Thursday, December 29, 2011

"Grace" Is the Word


Ultra-Suede is a new documentary by Whitney Sudler-Smith focused on Halston, the fashion designer who started out as a hat-maker (Jackie O wore his pill-box hat to the inauguration) and transformed himself into a household name in the 70s and 80s by simplifying fashion and marketing and personality into a crystal-clear fever-dream disco-ball.  The movie mines old video and film footage archives to produce a phantasmagorical set of montage sequences that fuse Good Morning America circa 1979, Studio 54 prancing, valcano-lit fashion runways, mayonnaise commercials, Versailles 1973, day-glo Andy Warhol portraits, beige-gray hyper-architectural party rooms filled with white orchids, the Twin Towers echoed in a hall of mirrors, etc. into a Rasuchenberg-like setpiece about the famous designer who seemed to piss away his fortune all so he could brag about how much he loved America.

Halston was a genius, the movie argues, and the way Sudler-Smith investigates his subject-matter mesmerizes you into believing.  Plus interviews with everyone from Billy Joel to Liza Minnelli allow us insight into a world of fashion, freaks and friends.  Halston was a tragic figure, Warhol sycophant Bob Colacello tells us, because of his greatness.  That greatness manifests itself most glamorously and amazingly in his clothes.  Using a wide concatenation of fabrics and hardly any sewing, Halston created caftans, blouses, skirts, and evening gowns that seem to flow out of a dream and onto a body without losing anything in the process; in his designs he took form, function and style and allowed simplicity to dictate almost every move, and yet there was nothing simple about the finished products.  "Grace" is the word.

Sudler-Smith insinuates himself into the movie's narrative in set pieces about his love of the 70s (he even drives around at times in a Smokey and the Bandit-era Trans-Am), but he truly is most effective as a naive dumb-ass asking the questions we would when confronted with people like Liza.  He seems to idolize Halston, and not understand why until he starts figuring out Halston's eminence and more importantly how human and fallible and strangely sweet he was.  I mean, as the movie points out, Halston's most tragic flaw was his love of JC Penney's, and his trust of CEOs.

By the end I felt as if I had gone back to that time, in the late 70s and early 80s, when the world seemed horribly and beautifully off-kilter, as if the decades were crashing into one another and throbbing disco lights were being summarily extinguished by "Just Say No."  Ultra-Suede has the charm, innocence and decadence needed to both eulogize and re-crown a genius.