With his film Page One: Inside the New York Times, documentarian Andrew Rossi gave a captivating insider perspective of the infamous newspaper and inner workings that few ever get to see. He attempts a very similar goal in The First Monday in May, giving an insider look at the creation and opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s largest fashion exhibit ever, “China: Through The Looking Glass,” that coincides with the Met Gala. But because of these dual narratives and a inconsistent combination of intent/action within these designers and creators, The First Monday in May ends up feeling more vapid than exploratory.
Early on in The First Monday in May, we get a voice-over from Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor-in-chief and chairman of the Met Gala, where she states that “fashion can create a dream, create a fantasy.” Rossi shows the power of fashion in his first half and how the Met’s Costume Institute has always been the bastardized section of the museum, as people often don’t consider fashion as art. The First Monday in May’s main protagonist is Andrew Bolton, who is planning the “China: Through The Looking Glass” exhibit, hoping that it will be the institute’s biggest exhibition ever. In this first half, Rossi allows the viewer to examine the dresses, teaching how beautiful and important fashion can be in attempts to create a character through fashion, or how someone like Alexander McQueen can combine beauty, ugliness, and terror in fascinating ways.
At first, Bolton seems to want to deconstruct the stereotypes of Western cultures that have plundered China for cultural inspiration and seems intent on that goal, hiring filmmaker Wong Kar Wai to become the artistic director for the exhibition. As Wintour begins to plan the Met Gala, she also seemingly wants to break down the barriers between high and low culture, bringing in pop culture and celebrity to inform the wider public about the work that Bolton wants to investigate. In the first half, Rossi truly allows the viewer to see fashion as art and how compelling a dress can become, filled with its own stories and depth of inspiration.
Yet as the Met exhibit and the Met Gala begin to coalesce, this greater purpose completely muddles. By trying to avoid cultural appropriation, that’s exactly what happens. When Wintour and Bolton travel to Beijing to promote the event, they’re met by journalists who rightly question their goals. Once the journalist leaves, Wintour makes snarky comments about how this Chinese woman doesn’t understand what they’re going for. Their superiority has taken place above the goal of actually making fashion high art. Kar Wai’s concerns about having Buddhist material near Mao’s fashions are brushed off by the designers, as they’re completely closed off from any cultural ideas that might conflict with their plans. By the time Baz Luhrmann shows up asking Wintour how “Chinese-y” the event will be, it’s clear these events are more about spectacle, rather than the ways they can enlighten.
If there was any question of The First Monday in May’s goal, the final third, which focuses on the Met Gala, makes the documentary feel far more like an advertisement for Vogue than anything else. As we see celebrities coming up the red carpet, the world looking at them is all that truly matters. Andre Leon Talley complains that he doesn’t get to George Clooney, then he and Sean Combs joke how their favorite Chinese food is chicken wings. The culture that once seemed like such an important part of the doc is gone once Justin Bieber finds an exhibit of Mao’s outfits and considers getting his own.
Rossi’s doc tells a story of good intentions gone bad, but there’s no real self-awareness that it is happening. Unlike the recent documentary Cartel Land, there’s no understanding of what has truly happened, only purpose and execution are in full step, even when that couldn’t be further from the truth. What starts as a superb look at fashion as art as engaging as docs like Bill Cunningham New York, Valentino: The Last Emperor, and even the Wintour-starring The September Issue, quickly becomes exactly the thing it was trying to dissuade: the West re-purposing the East for their own means.