September issues


In a 1981 novel set in 1969, a newly megafamous author gets a letter from a TV producer.  “Dear Mr. Zuckerman,” it begins,

For a number of years I have been planning to film a series of half-hour television shows (in color) to be called “A Day in the Life of …” The format, which is no more than a carbon of the ancient Greek Tragedy, is a recitation of the hour-by-hour activities of a well-known person, and offers an intimate personal look at someone who, in the normal course of events, the audience would not see or meet [ ...]  Basically, it inolves filming one complete day, from breakfast to bedtime, of a celebrity who will excite the interest of millions of onlookers.  To achieve one day without dull spots, we will average four days of filming candid unrehearsed material.”The letter goes on in this vein for a bit before concluding, “My guess is that such a production will enhance your career — and mine too.”

In the novel, the newly famous author refuses. Since then, a lot of people in the real world have said yes, including — semi- shockingly — Vogue editor Anna Wintour.

You’d think, based on what you think you know about Anna Wintour, that she would have tossed out a documentarian’s entreaty the moment it crossed her immaculate desk.   What could she have hoped that saying yes would accomplish?  This is a woman, after all, whose feats of self-construction are already responsible for two enormously commercially successful renderings of what life is like for the staff of Vogue.  “The Devil Wears Prada” has permanently cemented in the public’s imagination an image of Wintour ruling the global fashion industry with an iron-cast, fur-lined velvet glove, dismissing millions of dollars and thousands of hours’ worth of work with a barely discernible smirk and a subdued “That’s all.”

But for whatever reason — egotism, or a continued cultivation of a Martha Stewartian unexpectedly-good-sportish persona, or orders from her corporate overlords (phrased of course as faint suggestions) — Wintour acceded to R.J. Cutler’s request to film the production of the magazine’s September 2007 issue, no doubt with some heavy-duty contractual caveats about what could and could not be shown.  The resulting film is noteworthy simply because it exists.   It is noteworthy that no one involved in making it was dissuaded from doing so by worries about whether the preexistence of a successful and convincing fictional take on a situation might render documentation of the “reality” of the same situation superfluous.   And it is still more noteworthy that the film succeeds, though maybe not in the way that it intends to, in spite of this valid concern.

I didn’t watch the movie with the intention of writing about it, so I don’t pretend to really be “reviewing” it here.  If you are looking for a review, Mahnola Dargis’s review is very good.  Dargis is evenhanded and precise in her delineation both of the movie’s high points and its failure to indict fashion for, essentially, glossing over the worst aspects of capitalism with a veneer of shiny, pretty Art:

Of course it really is all about money. Despite being crammed with glossy images of beautiful, weird, unattractive, ridiculous and prohibitively expensive clothes and accessories, Vogue isn’t about fashion: it’s about stoking the desire for those clothes and accessories. It’s about the creation of lust and the transformation of wants into needs. Almost everything in this temple of consumption, including its lavish layouts and the celebrities who now most often adorn its covers, hinges on stuff for sale. Some of that stuff comes with a price tag, but some of it is more ephemeral because Vogue is also in the aspiration business. Mr. Cutler doesn’t notice or doesn’t care about any of that, which makes his movie as facile as it is fun.”

Yes to that, except for one thing: I didn’t think this movie was fun at all.  I was transfixed by it, but as I sat watching it I started to feel sadder and sadder, and then I went home and went to bed and slept and had nightmares — really bad ones! — about being some kind of junior assistant at Vogue.  I told a friend who’d worked at magazines about my dream (she’d been in it), and she said that when she’d seen the movie, it had “kind of felt like being at work.”  And this is, ultimately, the important thing “The September Issue” manages to convey that “The Devil Wears Prada” powerfully hinted at, but never captured: the vivid horror of being in a work situation where you have drunk so much of the company Kool-Aid — you had to, you realized early on, in order be able to do your job at all — that now you don’t even notice anymore that you are drinking it.  It’s water to you now, or air.

This is the one arena in which “reality” almost incidentally, and maybe inadvertently, trumps fiction: the haunted eyes and hardened faces of real Vogue staffers make their self-inflicted suffering and its source plain in a way that the actresses who played them in “The Devil” couldn’t replicate with artifice. Watching that movie, you wondered, “Why don’t they just quit?”  Watching this movie, you understand perfectly well why they never will.   And while this may not be the aspect of her legacy that Wintour had hoped to enshrine, it does make for riveting viewing.  Then again, so do those PETA slaughterhouse videos, and in much the same way.

