PRINT September 1995


Douglas Keeve's Unzipped

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 André 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.” Our knowledge that Mizrahi and Keeve were once “ involved” complicates our response to these apparently candid moments, which for all we know may have been annoying, tiresome set-ups rather than personal quiet time.

Keeve also treats us to scenes from another aspect of Mizrahi’s personal life: his relationship with his mother, which has become a media minimyth. Articles on and interviews with Mizrahi have revealed that his mother was his first and most important fashion icon. “She sewed daisies on her mules,” the designer recalls; “How did I know he was looking at my shoes—he was only four years old! ” Mrs. Mizrahi exclaims. (She might as well say, How did I know my adorable son would become a famous homosexual fashion designer?) Mizrahi mère comes across as devoted and domineering, proud and pushy—i.e. , as the archetypal Jewish mother. The split between character and caricature opens again. In an interview in New York magazine, Mizrahi confessed that he felt uncomfortable with the scenes of his mother: “Honestly, she’s not from Central Casting—she’s my mother, you know.” Yet as I left a screening of Unzipped, I rode the elevator with several fashion types, one of whom remarked , “I loved his mother! Straight from Central Casting.”

Unzipped belongs to the expansive genre of cinema verité, but all resemblance to the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman ends there. Keeve’s mix-and-match splicing of various types of film stock—color and black and white, 35 millimeter, Super 16, and Super 8—gives the movie a low-budget but explicitly arty look. In one scene Mizrahi rides through Paris in the back of a car, reminiscing about his first visit, at age 17. “Who wouldn’t dream of living here?,” he asks, gesturing vaguely out the window. Keeve’s foggy background resolution depicts an atmospherically rich but otherwise vacant tableau, the tabula rasa of fantasy.

It’s this overriding sense of Mizrahi as living out a fantasy while working very hard that makes Unzipped so endearing. Even when irritable and bitchy the designer remains likable and funny. Unlike Madonna in Alek Keshishian’s unpersuasive Truth or Dare, Mizrahi actually appears to relinquish control of his representation in Unzipped, with an alternating sense of grievance and relief. That he appears with his unruly hair tied up in a super-undressy schmatte comes off as an emblem of freedom.

David Rimanelli contributes regularly to Artforum and to The New Yorker.