Even when it sucks, it’s worth it,” trumpets madcap Manhattan fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi on the morning after the triumphant debut of his fall 1994 collection. Douglas Keeve’s Unzipped documents six months in Mizrahi’s life, as he attempts to recover from the dismal flop of his previous show in which, according to the fashion press, his sense of color, fabric, and how modern women dress after 8 p.m. failed him.
Shot in a faux-primitive style employing a ragtag assortment of film stocks and gauges, overexposure, handheld camera, even perforated reel leaders, Unzipped is, like the world it documents, frenetic, evanescent, and profoundly trivial. But Mizrahi’s goofy brio makes the picture worth seeing. Sporting an unruly mop of Almodóvar hair, the shamelessly flamboyant, movie-mad designer takes such pleasure in performing for Keeve’s camera that his delight becomes contagious.
Mizrahi proves to be endearing in every circumstance. Reminiscing with his doting mother, he recalls the harbingers of his calling: At 4, he was fascinated with the daisies that adorned his mom’s mules. A splendid mimic, he apes favorite performances from camp movie classics—Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Susan Hayward in Valley of the Dolls, and Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes. (Clips from those films are intercut to emphasize the precision of these impersonations.) He joyfully issues Warholian profundities without a trace of the pop artist’s off-putting blankness. (Jackie Kennedy and Mary Tyler Moore, he informs us, shaped America’s taste. Fashion “is about women not wanting to look like cows.”) He consults Ouija boards, tarot cards, and psychics, as well as old movies, for inspiration for his designs. His darkest hour arrives when he discovers that Jean-Paul Gaultier has scooped his own outré concept for a collection combining ’50s cheesecake with Eskimo-style fur. And, unexpectedly, this flibbertigibbet turns out to be an unusually sensitive classical pianist.
Mizrahi’s world buzzes with a full complement of publicity hounds and fashion victims. Liza Minnelli, Mark Morris, Richard Gere, Roseanne, Eartha Kitt, and Sandra Bernhard make brief appearances, along with models Kate Moss, Linda Evangelista (who throws a snit over a pair of shoes), Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell (with navel ring), and the inescapable Cindy Crawford. More amusing than these overexposed faces are fashion world doyennes Ingrid Sischy, Interview‘s pretentious, harebrained editor, and Polly Mellen, a terrifyingly absurd arbiter of haute couture trends. Even AbFab‘s Patsy Stone would have trouble keeping a straight face while listening to the fatuous pronouncements of these fabulous monsters.
Like Mizrahi himself, Unzipped refuses to take itself seriously. But the 73-minute movie deflates in its final reel, which chronicles the unveiling of the designer’s collection. The familiar spectacle of zombie models in bizarre get-ups displaces Mizrahi, the heart and soul of the film. It has been widely publicized that Keeve, a fashion photographer making his feature debut, and Mizrahi were lovers during the shooting of Unzipped, and even though that relationship has since terminated, one can feel the filmmaker’s affection for his subject. A less sympathetic director could have easily manipulated the footage to expose Mizrahi as a ridiculous figure, a self-dramatizing, prancing queen in the mincing tradition of Franklin Pangborn and Richard Simmons. But Keeve is touchingly protective of his former paramour, depicting his outrageousness with palpable warmth and playful devotion. Seldom has a lover marked the end of an affair with such a gracious memento.
Jimmy Ruvinsky (Bruce Dinsmore), a young psych instructor at a Montreal university, volunteers to participate in an experiment run by students in the women’s studies department. Over a period of weeks, he’s videotaped in a darkened room by an anonymous, caustic, chain-smoking interrogator (Miranda de Pencier), who prods him to articulate his feelings about women. She expects this inquiry will confirm her presupposition that all men are pigs, liars, fascists, and/or rapists. But Jimmy fails to match this profile and, during the course of their encounters, both are forced to realign their attitudes about the opposite sex.
Canadian writer-director John Hamilton’s The Myth of the Male Orgasm is a lively, evenhanded dispatch from the front lines of the contemporary sexual combat zone. His amiable, rather schematic screenplay contrasts Jimmy with two pairs of male and female friends, all representing behavioral extremes. He has two roommates: Sean (Burke Lawrence), a phallocentric chauvinist, and Tim (Mark Camacho), a brotherly, nonthreatening bear—and two female friends: his ex-lover Paula (Macha Grenon), a selfish, manipulative sex kitten, and Mimi (Ruth Marshall), a lawyer for whom he has been patiently carrying an unignited torch for five years. What Jimmy learns about himself in the experiment restructures all of these friendships and alters the dynamic of his relationship with his interrogator who, for want of a better name, he dubs Jane Doe.
Hamilton’s purpose is to provoke as well as entertain. “Feminism,” he observes, “has created a very lopsided situation in relationships between men and women. I think both sides are suffering from an identity crisis, and it’s particularly severe on the male side. In Myth, I’ve attempted to show that as much as men misunderstand women, women also misunderstand men.” No doubt the movie will inspire some heated post-screening discussions. Pertinacious feminists are likely to argue that masculine viewpoints require no additional airing, and moviegoers of both sexes have grounds for objecting to Hamilton’s relentlessly sluttish presentation of Paula, and the boorish suggestion that lesbian jealousy motivates Jane Doe’s feminist colleague’s disapproval of her growing interest in Jimmy. But the film does express some male frustrations that are seldom vented in this age of political correctness. Though somewhat vain and vaguely superior in his dealings with both sexes, Jimmy is intelligent, sensitive, and almost excessively considerate of the needs and feelings of others. So much so that he worries about his partner’s orgasm at the expense of his own erotic satisfaction, a concern ironically alluded to in the film’s title, which was snitched from Bette-Jane Raphael’s much-reprinted 1973 parody of Freudian theories about female sexuality.
The dialogue in this character-driven psychological comedy frequently sparkles; the language is blunt and coarse, but never feels gratuitous. Hamilton has a sharp ear for how men banter while tossing darts and shooting pool, as well as how their Iron John braggadocio dissolves during emotionally and erotically intimidating interactions with women. (But two strictly female duologues—between Jane and her doctrinaire colleague, and Paula and Mimi—hark back to the passé catfights of The Women.) His spare, controlled visual style sustains interest in the talk-heavy screenplay, notably in his handling of the interrogation sequences, in which a gliding camera continuously redefines our perspective on Jack’s face as he struggles with Jane Doe’s no-holds-barred questioning.
Entertaining and gently provocative, The Myth of the Male Orgasm marks an encouraging directorial debut, a welcome relief from recent self-indulgent neophyte embarrassments like The Crude Oasis and Lie Down With Dogs. Uniformly well acted by an appealing young ensemble trained in Canadian theater and television, it resurrects a now-antiquated genre, the Doris Day-Rock Hudson sexual dominance comedy, for more enlightened, if less secure, ’90s audiences. Men and women may debate the validity of Hamilton’s sexual politics, but better to leave the theater talking, even arguing, than, as more often happens these days, insulted and numb.