2012 is turning into yet another banner year for the documentary film, and following on from those celebrated, character-centric works like Searching for Sugar Man and The Queen of Versailles, comes another equally absorbing portrait, this time covering the life of influential fashion editor, Diana Vreeland
The filmmakers have struck gold with their subject matter here, as Vreeland is a wonderfully distinctive character (visually, think Olive Oil crossed with Frida Kahlo), delivering unique pearls of wisdom and idioms via her raspy, lived-in voice, and for the majority of her on camera footage, filmed within her fittingly baroque environment.
The documentary kicks off with old audio footage of a interview between Vreeland and the late US writer George Plimpton, before settling into a Senna-like mix of narrative building, via voice over and old footage, alongside the more traditional talking heads approach (there’s some delicious anecdotes from past collaborators like Angelica Huston, Ali McGraw and Joel Schumacher).
In many ways, the film acts as a fascinating history lesson, illustrating how and where Vreeland made her indelible mark through the decades, from challenging and bringing change to the post-war female sexual liberation via the fashion world, through to hitting her stride in the Swinging Sixties and beyond, where she acted as an style advisor to one Jackie Onassis, and became the makeover queen for the Hollywood elite.
Vreeland’s Forrest Gump-esque habit of rubbing shoulders with significant historical figures offers some of the most entertaining moments in the film, as she nonchalantly reels off encounters with the likes of Wallis Simpson, Coco Chanel, Buffalo Bill and even a young Adolf Hitler (she recognised that the Fuhrer’s moustache was a massive fashion faux pas back when he was Chancellor).
More than anything, those encounters illustrate what made Vreeland the enthralling figure she was to be around. Being in the right place at the right time was a skill hugely beneficial to her success, and as the style editor for Harper’s Bazaar (and later Vogue) Vreeland played an instrumental part in bridging that gap between fashion and art, two worlds which really emulsified when she was hired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the later stages of her life.
We also get an intimate family portrait (one of the three directors credited is her granddaughter-in-law, Lisa Immordino Vreeland) where her two grown-up sons recount tales of a mother who was perhaps dedicated more to her vocation than that of a maternal role (she herself suffered from parental grievances, which undoubtedly spurred her on to make a successful life for herself).
Vreeland passed away in 1989, but her presence and influence is very much alive in the modern world of fashion, and one of the film’s greatest strengths is the ability to keep both seasoned fashion types and neophytes equally entertained by her tales. In an age where documentaries are increasingly becoming the go-to place for those cinemagoers who are interested in investing their time and money in the company of thoughtful and watchable subjects, The Eye Has to Travel is yet another welcome addition to that list.