"What you touch you don't feel
Do not know what you steal
Destroy everything you touch today
Please destroy me this way." —Ladytron, Witching Hour (2005)
Well, R.J. Cutler came out with guns blazing for this, his first theater release in some time. Within minutes The September Issue launches into New York Fashion Week footage while Ladytron's darkly glamorous "Destroy Everything You Touch" plays through a flashbulb-spangled montage in which Candy Patts Price describes Anna Wintour as the Pope of fashion and Andre Leon Talley bemoans a "famine of beauty" for the season. In stark contrast to these loud, glorious eccentrics is the preternaturally composed Anna Wintour observing and absorbing the runway shows, wearing her trademark fur and sunglasses. The Ladytron track was made for it.
Enter Grace Coddington, American Vogue's creative director, who serves as creative counterpoint to Wintour's withering eye. The Galliano-loving Grace is everything that Wintour is not: animated, romantic, accepting of physical imperfections, celebrity averse. Cutler captures several of her shoots, each more fantastic than the last and culminating in a Paris couture assignment that elicited gasps from the people sitting next to me. It was beyond gorgeous—impossibly exquisite concoctions, fantasies of color. This is the sequence in which it becomes clear that Grace is an outright magician, and also where my respect for Wintour grew because of the sheer nerve it would take to pare back such peerless work. Wintour is an editor, after all, and her job is defined largely by a manifest not to create, but to discard and delete. Many are saying that Grace emerges as the unexpected star of The September Issue, but my impression is that Anna knew exactly what she was doing throughout, keeping quarter where she always has: above the fray.
This is not to say that there aren't moments of insight into Wintour's personality. She radiates adoration for her children and lights up when describing London in the early 60's, citing the birth control pill and the end of the class system as the reasons behind the social energy of the time. With a twinkle in her eye she observes,"You'd have had to be wearing an Irving Penn sack on your head not to know there was something going on." She also overtly acknowledges that Coddington is a genius, and understands that her own is of a very different nature. When asked what her strength is, she replies, "My decisiveness," a word that has its roots in the old French verb "cædere" meaning, "to cut."
In the end, what is so striking about this documentary is how perfectly it captures the creative process, largely as a manifestation of the healthy friction between two opposites, Grace and Anna. It also benefits hugely from Cutler's unwillingness to waste time manufacturing a kinder, gentler Anna Wintour; instead he celebrates her cool detachment and opacity as key strengths of this formidable editor.
He did a good job with the music in the film too, although he should have been more willing to turn up the volume at times and allow it to take over the scene for awhile. With such rich visual material, I would have liked for there to be at least a few passages allowed to be pure sound and image events. As it was, Cutler seemed afraid to stray from the talking heads for too long, and is a bit reticent with the music as a result. He had some great tracks though, no doubt thanks to some help from Music Supervisor Margaret Yen (Juno, The Hangover, Passion of the Christ). We'll definitely be checking out his future work.