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Up yours! Vivienne Westwood

by Erin Blackwell

Vivienne Westwood in director Adam Curtis' "Westwood." Photo: Courtesy filmmaker
Vivienne Westwood in director Adam Curtis' "Westwood." Photo: Courtesy filmmaker  

Vivienne Westwood is one of those names you've heard, you know, you've forgotten. Well, it's back in a dynamic new biopic that's restless and breathless, scurrying after its subject who is now an old lady who has finally relinquished the reins of part of the output that bears her name, and is spending her free time as a climate change activist. If you're a free spirit, you'll enjoy this spirited backward glance at a great British designer, provocateur, businesswoman, whose smash-the-box approach continues to inspire in these dull gray days of our despair. "Westwood" opens Friday in SF.

The best thing about "Westwood" is it never sits still. There's lots of voiceover babbling with footage that keeps your brain hopping. Lots of scenes with models and mismatched swatches, although not much about her technique. If she has any, I mean as a tailor like Alexander McQueen. Westwood is synonymous with early-70s punk and spiky hair, the Sex Pistols, the whole vomiting-back-up the "Rule, Britannia" tosh that was already so old, so outgrown, so 19th-century by the time she came of age.

The worst thing about "Westwood" is it's only 80 minutes long. You might think that's a small thing, to be a short feature, but when the career's this long and the influence this great, and the filmmaker spent two years getting in Vivienne's hair and on her nerves, she oughta be able to make a 90-minute statement. Those missing 10 minutes, that last lap, that deepest, most revealing layer detracts perversely from all that's gone before because the movie starts off quick and agile, and you expect it to slow and deepen, then it doesn't.

What's missing? Context. What is punk, exactly, and why did it need to happen? What is Empire, exactly, and who was kidding whom? The UK was on the skids, and some of its artists, by dint of sheer revulsion, actually propped it up in the eyes of the world. Documentarist Adam Curtis is a genius at tracking the devolution of Britain and all the lies it's told itself and others in the form of propaganda it willingly swallowed whole. Westwood is a fashion designer, but punk was not just fashion, it was a look that has yet to be improved upon as a way to express alienation from the mainstream.

Westwood has tweeted her displeasure with the film, complaining, "There's not even five minutes of activism in the film, instead there's a lot of old-fashioned footage." Well, she is a designer, the only top-flight independent left who has never sold out to the corporation. That stance is consistent with punk attitude, although loss of control of her own company is a constant refrain. And if she now feels as strongly about polar bears rendered homeless by melting polar ice-caps as she once did about the obsolescence of the British royal family, why would someone entrusted with her cinematic portrait fail to take the old lady seriously?

We live in an apolitical moment, and "Westwood" is an apolitical film. Fashion itself might be perceived as an apolitical exercise, except it has always been there to translate the shifts in mood that signal great social change. Even Gandhi's loin cloth was political. Vivienne's real problem is being a success. She's a dame, for Chrissake! That's why it's hard to take her activism seriously. Precisely because she's always been so serious about her work. Ultimately, that's her gift to the world. Female genius. Well done. Now off with her head, and on with the revolution!

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