Tag Archives: movie

Currently Viewing – Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel

This week I finally got to watch this documentary on Diana Vreeland, and it was worth the wait.  Because the film was produced by Vreeland’s granddaughter-in-law, I was afraid that it would be a bit of a sappy tribute.  But no,no,no!  It was carefully crafted from Vreeland’s 1984 memoir, DV, and from interviews she did at the time with Diane Sawyer, Dick Cavett and a smirking Jane Pauley.

In 1983 Vreeland asked George Plimpton to help her write the story of her life.  They conducted a series of interviews which were edited to form DV.  The film uses voice actors to recreate the interviews, along with the film interviews.  While the book gives one a glimpse into the life and character of Vreeland, the film brings what is essentially the same material to life.  Reading Vreeland’s words and seeing her speak them are two entirely different experiences.

The film also includes quite a few interviews with people who worked with her both at Vogue and at the Costume Institute.  It was really interesting how few of them could talk about Vreeland without gesturing with their arms or without exaggerating their voices.  They could not recall her without showing the grand manner in which she spoke.

Particularly interesting was the interview with Harold Koda, who at the time was an intern, and then an assistant curator at the Costume Institute.  He addressed the criticism that the Vreeland shows were long on theatrics  but short on scholarship.  He explained that it was more important to Vreeland that the museum visitors feel the era being represented, rather than merely learning about it.

For an exhibition of 18th clothing Koda carefully researched the high wigs worn at court.  After faithfully reproducing the hairstyle, Vreeland insisted that it was not high enough, so the wig was expanded.  Upon seeing the mannequins they were to use for the show she exclaimed, “They have no éclat! Haut! Haut! Haut!”

Also interesting were the interviews with photographer David Bailey and model Penelope Tree, especially when they were asked to recount the same episode.  Even though the interviews were conducted separately, it was like they were finishing one another’s sentences.

I was struck by who was not included – Grace Mirabella, Polly Mellon, and Si Newhouse, who worked with her at Vogue and Conde Nast.  Perhaps they were asked to interview and declined, but I think that their inclusion, even in a very small way, would have added another dimension to the film.

The film is now available on Netflix, or on pay-per-view via Youtube.  I got the dvd from Netflix, which includes a nice section of additional footage of the interviews.  I would rarely suggest this, but I really think that if you have not read the book, you should see the film first.  After watching The Eye Must Travel (twice!) I’m now reading the book with very fresh eyes.


Mrs. Vreeland in her living room.  This is from the back cover of DV.


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Currently Viewing : Watermarks

Watermarks is the story of  Jewish sports club, Hakoah Wien, which was formed in Vienna, Austria in 1909.   The club was formed as a reaction to the Aryan Paragraph, according to which Jews were forbidden membership in many organizations.  Hakoah grew quickly, and became one of Europe’s largest sports clubs.  Although the club sponsored various sports including fencing and soccer, the film is primarily concerned with the girls’ swim team of the 1930s.

In the 1930s the Hakoah swim team dominated women’s water sports in Austria.  In 1936 three members were chosen to go to the Berlin Olympics, but all three refused to participate.  For this they were banned from entering Austrian swim events, and their swim records were struck from the record books.  After the Anschluss (the annexation of Austria to the Third Reich) of 1938, the director of Hakoah became a wanted man.  He left Austria, and from the USA he orchestrated the illegal immigration of the club members to other countries.  Every member of the swim team made it to safety.

The idea for the film was to have a reunion of the remaining swim team members  at the old swimming pool in Vienna.  The filmmaker crafts the story by way of archival film and photos, and with interviews with the women, who at the time of the filming in 2004, were all in their 80s.

They tell a compelling story of feeling like strangers in their own country.  Several are worried about returning to a city that turned its back on them, young women who only wanted “swimming, training, swimming, swimming, swimming.”  But they do return and take to the pool wearing reproductions of their 1930s swimsuits.

Watermarks was suggested to me by a reader of The Vintage Traveler who thought I might enjoy the film, and was she ever right.  I love it when this happens!

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Currently Viewing – Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston

Fair warning:  some of you are going to hate me for recommending this film, and others are going to be mildly displeased, but hopefully most of you are going to watch it not as the filmmaker intended, but as I suggest.  That’s because the film is about Halston, but it is not about Halston.  If you filter out the nonsense and just pay attention to the archival footage and the interviews, you’ll make it through just fine.

The problem with Halston: In Search of Ultrasuede is hinted at in the title.  Whitney Smith, the filmmaker and narrator, really wants this film to be about himself, and so he interjects his own “journey” into the Halston story.  It’s a gimmick that just doesn’t work, partly because of his maddening insistence on altering his appearance in every scene.  It is at first confusing, and ultimately distracting.  All I can say is, “why?”

