogue.  She’s British and carries a formidable reputation (The Devil Wears Prada was written by a former personal assistant).  Ideas that originated in other humans are put before her and ‘no, no, why this? no, that one is ok’ must seem like an endless systematic reaction arbitrarily flowing from her. Her magic is that her choices aren’t as random as they appear. I expect if you quizzed her about what she was rejecting she could talk to you at length about each of her split-second judgements but probably refrains from doing so. She looks like she would only ever explain herself if it was absolutely necessary. 

There is a scene where she is presented a series of sketches that a fashion editor wants to do in pale pink. Wintour is like: ‘Do you really think pink is appropriate for the time of year? It’s a bit spring.’ She casts a momentary aside glance that suggests her employee isn’t sharp enough. Think about what was happening in early 2007. Life outside of fashion. Facebook was exploding, vibrant new rave was on the prowl, freshness in music, things were changing. Why would Wintour want American Vogue to run a story, in this period, about minimal pale pink? She sits on her hunches, without getting too involved, without backing herself into any corners, while staff tremble and quake.

The most surprising thing about the documentary was that, as editor, Anna Wintour approved and disapproved ideas. Rather than being a commander, she seemed more of a navigator, suggestions appeared to belong to other people with her function being to scan them. There were a few personable shots of her at home with her young daughter showing a more tender side to the professional profile. She comes across as having heart, austere, standing for no nonsense, demanding the best from everyone.

To the Americans (who are fragile enough to be mortified by the word ‘toilet’ and say something different in order to refer to it) Anna Wintour must appear severe, brutal, ungodly and downright nasty, if unsubtle. She would undoubtedly fit in at some quaint slate-roofed pub in Yorkshire, where ‘say what you think’ and ‘know where you stand’ are salt-of-the-earth Northern attributes. Even if she is from London she has the same uncompromising directness.

Grace Coddington gets a taste of no one admitting to what they really think in the film. She does a photo-shoot only to have Wintour and a colleague decide to leave out the most ostentatious image, the key-stone of the spread, the central piece. The decision is made without her presence. The insult is that the same colleague who is telling Wintour ‘yes, I agree, this one is too much, not necessary, it doesn’t fit’ is now telling Coddington he has no idea why the image was removed. He tries to distract her with other images. I suppose this kind of spinelessness is benchmark normal. Those who have the courage to know their own minds are scarce. Almost as scarce as proper friends.

Grace, with her beautiful features, wit and wild red hair, taught me a new skill. They refer to her as the greatest living stylist. They say that no one else is as capable of putting together an awe-inspiring image. What a stylist does has mystery yet everyone is a stylist these days. What more can it involve than choosing the hair and make-up, clothes and accessories, spritzing last-minute hairspray? I didn’t realise that it is a stylist who designs the picture. I didn’t realise that a photographer, along with a few of his own ideas, operates with the trusted guidance of a stylist. Yesterday, when walking along the tow path, I imagined sensual girls in flouncy dresses with garish costume jewellery, draped over the cheerful boats in static poses, a whole new experience!  

The September Issue, a tapestry of working at a fashion publication, gave a small window, or key-hole, through which to catch glimpses of dedication to the gloss. Usual office relationships were evident in bullying, ego-mania, body-image obsession, verbose presentation – nuances people aspire to in order to succeed in business – without being exploited. I expect the scenes with the tea-boy in tears fell to the cutting room floor. Characters with a large sense of life show us their watches. Plus their fast-paced transformations, international glamour, ingenious power, influence.


DREAMS OF A LIFE (2011) dir. Carol Morley

15 Aug

Joyce Carol Vincent is a name to remember. She was found dead in her flat in North London, apparently of natural causes, three years after she died in 2003. The documentary charts how this could have happened, with Zawe Ashton playing Joyce in fictionalised scenes. The people being interviewed either responded to an advert on the side of a taxi or were tracked down by Carol Morley, the director. There was little to go on.
Who was Joyce? Was she some sort of vagabond who no one cared about? No, she was stunningly beautiful. Time and time again the people who knew her described her as ‘immaculate.’ She had responsible jobs in the City. In the nineties she dated a music producer and met many artists. She had an aura about her. She wanted to be a pop star.
She was only 38 when she died. Her family aren’t featured in the presentation, they were around but they weren’t close to her. Many of the people Joyce met (worked with, dated) commented that it must be, to some extent, her own fault. She had moved around from place to place within London, going from relationship to relationship, never fully keeping in touch with anyone.
A lady described her as not ‘emotionally matured’ because she didn’t retain close relationships. It happens. Work takes over, people lose contact, drift in and out. ‘Was she abused?’ says one. ‘She must’ve been murdered,’ asks another. Yet, secretive as she was, their claims are speculation and ironically seek further scandal by way of explanation. It takes a lot of guts to be self-reliant and not depend upon the past for definition.
Her friend and ex-partner, Martin, who she met in 1985, last heard from her in 2002. His experiences of their life together build a more concrete picture. There were sometimes years between seeing each other. It must have been distressing to have heard the story on the news and not have associated it with bubbly, enigmatic Joyce. He was contacted by the director to find that not only had she passed away, she had lain there decomposing whilst he wondered about her.
Judging from the film it would seem that no one knew much about her. The police and press had little to go on. The power of the story is in the fascination it creates, the mystery in her voice, her incredible presence. All those people we somehow let go of; it has a too familiar resonance. Around us in the web we weave are faces we don’t know in the way we want to believe that we do. Dreams of a Life is a fascinating portrait of contemporary, geographically mobile, convenience culture.