Cinematic Releases: The First Monday in May

Andrew reviews the Orientalism fashion documentary, The First Monday in May.

I don't profess to be a fashion expert nor do I wish to claim such a badge of honor, but considering how intrinsic a part of our culture it is whether we wish to admit that to ourselves or not, I felt it was worth taking a look at the recently produced documentary about one of the fashion world's greatest and most extravagant exhibitions.  

Curated by Andrew Bolton (which the documentary spends a lot of time with) and exhibited in 2015 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, what became known as China: Through the Looking Glass proved to be a game changer for the museum with respect to the notion of fashion being in league with high art.  Having moved from the museum's basement to the front entrance which first opened to many of the film, music and literature industry's most famous stars before opening to the public with thousands of attendees, the documentary The First Monday in May both chronicles the arduous uphill journey to realizing the exhibition and seems to suggest the conception of fashion as art may have finally obtained hard earned respect in the art community.  It was a world I knew very little about but was eager to try and learn from and given it was playing at Chicago's prestigious Music Box Theater during my brief visit earlier this week, I took the plunge and gave it a shot.

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On the one hand, the film directed by Andrew Rossi is a revealing behind the scenes look at how it all came together, including many interviews with Chinese master filmmaker Wong Kar Wai with contributions by director Baz Luhrmann, showcasing how much back and forth drama played out to make the exhibition happen at all.  On the other hand, The First Monday in May is a work of unabashed self-aggrandizement with curator Andrew Bolton and Vogue editor-in-chief and gala host Anna Wintour snootily patting themselves on the back in scene after scene.  Knowing full well what was unfolding was a biased self-love fest with a great deal of self-congratulation, I did what I could to filter out the eulogizing and instead enjoy the visual splendor of the show while gawking at the People Magazine parade of celebrities walking the red carpet towards the exhibit.  Overall it's an interesting documentary though a great deal of it consists of fending off critics quick to dub Wintour and Bolton as purporting "inauthentic depictions of East Asia".  To some degree, the dynamic duo and central figures of The First Monday in May are in agreement but that doesn't stop them from quietly balking at the nature of their interviews under their breath either.  Where tougher documentary filmmakers like Erroll Morris wouldn't shy away from throwing out difficult and challenging questions for his subjects, Andrew Rossi tends to gravel in warming up to Bolton and Wintour.  Egomania aside, the real reason to see The First Monday in May is to take a glance at old fashioned Hollywood glamour warts and all, with every glittering diamond visible and every overblown dress showing off for the camera.  Think of a moving picture version of Vogue and People Magazine with moments of informative bits on the blood, sweat and tears we don't typically see going into making it possible.

Why does everyone keep calling me Big Bird?

If you take The First Monday in May with a grain of salt and filter out the disingenuous narrative and naked narcissism on display, you're in for a fascinating look at an elite world of fame, fortune and fashion design you never knew existed.  To a certain extent, the elements of fantasy adorning the documentary go hand in hand with the fantastical China: Through the Looking Glass experience itself.  In that sense, both the exhibit and the documentary about it's genesis are arguably highly fictitious but I found myself not really caring about that despite the overwhelmingly snooty pretentious elitism strutting across the screen.  You're not really going to get the unexpurgated truth here but there's so much beauty and overwrought glamour on display here you're not likely to mind the beautiful lie this movie is.  Not everyone will appreciate it, particular the scenes near the end of Rihanna's oversized and absurd yellow dress taking up more than half of the staircase and hearing some of the inane comments from celebrities regarding the months and months of hard work on display will draw contempt from some.  Still, despite how much both the film and it's subjects celebrate themselves, I found The First Monday in May to be an eye opener however distorted and inaccurate about all the facts it may be.

- Andrew Kotwicki