R.J. Cutler, the director of documentaries such as "The War Room" about the team that got President Clinton elected, likes to tell a story about how he puts his films together. He recounts watching an interview with Wayne Gretzky, the NHL's top scorer, in which he responds to the question, "How do you do it?" by answering, "I just follow the puck." Cutler recalls realizing that while everyone else on the ice was slapping like mad to get the puck to do what they wanted it to do, Gretzky was following the puck where it wanted to go. In the same way, he doesn't force the subjects of his films to go anywhere other than where they would have gone anyway.
His latest film, out at the Sundance Film Festival, is called "The September Issue." Cutler followed Vogue's Anna Wintour and her team for nine months as they worked to produce the 2007 September issue, one that ended up being the largest in the title's history. He luckily picked the year that will likely prove to be the last gasp of the decade's luxury boom. Just a year later, the economy would be melting down. With magazine ad pages across the industry off 12% for 2008, that September issue may prove to be Vogue's apex. Buzz around the film last week centered on a scene where Wintour contemplates leaving Vogue, feeding fuel to a rumor that's been on the blogs this fall.
With the plethora of reality shows eager to use the once-glamorous world of magazines as backdrop, it's interesting that Wintour's nod to pop culture's voyeurism is the documentary film. It's a form that is more likely to end up venerating its subject than holding it up to ridicule or scorn. Like Vogue, it's the top-shelf choice if you are going to let cameras into your offices and home. Documentaries, however, are also the place where we turn to help us understand history, or the moments when situations and circumstance force a longstanding tradition to change. Wintour holds a unique position in American business; she's a journalist who has an outsize influence over the industry she covers. She's at once a curator, observer and kingmaker. But the ground is shifting beneath her high heels, and one wonders how well she can continue push the puck where she wants it to go as consumers learn brand new media habits for discovering what one should or shouldn't be wearing. The question is, where do fashionistas want to go next? And will Wintour be willing to follow them?