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Film Review

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel

Some might expect that the Diana Vreeland documentary is only for fashionista's, but I was fascinated by her life and loved this wonderful inventive film. Written and directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, wife of one of Diana's grandchildren, it sparkles and seduces with brilliant imagery and archival footage, some familiar to those who know Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, and much rarely seen. Diana Vreeland, who died in 1989, was arguable one of the most influential fashion figures of the 20th Century, equal to Coco Chanel, whom she greatly admired. "D.V.", as her autobiography is titled, had an amazing and flamboyant life, shaped and dominated fashion and taste through her editorship of Harper's Bazaar, and later, Vogue, and was a force of nature. She transformed both magazines and the world of fashion, which this film captures well.

Born Diana Dalziel, in Paris in 1903, of a beautiful American socialite mother and English father, she was constantly reminded by her unmotherly mother that she was the "ugly ducking" in her family. Her family moved to New York City just before the beginning of WW I and she immersed herself in the frenzied social scene during the roaring 20's, where she soon knew everyone worth knowing. She was always bright, witty, and adventuresome, and was thrown out of at least two private schools, never going to college. She met Reed Vreeland, an American banker, and fell madly in love. They married and moved to Albany, NY, where she lived for ten years. There she reared her two sons, Frecky and Tim, both now in their 70's, who have interesting observations about their childhood and their mother, who was immersed in work and often an absentee mother. Absent, but not cruel, like her own mother.

The core of "Diana Vreeland, The Eye Has to Travel", is a series of filmed interviews done by George Plimpton in 1983, who DV had asked to help write her memoirs. Plimpton seemed to have been intimidated by her because he is very gentle, and doesn't pursue or question her vague or evasive answers. She has much to say about fashion, taste, culture, and the world, but her inner self remains largely unknown in this film. She was ambitious even as a child, likely spurred by her mother's rejection. Although not a beauty, DV (as she titled her autobiography) was striking and always dressed in her own inimitable style. She was a risk taker, and contemptuous of conformity. Her sons recount her advice to them: "either be first or last in your class, but don't be in the middle". Her own quotes are wonderful and interviews with a galaxy of who's who in fashion, including Manolo Blahnik, Diane von Furstenberg, and Calvin Klein, to name just a few, are fascinating. In addition there are clips of interviews of her by Dick Cavett, Jane Pauley, and Diana Sawyer. Vreeland was invariably witty and dramatic in these interviews. The interviews with some of the many models who DV discovered are also fascinating: Lauren Bacall (whom Hollywood hired away),Twiggy, Penelope Tree, Marisa Berenson, and Verushka. These are juxtaposed with their photo spreads in Vogue and Harpers Bazaar. The most common description of DV by those in the fashion world was immense creativity, genius, curiosity, and hard work. After she was fired from Vogue due to declining circulation, the last chapter of her life was a series of shows she did for the Metropolitan Museum of Art using their Costume Institute collection. She was hired by Philippe de Montebello, and her highly inventive shows attracted tens of thousands, and paved the way for other museums to do similar fashion related shows. DV transformed the world of magazines and fashion as the interviews and photos of her projects show. Her mantra, often expressed, was "Don't be boring". She made it acceptable, even fashionable, for women to be ambitious and to work. She never called herself a feminist, but that is exactly what she was, and blazed a trail that benefited all women, rich or not. The device used by the director to end the film is quite touching, and I noticed some of the audience in tears, myself included.

I have rarely enjoyed a documentary as much as this one, and it is surprising that a first film is so accomplished. Lisa Vreeland's family access made this film possible and she has taken advantage of it in the best sense. Her film is very creative, using archival footage, current interviews, older interviews, and a great deal of still photography, much by masters such as Richard Avedon, whom DV championed. The soundtrack is wonderful, an original composition for this film. Each component of Vreeland's film could stand alone: the images are so beautiful it could easily exist as a silent film, and the dialogue is so witty it could stand alone as a radio script. Add the original composition soundtrack, and you have a thoroughly accomplished documentary about a fashion icon, that is also a cultural and fashion history of much of the 20th Century, packed into an all too brief 86 minutes. Don't miss this on the big screen. Playing at the Embarcadero.

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