Sunday, September 23, 2012
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel
A lot of people read the word “documentary” and see “broccoli.” A documentary is a movie you’re supposed to see because it’s good for you – it’s educational, it’s highbrow, it’s rich in iron and calcium. Bullshit. A great documentary is as entertaining as any feature film, or more. Not two minutes go by in “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” without a huge laugh. It’s a perfect match of biographical style and subject, as witty, breezy, and over-the-top as DV herself, and as much fun as “The September Issue.”
Constructed around a series of audiotape interviews Vreeland conducted with George Plimpton, her collaborator on her 1984 autobiography, “Travel” doesn’t follow the standard path of birth, childhood, education, and career. Diana dispenses with her family life in five minutes. She grew up in France and England (“The best thing about London, of course, is Paris”) and New York, where she spent all her time in Harlem watching Josephine Baker.
Discovered by the editor of Harper’s Bazaar, who hired her based on her outfit, she decided this era of fiscal austerity was just the time for a flamboyant column called “Why Don’t You…” (“Why don’t you paint the walls of your child’s room with maps of the world so they don’t grow up with a provincial attitude?”) She soon rose to fashion editor at Harper’s and, after 25 years there, became editor-in-chief of Vogue (the position now held by Anna Wintour).
Vreeland viewed a fashion magazine as a picture book, not something to be read straight through. She conceived of layouts as stories, not collections of individual shots, and believed images should transport readers to new worlds, show them places they’ve never seen. She thought nothing of moving exotic people and things around the globe for a shoot. “She cost me a fortune!” an editor laughs. Her aesthetic was to accentuate that about the subject that was unique and not conventionally beautiful. A model is exceptionally tall? Put her in elevator shoes and crane her neck heavenward to exaggerate her height. This new singer and actress named Barbra Streisand has a Nefertiti nose? Shoot her in profile and make her nose the most compelling thing about her.
There are so many great stories in “The Eye Has to Travel,” it doesn’t feel like giving away the show to relate a few of them. Vreeland belonged to that category of grand individuals – iconoclasts – with an insatiable lust for life. She didn’t just like something or someone; she was mad about them – mad, mad, mad! She and a few friends arrived late to a showing of “Chinatown” in Harlem, the only white folks in the joint. The movie started and the next sound heard was Diana shouting, “Isn’t Jack attractive!” A world-class raconteuse, she thought nothing of embellishing or making shit up if it helped the story. One of her sons asked her whether an oft-told anecdote was fact or fiction. “Faction,” she said.