But I’ll say that Smith did a remarkable job of getting interviews with all the right people, or Beautiful People, as they would have been known as in the 1970s.  The cast of characters is long and comprehensive with interviews with everyone from Ralph Rucci (who worked for Halston in the late 1970s) to Liza Minnelli to Billy Joel.  What a treat it would be to see some of these interview sessions in their entirety.

Another plus is the wealth of vintage footage and photos.  One really gets a feel for the late 70s/early 80s New York party scene.  You might be amused at the selective memories of some of the interviewees, though, some claiming they didn’t see drugs and sex at Studio 54.

Currently streaming on Amazon and Netflix.

Image copyright Tribeca Films

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Currently Viewing: Norma Rae

I promised earlier in the week that I’d have more to say about the 1979 movie, Norma Rae.  Norma Rae was a fictionalized version of a real event.  JP Stevens worker Crystal Lee Sutton was fired from her job for her union organizing activities, but as she was being escorted from the factory she made one last dramatic stand for her union. She quickly made a sign from a piece of cardboard, reading “UNION.”  As she stood on a table and slowly turned for all on the factory floor to see, one by one the other workers shut down their machines in solidarity with Crystal Lee.  It took several more years, but eventually JP Stevens was unionized.

Anyone interested in the textile industry really ought to see this one, if for no other reason than to see the scenes inside the working mill.  As hard as it is to believe, this was filmed inside an actual towel weaving factory,  Opelika Manufacturing in Opelika, Alabama.  I say hard to believe because why would any textile mill owner allow his property to be used in a film about the struggle to unionize?  According to a story I found from a former employee of Opelika, quite a few mills had already turned the film producer down, and it was during a chance game of golf that he found Opelika.

Being filmed inside a working mill adds a real air of authenticity to the work.  Unless you’ve ever been inside a weaving factory, you just cannot imagine how noisy or how dusty they can be.  You can see a bit of it in the movie trailer:

Inside the factory, there were always little tufts of cotton floating in the air.  Not only was this annoying, it was dangerous over the long run.  Many textile workers, including one of my father’s sisters, died from a condition caused from breathing the fibers over years, brown lung disease.

But the movie also shows the good.  Life in a cotton mill town is often remembered by people who lived in them with fondness.  The neighbors were all in the same boat, and there was a true sense of community in the town and among the workers.  The movie also references the fact that the efforts to unionize often were due to Black workers, most of whom had come into the cotton mills only after the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  It also shows how factory management tried to portray unions as a Black stronghold, knowing that the long-held prejudices would cause a rift in the union ranks.

Norma Rae Webster is a wonderfully flawed character.   When a New York union organizer comes to town, Norma Rae makes no effort to hide or sugarcoat the mistakes that have defined her adult life.  Far from being a victim of her circumstances, Norma Rae is quick to seize any opportunity that might improve her life and those of her children.  She begins to see the potential for her life as greater than being just another cog in the machine.

Okay, I do have a few quibbles with Norma Rae.  Despite a very strong performance, I found Sally Field’s (and Beau Bridges’s as well) fake North Carolina accent to be very distracting.  I realize that would not be so much a problem for people outside the region, because they are not going to hear it the same way.  Why is it that everyone in Hollywood thinks a Southern accent is easy to imitate?

Also, I thought the scenes with Pat Hingle as a doffer were pretty darned funny.  Doffers manually changed the bobbins on the machines when they emptied.  It was a high speed job, requiring manual dexterity and accuracy.  Pat Hingle looked like he was doing the job in slow motion.   In actuality, he would probably have been replaced on that job years ago.

Available on Netflix.

Image copyright 20th Century Fox


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Currently Viewing – Frankie and Annette at the Beach

When I was a kid my brother and I went to the movies a lot, like almost every Friday night or Saturday afternoon.  There was only one theater in town, but the owners knew their patrons, and so there was always a kid-friendly movie showing.  From 1962 to about 1970 I must have seen every Disney film, plus any other that appealed to the Baby  Boomer audience.

Among these films were the Beach Party series, the first of which was released in 1963.  The big name stars were Frankie Avalon, singer/heart-throb, and Annette Funicello, ex-mouseketeer.  There were seven films in all, plus a slew of copy-cat films.

On a cold rainy day not too long ago I decided to revisit the Beach Party scene.  That was easy since they are streaming on Netflix.  About 15 minutes into the first film, I began to seriously lose interest.  Amazing how what held one’s attention at age 8 just doesn’t cut it at age 57!

