May Day

Will these hardworking and well-financed people pull off their lavish social event in time?

Still from The First Monday in May, “a beautiful infomercial with a flawed premise.”

Andrew Rossi (director). The First Monday in May. 2016.

Approximately 250,000 roses had to die for last year’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Gala. They were assembled into an enormous replica of a chinoiserie vase, flowers dyed blue and white forming the outlines of a Ming-style porcelain glaze, and greeted guests who had finished walking the red carpet and were making their way into the party. I tried to find out how big the vase was and couldn’t; by sight, it’s at least the height of the average runway model ten times over. To watch Andrew Rossi’s new documentary The First Monday in May, which premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 13th and is now in limited theatrical release, is to be prompted to ask whether this kind of indoor landscaping is reasonable rather than extravagant. Roses wither every season—why not pluck hundreds of thousands of them first in the name of art, or some approximation thereof?

The documentary takes its title from the date of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute Gala, a fundraising event that floats the budget of the Costume Institute for the entire year and doubles as a red carpet spectacular designed to promote the theme of the Institute’s summer show. The Met Gala is a collaboration between the Met, Condé Nast, Vogue, and several carefully selected celebrity co-chairs ostensibly chosen for their relevance to the theme of the annual show. In one scene, Vogue Editor-at-Large André Leon Talley refers to the gala as “the Super Bowl of fashion,” but looking at the doors of the Met—its hours of operation lists the museum’s only closure dates as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day, and the first Monday in May—one understands it to be considered a more traditionally holy day.

In the past decade, documentaries like Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008), The September Issue (2009), Bill Cunningham New York (2011), and Iris (2014) have successfully applied the enjoyable conventions of documentary filmmaking to the often maligned and frequently derided titans of fashion. The industry has proven itself well suited to these conventions, partly because fashion thrives on seeming ineffable and instinctive, and yet once subjected to demystifying techniques of contemporary documentary, it is simple, straightforward. We’re still in the grace period between recognizing these tropes and finding them clichés: there is the “fraught but fulfilling relationship between powerful collaborators” documentary, as seen between Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington in The September Issue, or Valentino Garavani’s life and business partnership with Giancarlo Giammetti in The Last Emperor. There is the “honor an eccentric while they’re still alive” documentary, like the sweet Bill Cunningham New York, or Albert Maysles’ Iris, about the gracious interior designer turned street-style fashion icon Iris Apfel. (Or like, I suspect, the upcoming Grace Coddington biopic, which was revealed to be a project in the very early planning stages when the Sony email hacks were made public last year.) But The First Monday in May is a movie that tips the scale: it exploits the resources available only to serve the film’s characters, and not to serve the audience. Rossi’s film is a beautiful infomercial with a flawed premise and, in blurring the line between the filmmaker and his subjects, even worse politics. It is purely a marketing tool for Condé Nast, Vogue, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, and Anna Wintour, who sits at the center of it all.

Of course the film has more than just an agenda; it has a story. In 2014, Vogue and the Costume Institute allowed Rossi to film the months leading up to the 2015 gala; it is unclear if he was invited or initiated the project himself, but considering that the film was co-produced by Condé Nast Entertainment, I suspect it was the former. The theme of the exhibition was “China: Through the Looking Glass,” and Andrew Bolton, the Costume Institute’s co-curator since 2002, was aiming to top the record-breaking attendance- and profit figures of 2011’s “Savage Beauty,” the Alexander McQueen show that took place just one year after his suicide. From December until that crucial first Monday, we follow Bolton, his then co-curator Harold Koda, Wintour, Vogue special projects director Sylvana Ward Burnett, and their teams as they race to get the exhibit—and most importantly, the party— ready. Rihanna is set to perform; Jennifer Lawrence is a co-chair; the Department of Asian Art will co-host, making this one of the few times a Costume Institute exhibition will be in the main galleries of the Met. There are many, many egos involved, bold-faced names and big characters, but very little of interest happens in front of Rossi’s camera. Instead, we get the new but already hackneyed mainstays of the fashion documentary film: the stakes have never been higher, the clothes never more beautiful, the sympathy for misunderstood members of the fashion industry never more necessary, the triumph of a job well done never more satisfying.

