Friday August 11, 1995
Is documentary filmmaking as easy as "Unzipped" makes it look? Is it simply a matter of finding a tart-tongued subject with a fascinating line of work, pointing the camera and coming up with a film clever enough to win the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival?
Though director Douglas Keeve no doubt has a full range of stories outlining in triplicate the troubles he's seen, the strength of "Unzipped" is how casual it seems, the way it creates the feeling that you're simply hanging out with its protagonist (and Keeve's former lover), celebrated New York fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.
A sly monologuist and born entertainer, Mizrahi finds talking as natural as designing clothes and is on target at both. The kind of witty performer who holds the screen just doing a crossword puzzle, Mizrahi is enormous fun to be with and considerably more charismatic than the pop culture icons like Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell who make brief appearances to model his creations.
And, though Robert Altman seems to have perversely stepped on all the fashion jokes in "Ready to Wear," "Unzipped" benefits from the fact that there is something naturally funny about this industry. Here are all these nominal grown-ups getting into a series of tizzies about nothing more important than . . . clothes. It's almost as ridiculous as the movie business itself.
"Unzipped" begins with Mizrahi making a lonely walk to his neighborhood newsstand to read the reviews of his Spring, 1994, collection. They are, in a word, dreadful--"the worst day in the world," he laments.
But Mizrahi, not the type to brood forever, soon finds inspiration for his Fall, '94, collection in an unlikely spot: Robert Flaherty's groundbreaking 1922 documentary on Eskimo life, "Nanook of the North," glimpsed on television. "All I want to do is fur pants," he enthuses to a friend on the phone. "But if I do them, I'll get stoned off 7th Avenue."
The Far North idea, however, won't go away, and soon a theme, variously referred to as " '50s cheesecake meets Eskimo fake fur" and "Giselle meets Fred Flintstone," begins to take shape. "Is it [an idea] worth doing?" Mizrahi asks rhetorically. "Yes, because it's the only one I have."
In-between getting peeks at Mizrahi preparing for the show, auditioning models and the like, "Unzipped" offers glimpses of what goes on in the rest of his life. We get to meet his proud mother and glib pals like Sandra Bernhard and watch him expertly orchestrate encounters with the eccentric but powerful fashion press.
Funniest of all, we get film-fan Mizrahi's impressions of some of his favorite movie moments, like the way Bette Davis says "yarnt" in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" or how impeccably groomed Loretta Young looks in 1935's "The Call of the Wild," though she's supposed to be nearly frozen to death. Aside from being great fun, these scenes illustrate the precise and unerring eye that contributes to Mizrahi's designing success.
After a few crises, like a rival French designer coming out with a similarly themed collection and Mizrahi's models initially resisting the idea of having to change behind a visible scrim, the show, "the most wonderful 20 minutes of a designer's life," takes place. Ellen Kuras, one of the best cinematographers in the independent world, smoothly switches to color footage here, and as the models stroll down the runway in Mizrahi's designs, audiences may feel a shared sense of accomplishment, as if we've worked on the show along with him.
This, of course, is sheer illusion. Though it is awfully entertaining, "Unzipped" doesn't give us much hard information about Mizrahi and its snapshot approach is too scattered to offer any sustained sense of what the process of designing a collection is really like. But asking for more is really asking for another movie, and though, like fashion itself, "Unzipped" exists only on the surface, it's too much fun to think about replacing with next year's model.
Unzipped, 1995. R for some language. Presented by Hachette Filipacchi Productions and Elle Magazine, released by Miramax Pictures. Director Douglas Keeve. Producer Michael Alden. Executive producers David Pecker and Nina Santisi. Cinematographer Elle Kuras. Editor Paula Heredia. Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times