The September Issue
2009, PG-13, 90 min. Directed by R.J. Cutler.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Sept. 11, 2009
Like a time capsule from another era of journalism, The September Issue chronicles a distant past that flourished not but two years ago. Cutler’s documentary observes the months of planning and preparation that went into the making of the September 2007 issue of American Vogue, that fashion bible’s biggest issue ever, weighing in at more than 4 pounds. In retrospect, it’s a glimpse of the magazine industry on the precipice of the economic downturn, a situation in which editorial content and layouts would swell in response to the onslaught of increased advertising pages, rather than the reverse situation in which we find ourselves today. This perspective, however, is one of the unanticipated byproducts of The September Issue. The movie’s real hook is its access to Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, the famously exacting taskmistress and taste arbiter whose legend spread far and wide with the release of the book and roman à clef movie The Devil Wears Prada. In Cutler’s documentary portrait, Wintour proves to be both more and less than all the popular chatter might have us believe. She exudes every bit of the hauteur with which popular lore credits her, yet she seems not nearly as icy nor dismissive as her reputation might cause us to expect. The film is not so much a peek behind her famous sunglasses to find the woman within but, rather, a study of an opinionated and exacting leader who is clearheaded about what she wants and does not want. We watch as members of her staff jump to fulfill her every demand and expectation, but one wonders if their actions stem from fear of their employer’s retaliation or their own insecurities. Perhaps it takes a personality as outsized and self-possessed as that of Editor-at-Large André Leon Talley to survive as an individual with distinct tastes in the world of Wintour’s Vogue. In this light, the emergent subplot of Wintour’s relationship with Creative Director Grace Coddington, who started at Vogue the same day as Wintour some 20 years ago, becomes edifying. Both women are stubborn, British, and former models, but diverge in almost every other respect. Coddington’s strategies for working with a difficult boss while also working the angles to ultimately achieve what she desires will be tactics familiar to anyone in a similar workplace. The two women are a study in contrasts, and their ongoing dialectic just may be the key to what makes the magazine so successful. In the end, The September Issue really has only as much depth and relevance as fashion itself, but when we travel through the looking glass, it’s not usually the simple image on the other side for which we are searching.
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The September Issue, R.J. Cutler