Rossi begins with scenes of the red carpet, a poor choice. Even though we’ve already seen the photos of celebrities arriving to the event on the internet—particularly Rihanna’s yellow Guo Pei cape—and even though the images themselves have already filled a special newsstand print edition of Vogue devoted just to the Met Gala, the drama of both the Gala and the film is in the reveal, something Rossi doesn’t seem to understand. Documentaries revolving around past events, like this one, have limited narrative possibilities, bound as they are to the rules of linear time. (It’s been one year since the Gala in question; this week, their new exhibition, “manus x machina,” opens.) Rossi’s best remaining avenue for drama is thus the possibility of hidden fuck-ups, close calls, near-misses. If we see how the red carpet came together in the beginning, all the following scenes—tense with the odds that the show could fall apart at any moment—lose their power. And this film should be, more than anything else, about power. Instead, May meanders even as it stays in a straight line, showing us the predictable process of putting together a Met Gala: ideas meetings; strained conversations between powerful people; blurred seating arrangements; stressful phone calls about Rihanna’s budgets; scenes of young women in capris and ballet flats following directions; art directors and social media editors clicking on desktop computers and iPhones—the well-lighted and recognizable banality of working in media.

But Rossi isn’t making a mistake, exactly. Deflecting the reveal is part of the problem with these films: they promise to take you backstage, but in doing so, distract more than they disclose. The questions Rossi poses by narrative construction are meant to provide tension, but are just tedious, the dramatics forced. Will these hardworking and well-financed people pull off their lavish social event in time? Spoiler alert, but, yes! Will these two cultural institutions work together to accomplish a massive marketing campaign in both of their best financial interests? Obviously! In the process of doing so, will they make a terrible mistake that cannot be fixed in time? Probably! Can fashion transcend centuries of racist representations of marginalized cultures outside the Western world? No! Is fashion art? Who cares! But they are such pretty questions, intercut with scenes of technicians and tailors at the Met doing the hard, satisfying work of carefully preparing the materials for the exhibitions (the scenes of men and women in white lab coats and gloves, handling the couture gowns with reverent sensuality, are gorgeous).

These questions were—and are, still—a problem. As Bolton and Koda repeat over and over again in May, the aim of “China: Through the Looking Glass” was to focus on Western fashion’s interpretations of Chinese aesthetics, as seen through films and other forms of trickle-down cultural tourism. The exhibition featured works by designers like John Galliano, who darkly alludes to his time as an “outsider” in fashion. (He is referring to the widely circulated tape of his drunken rant in a cafe—in which he is heard to be yelling at some Italian shoppers, “I love Hitler . . . People like you would be dead. Your mothers, your forefathers would all be fucking gassed”—that cost him his job at Dior. He has since resumed work as the creative director of Margiela.) Other designers include Jean-Paul Gaultier, Sarah Barton for Alexander McQueen, and other predominantly white, famous European designers, with the exception of Guo Pei, referred to in Judith Thurman’s recent New Yorker profile as China’s first “homegrown master couturier.” The idea, as Bolton and Wintour never tire of saying, is to explore the complexity inherent in one culture borrowing from another; they insist they are not glorifying appropriation, but rather exploring the ways fashion can bring two cultures together. In one such instance, Wintour reminds Rihanna she must say something to this effect before her performance at the gala. I would say it loses meaning in repetition, but it was meaningless to begin with.

In the press announcement, in late 2014, Bolton is seen telling the assembled media representatives that the exhibition will feature films that inspired Western designers, like Gaultier, who tells Rossi that China is better understood through movies; the visuals are “better souvenirs,” he says, than anything he could get from actually visiting. One such film is In The Mood For Love, whose director, Wong Kar-wai, was designated the artistic director for the exhibition. (In 2001, the year after the In The Mood For Love’s release, Gaultier showed a collection entirely based on the costumes from that film.) Other co-chairs include businesswoman Wendi Murdoch and textile magnate Silas Chou, although their combined screen time in May is perhaps five to ten minutes—just long enough to add hollow dramatic tension to Bolton and Wintour’s noble journeys.1 In one tense scene, Murdoch asks why there are so few contemporary Chinese designers included in the exhibition, and Chou repeats her concerns, asking why this exhibition doesn’t look forward instead of back. We are, again, shown Bolton monologuing on his idea that there are no contemporary Chinese fashion aesthetics, a sad side effect of China’s sad history; he’s really just so sad about it but what can he do, by showing the work of Western designers inspired by cliché ideas about their country, are they not asking visitors to wonder what could be next for Chinese fashion?

Scenes meant to provide tension come in droves: as we enter the second half of the film, there is the pushback from the Metropolitan Museum’s Department of Asian Art, which has men in suits avoiding eye contact with one another as they ask, as politely as possible, whether their extensive collection of Chinese art and artifacts is going to be reduced to backdrops for Galliano’s Dior gowns. When Bolton wants to put a Mao jacket in the Buddha Gardens, Wong objects, saying it will offend both Chinese and Buddhist visitors. Bolton insists that he is not afraid of controversy or—as he puts it, “dissenters”—but mercifully concedes. A trip to Beijing to speak to Chinese journalists seems to go poorly, as one writer dares to ask Wintour and Bolton, who also like to repeat that their version of fashion history is one that promotes fantasy above all else, about reality. “Fantasy is likely to incur misconceptions,” the reporter says. “As curator, you must know that.” Wintour pointedly asks if she is questioning the idea of fantasy in fashion; Bolton defends himself, saying that “all fashion tells stories.” After the reporter leaves, Bolton tells Wintour he felt like she was “really politicizing it.” Wintour responds by complaining, “She just wants everything to start in 1949.”

