10 Reads If Only Rosalind Russell Had Lived

My whole life I’ve been watching the Academy Awards on television and seeing the trailers for nominees for Best Short Film, a category that’s mystifying. I have never actually seen one of the Best Short Films in its entirety, or any of the runners-up, and I actually wonder how many people have actually seen one of these throwback short films. In fact, the clips they show tend to make one think that short films might actually be too long.

Before most of us were born, the film industry had a lively business in shorts that played in the theatre before the feature. But that was before television. Back then they had cartoon shorts such as Mickey Mouse, Krazy Kat and Popeye, newsreel shorts (there was no evening news) and short films featuring such players as Robert Benchley, my favourite essayist, or The Three Stooges or The Little Rascals. These cinema preliminaries were completely replaced in modern times by a half-hour of coming attractions and, of course, a full description of what is available at the refreshment counter, as well as detailed instructions on how to sit, be quiet and turn off a telephone. Why don’t the refreshment-stand films ever get nominated?

On the other hand I have seen thousands of music videos, and ever since Devo I have never understood why there is no Best Music Video category in the Oscars, except that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to want to encourage the making of distinguished films that nobody will ever see. Imagine the craziness music video could have brought to the plodding Oscars.

As an art form the music video isn’t a new idea, it’s as old as sound on film. They had film jukeboxes in the 1940s – Scopitones. Short music films were always essentially advertisements for records, just as they were when MTV came along. And now, with the arrival of broadband digital media, the iPad and other tablet platforms, and the resulting synergy between computer and print magazines, as well as new video channels, there’s a place for fashion films. And with the luxury trades booming, there’s plenty of money to put into the magic that makes people buy. Fashion films are made much like the music videos they often resemble, and are produced by designers, eager and ambitious directors and photographers, and brands looking to show off in something more powerful than print.

Actually, some of the best fashion films can pass as music videos, such as Somewhere in America, directed by Sheikh & Bake with the Jay-Z track, which sports a posse of fly Muslim chicks skateboarding (in heels), strutting their stuff and otherwise cavorting fashionably in an urban setting, with their hair covered but their bad selves on full display. It looks like the future, more than, say, A$AP Rocky’s fashionista music video Fashion Killa. And, “Somewhere in America Miley Cyrus is still twerkin’.”

Maybe someday fashion will cross over with other popular video genres. Fashion could do a lot more with porn. I’m sure Sasha Grey could sell some clothes, even by taking them off. But most fashion films today stick pretty close to the fashion script. The sudden arrival of the fashion film meant that fashion photographers had to become film-makers (or at least hire a crew to lurk on their sets) and that every campaign from now on would involve video as well as still pictures. After it became apparent that “the making of video” was no longer very compelling, the film-makers began flirting with having a concept. They started small – with the sort of concepts that one sees in the well fashion stories in the various Vogues. The concept might be about the sets, the hair, the make-up, or something the tech guy came up with, some new software effect. Eventually the concept might even involve a story or an actual idea. Ryan McGinley’s Beautiful Rebels, for example, involves the idea of butterflies landing in number on attractive young people. Something I have to admit I hadn’t seen before. I’m still wondering if any butterflies were harmed in the making of that. They seemed kind of glued on.

But concept has a long way to go – most fashion films are too much fashion and not enough film. I think this happens when the creative directors or artist/photographers err on the side of artiness rather than entertainment. I think the best description of this tendency came to me from Pascal Dangin, the very clever operator of the Box retouching house and the new Kids ad agency, who recounted to me his solicited response to a director’s “How did you like my film?” He said, “It’s not a film, it’s a screensaver.”

I think I’ve seen that one. Over and over. Many photographers look to technology for that big idea. Hey, I’m going to make a film with an app that has never been used before! Let’s shoot these girls with a fuzztone and a wah-wah pedal. Fashion, being based on militant novelty, would seem to be the perfect place to use the latest fractal programme, special effect or visual black box, but digital gimmicks are not really going to give a film much impact or staying power. There are exceptions. Santiago & Mauricio’s She’s Electric has a certain charm because of its shameless Tron-ness, its Atari futurism or its Kraftwerk-y model-ness – but it’s an exception because it treats high-tech as a sort of instant retro. But inside a year most of the videos that attempt to look like the future will look as quaint as a Fillmore ballroom light show or a lava lamp.

