Magazine article Artforum International

I Remember Mama's Mules

Magazine article Artforum International

I Remember Mama's Mules

Article excerpt

Douglas Keeve's documentary Unzipped, about fashion designer (and Keeve's former boyfriend) Isaac Mizrahi, operates, perhaps involuntarily, as a corrective to the smug fatuities purveyed by Robert Altman's recent, regrettable film about the fashion industry, Ready-to-Wear. Whereas Altman's fictional account of fashion week in Paris was intent on demonstrating that the fashion business is say it ain't so! - venal, meretricious, dumb, and populated with characters to make Tod Browning's Freaks look like The Brady Bunch, Keeve's perspective is essentially that of the empathetic yet shrewd-eyed insider. Altman saw only shrill queens, power bitches, and oleaginous tradesmen; Keeve sees them too, but allows for the possibility that these gargoyles might basically be nice, or, failing that, interesting, which is better still.

The arc of the film is simple: failure to success. It begins with a solitary Mizrahi, filmed in grainy black and white, trekking through the empty streets of Manhattan in the early morning to check out the reviews of his latest collection. They are scathing; he is crushed. The film ends with a similar journey, but this time the designer opens the paper to discover a rave. Keeve then encourages Mizrahi to sing the theme song from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which functions as the movie's musical leitmotiv: "You're gonna make it after all." Tired but happy, Mizrahi agrees to sing only the first few words, simultaneously acceding to and partially rejecting what seems to be a constant, exhausting demand on him: Be Entertaining.

Mizrahi is nothing if not droll through most of the film; even in moments of dejection, he musters some of the brittle humor that flowers so resplendently (if sometimes redundantly) on Manhattan's Isle. He camps it up with friends and associates, among them Sandra Bernhard, Polly Mellen, and Andre Leon Talley. Dramatizing the self-parodistic bent of the fashion industry, Keeve shows us Mizrahi mimicking his compeers (Mellen again); the director also gives us these gestures and chatter as performed by their originators. And when Mizrahi charmingly reenacts episodes from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and Valley of the Dolls, Keeve intercuts these scenes with the originals by Bette Davis and Susan Hayward. The oddest bits in Unzipped are the most intimate: Mizrahi "relaxing" in a bubble bath (but how can one relax when a camera is trained on one's every movement?), or enjoying private esthetic enrichment by playing on the piano the first of Bach's "Twelve Little Preludes. …

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