Bill Cunningham New York
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Bill Cunningham New York
Richard Press's flattering, but never fawning portrait of New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham distinguishes itself from most other art and fashion documentaries. First of all, Cunningham doesn't produce work that ends up on gallery walls. Instead, his candid snapshots of the city's most fashionable citizens have graced the paper's Style section for decades. That accessibility, however, doesn't make the octogenarian any less of an artist. Navigating New York with his humble Schwinn, clad in his blue canvas jacket, Cunningham doesn't miss a trick or a trend. In an era when anyone can take a digital photo and upload it to the Internet, he still shoots on film, and style mavens pour through his columns, "On the Street" and "Evening Hours," to see what's hip and whether or not they made the cut. For all his talent, though, Cunningham, a devout Catholic, eschews free drinks and other perks, and has lived in the same humble Carnegie Hall studio for 50 years. Press injects some suspense into the scenario when circumstances force Cunningham out of this rent-controlled paradise. Fortunately, a solution will be forthcoming. Along the way, Bonfire of the Vanities author Tom Wolfe, Vogue editor Anna Wintour (star of the equally fine September Issue), and other observers offer their thoughts, though Press always returns to Cunningham, whose joie de vivre will surely prove irresistible even to those who normally couldn't care less about cameras and clothes. --Kathleen C. Fennessy
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Has a great eye for spotting gorgeous trends and comes off as a very down to earth human being.
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Bill Cunningham, now in his 80's, has worked for many years as a street photographer, riding precariously around Manhatten on his bicycle and snapping (film) photos of what people are wearing. In an age when there is so much corruption in all walks of life, what comes out in the film is Cunningham's unique sense of personal integrity. In a city obsessed with status, he seems to care nothing for status or celebrity or personalities; he is only interested in the clothes, the ideas. When he attends society and fashion functions in the evening, which he does almost every evening, he declines to accept food or drink; it would compromise his ethics. Indeed here is a man who has no apparent vices and minimal personal life. He lives frugally. He strives to be honest. He strives to do no harm. He cares little for his comfort. He has simply made a life of observing how people in New York express themselves through fashion; it is enough for him. "I have tried to play a straight game" he says about his life.
One might not be surprised to hear that a medieval monk or pure mathematician or a scholar of ancient languages had such an ascetic and, one may say, spiritually refined existence, but in the New York fashion world! And so he is a beloved fixture in New York. An inspiring documentary, which affirms how one can live in the everyday world and yet hold to an "impeccable path."
Re: production, the director/production team unearthed some wonderful old footage and tied it in with the new footage elegantly and even powerfully. They picked interviewees who were colorful, both literally and figuratively. They tied strings of narrative through the documentary in order to make it less like a dry profile. And most impressively, they knew what to leave out: they didn't show Bill Cunningham living in his new apartment, and they didn't show Bill Cunningham at church. Those would have been obvious things to do, but they didn't do it, and I applaud them for that.
But in terms of thoughtfulness, in terms of helping us understand why any of this matters, the filmmakers left something to be desired. If the film had ended after the first 60 minutes, I would have given it exactly 1 star. That's because in the first 60 minutes, interspersed between interviews with ultra-status-conscious people who were out to convince the world (and themselves) that they were unique little flowers, the filmmakers were giving us little nuggets of junior varsity wisdom. They were appealing to our inner-adolescent with lessons like "follow your passion" and "express yourself" and "be nice to each other."
The final 24 minutes, though, were very interesting, much less adolescent-y, and, at times, moving. We start to get glimpses of how this is more than an obsession for Bill, how it is all-absorbing to the exclusion of all else (including romantic relationships), and we start to get glimpses (albeit somewhat unconvincing ones) of why it matters to him:
* "The wider world that perceives fashion as a frivolity that should be done away with in the face of social upheavals and problems that are enormous-- the point is, in fact, that fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life."
* "I don't think you could do away with fashion. It would be like doing away with civilization."
* "I just like fashion as an art form of dressing the body. If we all went out looking like a slob like me, it would be a pretty dreary world."
* "I'm not interested in celebrities. The cut, the lines, the colors... that's everything."
* "It's not work. I'm just having fun."
There is something about the philosophical nature of these quotes or the way he expressed them that made them not 100% convincing. They seemed more like rationalizations than reasons. But then, in a speech he gives at a ceremony in Paris, we finally get the real reason, and we know it is the real reason because he can't contain his emotions.
"It's as true today as it ever was--he who seeks beauty will find it."
It's a touching moment and one that defines the film. Or ought to have defined the film. Every decision about what to include or exclude in this film ought to have been based on that single line.
And that's where the filmmakers fall short. For them, the climax of the film is a different moment, the one where they try to penetrate his private life, asking about his sexuality and his religion. They are just trying to deliver the juice, the gossipy details that we all desire to know. But they do not ask the much more important questions:
* If it's beauty he's seeking, why doesn't he find it elsewhere, in music or food or any aesthetic other than clothing? In particular, why doesn't he find it in people (rather than just on their clothes or their bodies)?
* Why is he so unreflective w/r/t his one-dimensionality? When asked if he has any regrets about not having romantic relationships, his response was along the lines of "no, I never had the time to consider it." Really, Bill? Never while you were out riding your bike? Never while you were in a dark room processing your film did you wonder whether there wasn't more to life than what you were doing?
The filmmakers paint Bill Cunningham as a wise, loveable, almost martyr-like figure, someone who devoted his life to his passion. An American hero. Bill Cunningham is more complicated than that. He's a man who has been greatly influenced by Catholicism - you can see it in his morality, his relentless work, his asceticism, and his concern for aesthetics - but his asceticism has seeped into his aesthetics so that he seeks beauty in only one form. The filmmakers are right about the admirable and honorable parts of Bill Cunningham, but they miss (or don't pay enough attention to) the other parts.
Update 11/23: I was reminded of this movie over and over again while watching Searching for Sugar Man.