I must admit that I never heard of Bill Cunningham until I became a fan of the On The Street video slide-shows on The New York Times website. I was immediately intrigued by Bill’s voice and manner of speaking and wanted to know more about him. The film Bill Cunningham New York by Richard Press absolutely satisfied that need. Bill Cunningham has the whole visual history of fashion in New York in the last 40 or 50 years. He is the pioneering force behind fashion street photography. You might think that someone with that kind of legacy working in the center of arguably the most self absorbed industry in New York might have an ego to match. Instead what we find is an unassuming photographer of the utmost integrity, so focused on his art that he can’t be bothered with the perks of life, fame or celebrity. As he put it “I’m not interested in celebrities with their free dresses, I’m interested in clothes.”
This film also gives an intriguing portrait of the colorful group of fashionistas and artists that make up Bill’s circle of friends. Most notably a series of scene stealing cameos by one of Bill’s Carnegie Hall neighbors photographer to the stars Editta Sherman. In one memorable scene Editta in her 90′s who is constantly pressing the camera crew for more attention refers to herself as a legend of Carnegie Hall, in turn the crew asks her whether she means legend or fixture? This film is littered with gems like that.
The most touching moment in the film came when with much trepidation the crew asks Bill if he has ever regretted not having a relationship. For one brief somewhat uncomfortable moment, Bill lets us in and reveals without words how his love for his art did not come without sacrifice. Myself being a 40 year old single male simultaneously addicted to, yet terrified of living the rest of my life alone, it gave me a rare glimpse as to where such single minded focus can lead. No pun intended.
Also to be acknowledged is Richard Press’ fly on the wall approach to filmmaking. As the filmmaker states on his website…
“Bill’s reticence to be filmed set the practical terms for how the documentary could be made. The spectacle of a camera crew, sound recorder, and boom operator would be impossible. We had to capture him the way he claims to capture his own subjects: “discreetly, quietly, and invisibly.”
While this approach may be a bit unorthodox to traditional filmmakers, blending in is an approach long embraced by New Media filmmakers everywhere. We have always taken our cues from the event and street photographers. It is great to see this approach utilized in a film about the photographer that pioneered this approach. The editing of Ryan Denmark should also be applauded. Seamlessly incorporating vintage footage with contemporary footage added to Bill’s never-ending Worker Bee aura. Plus it’s always cool to see old footage of pre-Guiliani Times Square. I was also very impressed with the photographic animation of Keira Alexandra. It was critical that the photo sequences look and worked right, and Kiera nailed it.
My one criticism is that the filmmakers did not go into much depth about how Bill makes his living. Bill says that “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.” So how does he make his living? The only insight is an off hand reference from Bill about having a “Day Job,” accompanied with vintage b-roll of him coming out of the old New York Times office on 43rd street. His belief that even taking a glass of water translates to a loss of freedom can’t possibly play out in a practical world right? We will never know from watching this film. A more in depth look at how his income streams fit into this rigid philosophy would have served the audience well.
That aside, the power in this film lies in the fact that it strips away all the nonsense and frivolities that New York society places on art and breaks Bills work down to it’s bare essentials, the clothes. If you have somehow forgotten how you felt at that moment when you first realized that you would sooner give up your right arm than put down your camera, your paintbrush, your notepad or whatever tool you use to express yourself, this film acts as a poignant reminder.
Bill Cunningham New York is playing at the Film Forum through Tuesday March 29th. For other dates log on to the official website here.