13 comments to September issues

  • Lionel Mandrake

    I went to see this with my wife, who works fairly high up in a glossy mag as well, and her response almost exactly the same as your friend’s response, namely “that it was like going to a movie of work”.

  • Anon

    I want to think of a mean comment like “Seth” or one of those morons because those are are kind of funny and entertaining. But I love this blog! Please keep writing you’re awesome. Ass kissing comments are boring though.

  • ow a paper cut

    Vogue is in 74th place. I’m guessing that the figures for AARP and AAA publications are misleading because they probably come with membership. It would be interesting to see the trend in circulation over the past few years.
    Perhaps Vogue’s footprint on the popular culture isn’t captured by its circulation but I think it’s interesting to see it in this context. I’m guessing that Anna Wintour knows these figures.

  • ow a paper cut

    Here’s a look at circulation revenue for the Top 100 magazines. This should combine unit price and copies sold so it should remove any advantage that freebies enjoy in a tally of circulation. You’ll see Vogue is in 54th place. I don’t know its competitors but perhaps you folks do.

  • ow a paper cut

    Of course revenue from advertising is vitally important to a magazine and it also offers an appraisal of how companies view its potential influence. In glancing at this table, I believe Vogue is in 5th place (I omitted Sunday mags).

  • bug eyes

    @ paper cut – BIGness does not automatically equate to quality and substance. Geographically, Alaska and Montana are big states, but their populations are just under 690,000 and 970,000 respectively.

    “Of course revenue from advertising is vitally important to a magazine and it also offers an appraisal of how companies view its potential influence.” Companies enjoy having their ads next to pictures of supermodels clad in bespoke dresses. It is one of the oldest subliminal tricks in the book – to see an ad for body spray or a car after you just glanced at a picture of an Ashton Kutcher look-alike kissing a Hillary Duff look-alike. Your mind links the two together. Seeing an attractive person creates a feel-good response, and when you couple a brand with that attractive person, the feel-good response is translated to the product.

    What are we bloggers but jealous wannabe writers and journralists (not you, Emily) railing against the old-school media system. We only wish we could have the circulation numbers (hits) that Vogue has, and we can only dream of being backed by their advertising dollars. We call it evil that somebody else is feeding our heads because we want to be the ones feeding the masses. Our envy betrays our greed, so who are we to denounce greed? (I’m not judging Emily’s post, because I do my fair share of denouncing the power structure as well.)

    Web 2.0: the democratization of the Internet has not changed anything, we are all still worker robots for the rich, in our virtual worlds just as in our physical ones.

  • LOL at bug eyes choosing hillary duff and ashton kutcher for that example, brought me back to high school.

  • bug eyes

    @ mike – Okay, Daniel Craig and Kate Beckinsale look-alikes.

    and for the 45+ crowd, Alec Baldwin and Catherine Hicks look-alikes.

  • ow a paper cut

    bug eyes, thanks. I think you’ve been proven correct because the ad revenue that Vogue enjoys is out of proportion to their readership. I’m grateful to Emily for having posted this. I had no familiarity with this topic.

  • Dave

    hi bug eyes, I think you’re off topic a bit shooting Emily (and all bloggers) down for passing moral judgments. I don’t think that is what she was doing, maybe you should read the post again.

    Watch this

  • Interestingly, I didn’t catch a single mention of the web when I saw it last week. Did I miss any? Instead, there were about a half a dozen scenes with proofs coming off a printer, and the more I think about it, the more I think that was intentional.

  • Haven’t seen the movie yet but had a friend from college who ran the closet at Harpers for a year, and I watched her descend into the Kool Aid drinking nether regions you’re talking about. She knew that the worship of all things high fashion wasn’t her thing… problem was, to justify the ridiculous stress and long hours and the battering of her self esteem, she had to force herself to believe it really meant something. And since deep down, she couldn’t, she ended up trying to convince everyone else to care as much as she was supposed to.

    The book did the job a little better than the movie – but I agree that the Devil Wears Prada didn’t totally capture the emotional and physical grinder they go through. There’s something horrible about being forced to believe that a trunk of over priced clothes gone missing in Tunisia is a matter of life and death. And this was at 3am on a Friday. In a rom com, it’s kinda funny. When you see it in real life, it just makes you angry.

    Luckily my friend made it out alive and mentally intact, but she had to spend a year in the Himalayas to equalize. There’s something really wrong with a system that does that to people.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>