I’d like to open with a kind of history. This history takes many forms and surfaces in many different places with the names of the actors sometimes replaced. Occasionally, the role of the nation-state is assumed by religion and at other times it is the gods of classical antiquity who take the lead. Regardless of which iteration of this history you have heard, its narrative will be familiar to you for it is a narrative of loss.
Once upon a time, people lived in tribes. These tribes were small social entities made up of a number of different family groups that pooled their resources. Members of tribes lived together, worked together and died together and this permanent state of communion with others made their lives meaningful. Of course, human nature being what it is, tribes could not peacefully co-exist and the tribes soon began conquering each other until their dominion extended over millions of people and thousands of miles of territory. Because these abstract tribal groupings were a lot harder to manage than a couple of families that had been living and working together for generations, tribal elders began reinventing themselves as governments who began to rule over abstract political entities known as kingdoms and principalities then as nations and states. Of course, nation states were never anything more than a way of referring to the territory under the control of one particular government but they stuck around for long enough that people began to forget their tribal loyalties and began to see their nationality as a fundamental fact about themselves, a fact no different to their sex, their gender, their sexuality or their race, a fact that took the form of a noun.
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Due to a lack of money, a lack of time, a lack of people to impress and a lack of a body that someone would want to make clothes for, I have little interest in what is fashionable. I dress in pretty much the same way I did when I was 14 and I think I still have some of the same socks. As a result, you might expect me to have little interest in R. J. Cutler’s documentary about the construction of the September 2007 issue of Vogue magazine. Well, you might very well expect that, but you would be utterly wrong. It is precisely because I have no interest in what is fashionable that I find the world of fashion so profoundly compelling. Films about the fashion industry are explorations of another culture completely different to my own. A culture with a good deal of impact upon the world that we all inhabit. Because of its power and the strangeness of its people and institutions, the fashion industry is a fascinating subject for a film. Regardless of whether it is explored through mockery (as with Robert Altman’s 1994 Pret-a-Porter), hagiography (as with Rodolphe Marconi’s 1997 Lagerfeld Confidential) or thinly veiled contempt (as with David Frankel’s 2006 The Devil Wears Prada).
R.J. Cutler’s The September Issue approaches the subject with a mixture of awe and mockery but, despite some initial setbacks, the film provides some genuine insight into how it is that the world of fashion functions and why it is that it has so much power over our society.
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When Hamlet says “For there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so” he is not pre-empting the modern shift towards moral relativism. Instead he is reflecting on the capacity for human thought to render moral judgement almost completely inert. He is begging for ignorance. Cursing his intellectual nature. Wishing for simplicity. This anguished reaction against an intellectual temperament is central to Claude Chabrol’s Just Before Nightfall, a film that strives to answer the question ‘When is a murder not a murder?’.
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