So I found myself fast forwarding though it, stopping to get a good look at the swimwear and the beach clothes.  Now, that is where these movies really shine!  What is really super about the costuming in these movies is that they did not try to put all the girls (or boys either, for that matter…)  into one “look”.  Annette, the demure Disney star, was dressed in more covered up two-piece suits or in maillots, whereas some of the other girls wore skimpier bikinis.

Why is that so good?  Because it is authentic.  In 1963 swimsuits were getting smaller, but some people were slower to reveal more skin, just like many women were reluctant to shorten their skirts.  Moving through the series, which ended in 1966, the bikini became more prominent, and one piece suits all but disappeared.  Still, Annette continued to be more covered up, due partly to her being pregnant in the last movie she filmed for the series!

Posters copyright American International Pictures


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Currently Viewing – Signe Chanel

Signe Chanel is one of those programs that I have watched five or six times, and I still find it amusing and intriguing.   Made to show the development of the 2004 Fall Winter Couture, it starts with the Chanel seamstresses, or petite mains, waiting for Karl Lagerfeld to show up at the Chanel atelier with the sketches for the new collection.

This is not so much Lagerfeld’s story, but the story of all the many people who make the collection possible.  Watching how the sketch becomes a reality is a marvel, even with all the missteps, and there are plenty of those.  I always sympathize with poor Laurence as she remakes one particular dress for the third (or is it fourth) time.  And dear Massaro, as he takes the shoe prototype back and forth and back and forth between his shoemaking establishment and Chanel until it is perfect, never loses his sense of humor.

Other highlights are the visits to Madame Pouzieux, the only maker of Chanel braid, on her horse farm in the French countryside.   She’s grumpy, and getting grumpier.  And in one episode, the mains talk about all the superstitions of their trade.  Just don’t drop the scissors…

Of all the documentaries showing the inside workings of a design house, Signe Chanel is my favorite.  I think I love it so much because it shows that there is still a level of clothes-making where the skill of the makers is just unequaled, and that luxury does still exist in the fashion world.  No, I can’t afford it, but that does not mean I can’t appreciate it.

But even people who do not like Lagerfeld should enjoy Signe Chanel.  He really is just one of many players.  I do wish he’d stop clicking all those rings as that did get to be quite annoying.

This film was produced by Sundance, and it is not currently showing, but the entirety of it is on Youtube.   You can watch the clip  at the top of this post for a short taste, but when you are ready to devote  two or so hours, the entire series of episodes can be accessed through the first clip, below.  Enjoy!


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Currently Viewing: Unzipped

The announcement that Isaac Mizrahi was to be one of the judges on Project Runway All Stars put me in a bit of a bad mood.  All I could think about was that terrible The Fashion Show, Bravo’s lame effort to unseat Project Runway as the Queen of fashion reality.  In the terribly over-scripted The Fashion Show, Mizrahi played the role of  Mean Girl along with catty BFF Kelly Rowlands.  It was not pretty.

I needed a reminder that Miarahi could be witty, charming, and yes, even spontaneous.  I knew exactly where to look – 1995’s  Unzipped, a look at Mizrahi as he prepared for and launched his fall 1994 collection.  It’s an interesting, if not entirely candid look inside the process of how a collection comes together.  From the inspirations (Nanook of the North plays Quiji Board with Mary Tyler Moore) to the reviews after the show, we see it all.

There’s a bizarre visit with Eartha Kitt, and Naomi Campbell before all her legal troubles.  There’s Linda Evanglista acting like that the girl you hated in high school, and Kate Moss acting like the new girl in town.  And maybe most importantly, there’s Mizrahi’s mother, who was his biggest cheerleader.

It’s all a lot of fun, but is tempered a bit by knowing what happened after the cameras stopped rolling.  The director of the movie, Douglas Keeve, was Mizrahi’s boyfriend at the time of the shooting, but after the movie was released the couple broke up, reportedly due to Mizrahi’s anger at how he was portrayed.  In 1998, Mizrahi’s backer, Chanel, pulled out, leaving Mizrahi high and dry.  He was forced to close the business.  (For a great analysis of this,  see Teri Agin’s book, The End of Fashion.)

Seventeen years after it was filmed, the movie looks a bit like a period piece, the era of the Supermodel maybe.  And there’s no evidence that I could see of Anna Wintour, but instead we are treated to the serious wisdom of Polly Mellen:  ” Be careful of makeup; be careful.”

I’m just hoping that Mizrahi’s appearance on Project Runway All Stars will have all of the humor of Unzipped, minus the diva-ness of The Fashion Show.

Photo copyright Miramax Home Entertainment


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