Opening tomorrow for a weeklong run at the Midtown Art Cinema, The First Monday in May is the first feature film produced by publishing giant Condé Nast. It focuses on a pet project of the company’s most famous employee: Condé Nast Artistic Director and Vogue Editor Anna Wintour. We get up close (“and personal” was apparently a bit too much to ask) with her as she conceptualizes and plans the annual Metropolitan Museum Gala alongside Met Costume Institute Curator Andrew Bolton. The famously glamorous and star-studded event is referred to in the film, appropriately enough, as “the Superbowl of Fashion.” Though the film provides plenty of eye candy in terms of beautiful clothes, celebrities and other wealth-porn, the self-promotional endeavor ends up seeming, somewhat paradoxically, blundering and unstylish as it uncomfortably straddles the line between documentary and advertising.
None of this is to say that the film isn’t pretty. Director Andrew Rossi fills the screen with ample shots of beautiful clothes and the gorgeous halls and objects of the Met museum. The overarching narrative about the underpinnings, decision-making, and stresses that go into planning an event of the gala’s magnitude is suitably entertaining and engrossing.
Still, partway through, the film turns — perhaps it was unavoidably drawn — in a serious direction. The Costume Institute’s 2015 exhibition (the opening of which, on the first Monday in May, is the ostensible occasion for the annual gala) has an ick-making theme: it’s called “China: Through The Looking Glass.” Western designers’ cheesy Chinoiserie raises some serious questions about cultural appropriation and misrepresentation, especially when the Asian galleries of the Met, with their ancient Buddhas and Ming vases, are opened and used as a backdrop for the garments. Such questions are mentioned as an issue “which must be handled delicately” as Bolton puts it, and then are more or less dismissed without much comment.
The larger question of whether or not fashion truly belongs in a museum like the Met is similarly glossed over and presented in a one-sided manner. The supporters of fashion’s incursion into the realm of high art all have their say, but the detractors are never given a real opportunity to articulate an alternative viewpoint; instead the opposition is summarily dismissed as puritanical, old-fashioned, and, in the case of the China exhibition, political and ideological rather than aesthetic.
Some of the entertainment here is unintentional. Scenes in which Bolton and crew are weighing the pros and cons of displaying Mao suits as style objects can come off like something straight out of Spinal Tap for the outrageous level of self-absorption coupled with a lack of self-awareness. Hong Kong film director Wong Kar-wai, who was brought in as the exhibition’s artistic director, appears in a few scenes looking uncomfortable. The money, the celebrity, the massive machinations, the tacky theme: there’s more than a touch of pre-French Revolution aristocracy about all the excess.
As with a lot of single-minded, propagandistic films, an opposing view does emerge slowly, quietly, but perhaps, in the end, with more urgency and force than if it had actually been intended. In the clamor and noise of The First Monday in May, it’s easy to see that there is a reasonable argument to be made for strong resistance to fashion’s inclusion in the realm of high art. Fashion takes in everything — outmoded Chinoiserie, ancient Buddha sculptures, the Temple of Dendur, Mao suits — as “inspiration,” to be subsumed for the creation of stylish effect. It’s not so much that fashion is tainted by commerce — the weak counter argument suggested and then disregarded in the film — that makes it a problematic late entry into institutions like the Met. Fashion has a flattening effect on everything, very much in opposition to the aims of high art. Something of the quiet aesthetic dignity of art, with its intellectual and formalistic challenges, is steamrolled over by the noisy world of fashion and celebrity.
A telling moment: At one point in the film, a few days before the big gala event, Wintour is looking around the event space at the Metropolitan Museum, puzzling over where she might unobtrusively stick a table of less-than-fabulous attendees. She zeroes in on a little nook behind a column, and a Met official objects that the table would be too close to that architectural element. “This isn’t art,” says the Vogue editor and persistent crusader for fashion’s inclusion in the realm of high art. “It’s just a column.” The beleaguered official explains that the column is made by Tiffany. We hear Wintour’s response — she haughtily retorts that the gala raises millions for the Met. An unpretty answer perhaps, but it is true enough: If not for those millions, visitors might not be able to see that column, said official might not have a job protecting said column. We don’t find out in the film who won that particular battle, if Wintour was able to stick her table of undesirable suckers behind the column or not, but nonetheless The First Monday in May makes it perfectly clear who’s winning that war.
The First Monday in May can be seen at the Midtown Art Cinema from April 15 to 20.
Andrew Alexander is an Atlanta-based critic who covers visual art, dance, and theater.