One of the most annoying things about going to movies nowadays is having to sit through the plethora of advertisements—not trailers, but ads for cars, soft drinks and cell phones—shown in theatres before the feature starts. But with “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” you have something new: the opportunity to simply wallow in a ninety-minute commercial without having to wait for a real movie at all.
Matthew Miele’s documentary is a basically a love letter to the famously upscale New York department store, lacking any critical sense. Structurally it’s rather a mess; though divided into “chapters,” it skips from topic to topic without giving much thought to smooth transition. Despite the occasional appearance of graphics illustrating timelines, it doesn’t evince much chronological sophistication—the only plot thread that has an arc along those lines is one that follows the creation of the store’s flamboyant holiday windows from conception to unveiling.
What the film does have is interview excerpts—scads of them—virtually all of them rhapsodic. Designer after designer appears to enthuse about having a spot on the store’s racks or shelves. One of the longer episodes shows how one of them was discovered working across the street and promptly offered a place at the store. To balance the scale, others who were rejected by Bergdorf’s arbiters appear briefly—usually to say that their relationship with other outlets has made them very happy. (One of the repeated notes has to do with Bergdorf’s insistence on exclusivity deals that freeze out their competitors.) And we see Linda Fargo, the head of the decision-making staff, looking over the presentations of new applicants with a jaded air, either welcoming the newcomers to the Bergdorf fold or dismissing them with kind words about coming back later.
Fargo is one of the few people we meet along the way who’s given much screen time—a woman who would hardly be described as classically beautiful but who wears (sometimes outrageous-looking) outfits well and is treated like royalty. Another is David Hoey, who’s in charge of the window displays and works closely with the artists attached to design them. And perhaps the most interesting of the lot is Betty Halbreich, a veteran “personal shopper” with a disdainful attitude, who declines to say that she hates anyone but admits to disliking certain folk.
Perhaps the film’s most unnerving aspect, however, is its glorification of obscene wealth, including the take-home salaries of many of the staff. We hear about legendary shopping sprees by both Elizabeth Taylor and John Lennon, the former of a hundred or so white mink earmuffs and the latter involving nearly that many fur coats—and are apparently meant to share the enthusiasm that the sellers had for the windfalls. The Bernie Madoff scandal is briefly introduced so that we can commiserate with the drop-off in receipts that followed, only to be assured that the store has worked its way back. Any feeling of sympathy one might have for the poor Bergdorfites, in any event, will probably be alleviated by the revelation that with good commissions, a salesperson might rake in half a million a year. And most crassly, we’re told that charges of elitism are overblown because any passerby on the street, no matter how humble, can press up his nose against the window for a closer look. (Equally questionable is a remark about how wonderful it is that an American family still owns a whole block on Fifth Avenue, when so much of the street has been bought up by “foreigners.”)
The sad thing is that from the snippets the film includes about the store’s founding and the Goodman family indicate that an intelligent story of American entrepreneurism could be fashioned around them. Unfortunately, Miele is content to offer a ninety-minute panegyric to conspicuous consumption, enhanced—if that’s the word—by occasional contributions from regular customers Candice Bergen, Susan Lucci and Joan Rivers. Rivers, in one of her moments, makes an offhanded comment that she intends as a joke but, after ninety minutes of this film, you might be inclined to take to heart. “Anybody who takes fashion seriously,” she says (as “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” clearly does), “is an idiot.”
The title, incidentally, is taken from a famous 1990 New Yorker cartoon by Victoria Roberts. A pity the absurdity of her caption finds no counterpart in Miele’s film, except accidentally in its ridiculously reverential air.