One of the great things about movies is they expand our horizons – if we let them. Learning new things, broadening our world view, even discovering new interests. All can be benefits of watching a well-done film, regardless of the topic, but the individual Movie Fan first must decide to invest the time – and do so with an open mind. For many years, I didn't care to see documentaries
until I actually started watching documentaries. I discovered for myself that they don't just inform, but they cover many different topics, come in many different styles, can be extremely creative and can even be surprisingly entertaining. Before seeing "The First Monday in May" (PG-13, 1:30), I didn't have much interest in the world of fashion. Afterwards, I still don't. But that doesn't mean that in watching this doc I didn't learn new things, expand my world view, discover new interests, or appreciate the film's quality. Au contraire.
This documentary examines some important aspects of fashion against the backdrop of planning and executing the biggest fashion exhibition ever at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Fashion world icons including European designers such as Jean-Paul Gaultier and Karl Lagerfeld discuss whether high fashion is simply "applied art" or whether it can (and should) ever be considered its own category of art, on par with painting, sculpture and architecture. Then we see Andrew Bolton, curator of the Met's Costume Institute, work with Vogue editor Anna Wintour (the alleged inspiration for Meryl Streep's character in 2006's "The Devil Wears Prada") as they blur that line further with their annual Met Ball.
On the first Monday of May, the Costume Institute Gala (as the Met Ball is officially called) brings together people from the worlds of fashion, politics, high society, the arts, music and film for a lavish evening which serves as the most important fundraiser of the year for the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. According to the film, "The Met Ball is the Super Bowl of social fashion events." Almost every year, the gala includes a themed exhibition combining fashion with other forms of art. The Met's exhibition "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" in 2011 (the year after McQueen's death) was the gala's most popular, but also created a standard that the Met Ball struggled to surpass.
"On the First Monday in May" is documentary filmmaker Andrew Rossi's look behind the scenes as the Met tries to top that 2011 exhibition with its 2015 theme "China: Through the Looking Glass". We see the planning and preparations for the exhibition as the main players discuss and disagree over issues ranging from aesthetics to cultural sensitivities. Some of the planners even fly to China to talk about the exhibition with the Chinese government and to promote the event, while Wintour, the long-time gala chairperson, works with her staff on which celebrities are coming, how to avoid potential problems in the seating arrangements and whether they can afford Rhianna, who has been scheduled to perform at the dinner. As the months leading up to the 2015 gala seem to fly by, Vogue is also moving its offices to One World Trade, the Met staff is increasingly worried about whether the exhibition can be finished in time and everybody wonders if the 2015 Met Ball will be as successful as they want and need it to be.
This documentary is worthwhile, but unexceptional. It's well-balanced between establishing context, gathering first-person commentary from all the major players and utilizing Rossi's extraordinary access to the places and moments that he needs to tell this story. The film is educational and interesting, but not especially creative or exciting. The high points include taking in the splendor of the finished exhibition, checking out the beautiful outfits the celebrities chose to wear to this major event with such a specific theme, and seeing how many famous faces you can spot among the attendees. Of course, you have to actually see the film to enjoy any of that. A Movie Fan who only wants to laugh or see stories of death and destruction may not enjoy this movie, but open-minded cinephiles, and fans of art, fashion and celebrity culture, almost certainly will. "B+"