Unless you’re making a film like Sin City or 300 or Inception, special effects just aren’t that special. Technology is fickleness itself. When computer mastery works is when it is used to frame content, not just show itself off. Quentin Jones makes great little fashion films by combining her talents as an artist and illustrator with digital-editing possibilities, resulting in something that exploits fashion and music but brings in animation and graphics to produce fun and games. Low tech, another popular strategy, leads to the same problems as high tech. We’ve seen glitches, distortion, blatant fuck-ups and shockingly low res before. It always makes me think, “Well, I liked it when Harmony Korine did it.”

I remember some very successful photographer friends saying to me, “Wow, you’re really going to be in demand now for fashion films. They’re going to need words and stories.” They never mentioned it again. But I think that writing, acting and production values are inevitable and it is now possible to find art-house-quality storytelling, acting and directing occurring in this genre.

Prada is the MGM Studios of fashion-film studios, having produced wonderful films by Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola, one starring Jason Schwartzman as a madcap American sports-car-rally contestant in Italy 1955, who crashes in a tiny town only to find his roots there. The new series, starring the delicious, immaculate Léa Seydoux as Prada’s Candy, pursued by a pair of rival Parisian Antoine Doinel wannabes in joint hot pursuit is a delight that makes you long for a musical-comedy revival with Nouvelle Vague tendencies. Roman Polanski also directed a little masterpiece for Prada, A Therapy, starring Ben Kingsley as the doctor and Helena Bonham Carter as his bored, upper-crust, narcissist patient. I won’t give up the action, but the film is one flawless scene, a one-act play. I’d love to see the feature.

For me, the most interesting auteur of fashion film is the director Monica Menez, who creates elegant, stylish comedies that derive their storylines from the lives of those committed to fashion. She’s like a girly version of Almodovar. Menez’s Hors d’Oeuvre is a three-act study of an extremely artificial creature of high fashion played with great physical comic style by the model Albe Hamiti. But she also seems to have the detachment of a Stepford Wife and the vulnerability of Julianne Moore’s character in Todd Haynes’ Safe. In the first chapter she is luxuriously styled but seemingly depressed to the point of catatonia and appears bent on self-destruction, until a surprise ending reveals further reasons for her distraction. In episode two she enters her home with an armload of bundles and performs hands-free tricks while navigating in the highest of heels. In episode three she performs a series of manual tasks carefully with freshly painted fingernails until losing concentration. Not to reveal too much, but Menez’s Precious is a surrealist fashion cooking sex fantasy that features a lap dance on pizza dough.

Her Odditory takes place in a college classroom theatre where smart young things, male and female, rather surreal in their demeanour (and wigs), perform a musical piece with peculiar actions, including slapping raw pork chops together, flamenco spanking, heavy breathing, desk licking, and striking their heads with their expensive heels, the entire ensemble conducted by the sound-effects teacher who is played by a very limber Thomas Lempertz, the designer of Goldknopf Couture. What makes Menez’s films particularly delightful is that they capture the frivolity, quirkiness and otherworldliness inherent in fashion when it’s in full effect. We get that sense of Stepford Wife zombie that Miles Aldridge does so well, but rather than sinister, she is a delightful and non-threatening fashion automaton.

The best fashion films are invariably comedies and, at its best, fashion is romantic comedy. (When it’s romantic tragedy, run.) That’s what makes Steven Meisel a superb fashion film-maker. It seems that all of his work in stills and film is essentially a way to amuse an increasingly hard-to-please self. The result is a body of the richest and most baroque works of art from the peculiar planet that Italian Vogue inhabits. In print there was the supermodel mental hospital. In film there is the Lanvin SS13 campaign shoot where Alber Elbaz, who should host Saturday Night Live, calls in on Skype to kibitz. Elbaz oohs and ahhs: “Oh my God, it’s beautiful. The lighting is very, very nice. Oh it’s divine. I like it. I like it a lot. The perspective is just sick. Very, very poetic. It’s very chic. There’s something very California about the whole campaign. It’s very cinematography!” You can’t get any more inside that wacky world than this. But we want more.

Maybe the future of fashion film is the past. Features! Funny Face had Fred Astaire playing Avedon. How about Russell Brand as Steven Meisel? What about Zoolander: The Final Frontier? Beelzebub wears Marni? The impossibilities are endless.


By Glenn O’Brien

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