[image-1]Like many of you who watched the debut of Southern Charm last night, we couldn’t decide if we were oddly intrigued by Whitney Sudler-Smith or just skeeved out. On the one hand, he still lives with his mom. And on the other, he still lives with his mom.
And don’t even get us started on his “stabbin’ cabin.” We don’t know whether to call the Bang Bros. or Wes Craven. Yikes.
The truth is Sudler-Smith is not the lovechild of Norman Bates and his mother. Nope. He’s just a struggling writer, director, and producer. And while he’s dabbled in both TV and feature films, prior to Southern Charm — which he executive produces — Sudler-Smith’s biggest claim to fame was the 2010 documentary Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston.
Although the film about the noted fashion designer debuted to mostly unfavorable reviews, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly gave it an A-. He even said, “This film has a grander trajectory than just about any other fashion doc. ” Impressive.
However, these other critics were not as pleased. In fact, many of them were surprised that the true focus of the film was not Halston, but Whitney Sudler-Smith himself. Here are a few choice nuggets from the negative reviews:
The doc comes on like a bio but is really just a ghastly vanity affair for one Whitney Smith, the son of a socialite who, despite minimal credits to his name, feels entitled to make Halston’s story his own. With zero knowledge of fashion and proudly informed by only a vague notion of the designer’s jet-setting coolness, Smith can’t get beyond his own hard-on for the ’70s … It’s only in passing and in between self-parodic shots of Smith cruising around in an old Trans Am that we learn anything about the designer’s biography, his professional trajectory, even his first name. Granted access to such fashion luminaries as Stephen Burrows, Naeem Khan, and Diane von Fürstenberg, Smith is more interested in peacocking his own dismal sartorial sense—he’s on camera for every interview, often sporting his own sub-Spurlockian ‘stache—than finding out how Halston recalibrated American glamour and why he tried, well before top designers targeted Target, to bring high fashion to the masses. Sitting across from Halston’s dear friend and muse, Smith makes even Liza Minnelli seem less delusional by comparison.”
Early in the documentary “Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston,” filmmaker Whitney Sudler-Smith asks Liza Minnelli — a longtime confidante of the titular fashion designer — what she sang at his memorial service. The answer: Nothing. She didn’t sing.
It’s a lesson Sudler-Smith could take. Because although Halston’s name is in the title, the faintly irritating “Ultrasuede” isn’t necessarily about Halston. It’s about Sudler-Smith.
He provides the voice-over, he sits in costume alongside his interview subjects — he visits his own boyhood home and interviews his mother about his childhood influences. So in a movie about one of America’s first great fashion designers, we get such insights as, “You used to watch ‘Smokey and the Bandit.’ ”
Fashionistas who flock to Whitney Sudler-Smith’s documentary should pay heed to the entire title: this isn’t simply the biography of an American icon, but the chronicle of a misguided filmmaker.
Like many inexperienced directors, Sudler-Smith labors under the impression that he’s as interesting as his subject. So he bumbles about New York, making us watch as he asks celebrities, models and journalists to do his job for him. He unearths some interesting facts about the designer whose name was synonymous with ’70s glamour, but the awkward interviews and intrusive narration quickly wear thin.
By the time André Leon Talley sternly dresses him down, you start to pity the guy. But you also hope he takes Liza Minnelli’s ultra-sage advice next time: “Go do some research. Find out about stuff.”
The film combines two documentary subgenres: the fashion doc and the inquisitive-filmmaker-inserted-in-every-scene doc. The spotlight-hogging director is star-struck first-timer Whitney Sudler-Smith. His on-screen contributions showcase how, over the two years of globe-trotting that it took to shoot the film, he switched up his personal retro style. That, combined with his clumsy interviewing, makes for a performance bordering on parody. (He asks Liza Minnelli if he can touch her Halston velvet pants. Graciously, she lets him.)
Sudler-Smith, who dons different 1970s outfits throughout the film (though certainly not consistently), can’t help but look like an ill-equipped, frightened little puppy conversing with the likes of Liza Minnelli, Anjelica Huston, Diane von Fürstenberg, and Vogue’s theatrically bitchy André Leon Talley, who delivers lines such as “Just let me talk, don’t interrupt” and “Can somebody give me another cappuccino, puh-lease.” Although the power imbalance between director and subject is odd at first, it strangely becomes the most interesting thing in the film, with the figure of Halston at times just hovering over the conversational awkwardness. The tension between the amateurish interviewer and the star interviewees who either school the filmmaker, roll their eyes, or belittle him gives Ultrasuede a layer of authenticity that its otherwise formulaic structure and storytelling fail to find.
Chris Haire is the author of the comic novel, The Many Crimes of Wyatt Duvall, Archmotherfucker, a despicable tale about a dastardly man committing dastardly deeds. Oh, and dryer lint smoking. Lots of dryer lint smoking. It’s currently available at Amazon.com.