The First Monday in May is a feature length-commercial for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s world-famous annual fashion exhibition that quickly turns into a shockingly oblivious confirmation that every criticism we’ve ever heard about the fashion industry is absolutely, 100% correct. Director Andrew Rossi’s documentary is bookended by insufferable brownnosing that could only come from someone who’s used to begging producers for money, but the films despicable middle section is why I’m actually going to enjoy giving it a failing grade.
The intended purpose of Rossi’s documentary is to answer the question, “Can fashion sometimes be art?” Well…yeah. Is that it? Can we go now? After answering its seminal question in the opening minute, The First Monday in May trudges on for 91 more. Rossi follows Andrew Bolton, head curator at the Met’s Costume Institute, as he plans the 2015 fashion exhibition, “China: Through the Looking Glass,” a terrible idea that only a room full of clueless narcissists could have ever come up with.
“China: Through the Looking Glass” is a celebration of Western stereotypes about Chinese culture that deeply offends just about every Chinese person in the documentary, and you know what? Rossi outright defends it. Whenever a Chinese person criticizes the exhibition, Rossi gives non-Chinese Bolton the last word. Bolton assures us that any Chinese person criticizing “China: Through the Looking Glass” simply doesn’t, “understand fashion.” Uh-huh…
The only Chinese person who Rossi privately interviews is completely enamored with the exhibition. See? The exhibition has a Chinese friend! It’s totally cool, y’all! By the time the exhibition actually opens, one off-camera attendee even comments that she’s relieved that exhibition isn’t “more racist.” Rossi’s desperate attempts to apologize for cultural appropriation by subjects he clearly admires is, well, gross. However, it’s totally expected after the appearance of Vogue editor Anna Wintour.
If there’s a “co-star” in the documentary, it’s Wintour, who was in charge of directing the exhibition’s extravagant gala. Conde Nast Entertainment, a division of the company that owns “Vogue,” financed the First Monday in May. So when I call the documentary a feature-length commercial, that’s because it is one. It really is one of the rare films that just get ickier and ickier the more you discover about them.
Aside from defending cultural appropriation, and kind of being propaganda, is the rest of the film any good? Nope. Would it matter? Nope. After establishing itself as morally repugnant, The First Monday in May becomes varying degrees terrible. Sometimes it’s just awfully stale, other times it’s so unfocused that it’s downright incoherent.
The one slightly satisfying moment comes after Bolton suggests to a Chinese artist that placing a portrait of former Chinese dictator Mao Zedong among statues of Gautama Buddha might be a “fun” idea. Watching Bolton crumble and cower as he receives a totally justified death glare from the Chinese artist is one of those beautiful, candid moments that documentaries are made for. Of course, Rossi makes sure to ruin it by giving Bolton the last word.
Grade = F