The most painfully clueless moment comes in an extended sequence, right in the middle of the film, explaining Anna May Wong’s presence in the exhibition. Scenes from her most famous roles, like Shanghai Express, are projected inside glass cases holding dresses that invoke her costumes. Known as the first Chinese American movie star—her breakout role was The Thief of Baghdad in 1924—she was celebrated for her beauty even as she was forced to embody many of the Asian stereotypes ubiquitous in Hollywood, like the “Dragon Lady,” which Bolton describes in great detail. In a talking head interview with Baz Luhrmann, the director and producer of this show and many other Met Costume Institute exhibitions, Luhrmann connects this archetype to, of all people, Anna Wintour, risibly offering the notion that, much like Wong, Wintour—one of the most powerful people in the country and a linchpin of the Democratic Party fundraising elite—has been unfairly maligned as a Dragon Lady herself. It is embarrassing to all that this even needs saying, but  I would like to remind Rossi, Luhrmann, and the producers listed on this film that Anna May Wong played roles written for her by white men for the benefit of white audiences. Anna Wintour plays a role written by herself for her own benefit.

The recurring question that May asks of its viewers and subjects is whether fashion can be art. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say the film wants to ask who will let fashion be art, concerned as it is with the gatekeepers of institutions like the Met that have historically disparaged “the decorative arts.” Koda speaks wonderfully to this point, calling the American relationship with art one with deep Puritanical roots; any kind of commerce is seen as ruining art, which excludes all fashion, something Koda considers an unfair generalization. (I am inclined to agree.) But throughout the course of the film it becomes clear that Koda, Bolton, and Wintour have their own kinds of puritanical ideas about art in commerce. Their art form is commerce, and they seem to resent that their responsibilities as curators get in the way of their responsibilities as merchants. They love fashion, the business, as an art form, and not fashion, the art, as a profitable enterprise—a difference they would prefer us not to think too deeply about.

By making a movie that asks us to see the concerns of Chinese benefactors, Chinese journalists, and the curators of the Department of Asian Art as barriers to the successful execution of an exhibition supposedly about China, Rossi surrenders any possibility of gaining true insight into one of the most important industries in the world. Despite constantly invoking the idea that “East meets West” is a valiant goal for the curators of this exhibition, at no point does their introspection go further beyond the superficial appreciation of a gown based on Western fantasies of China. The film does not spend any time asking us to think about, for example, the importance of purely transactional business relationships between East and West, or of the educational responsibilities of museums.

Since the directors and producers did not ask themselves why the perspectives of Chinese advisors and consultants weren’t prioritized more throughout the film, I will not ask either. But since the producers include the stars of this film and their parent company, I will ask what made them think this was a flattering, enlightening, or even necessary portrait of themselves and their work. The fact that this film was deliberately made to promote their agenda yet shows a lack of any critical introspection betrays a startling naivety. More than that, it lacks the studiousness we expect of artists—if that is, as Bolton says, how we are supposed to consider their chosen designers. We learn about these subjects only what they failed to see about themselves, another choice that reveals little but a misunderstanding of their own resources. The ending, with a title card revealing that the exhibition closed with over 800,000 visitors (more than “Savage Beauty” after all) and that the Gala raised $12.5 million for the museum, asks us whether those numbers are not art themselves, or at least some approximation thereof.

  1. Chou is, in some ways, the greatest missed opportunity of this film. Perhaps the most financially significant person in American fashion featured, he transformed two massive brand-name corporations—Tommy Hilfiger and Michael Kors—as an early investor, and Hilfiger and Kors have dominated the market as a direct result of his investments. Both brands represent a crucial vision of American sportswear; with his backing they turned their names into living idols, most notably Kors, whose public offering in 2011 was the largest ever in US fashion, according to the Financial Times, valuing the company at forty-four times above its net earnings in the four quarters preceding the stock market debut. Toward the end of the documentary, the reveal of the exhibition itself is narrated by Kors, as he takes his date, Kate Hudson, through the different rooms, explaining who made what and why it matters—a filmmaking decision that goes unexplained. It makes no sense (why is Michael Kors, who is in no way an expert on Asian art or Chinese fashion, telling us about this exhibition, and not Bolton, or Wintour?) until we realize that Michael Kors would not even be someone who could get a seat at the Met Gala if not for Silas Chou. 

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