Bill Cunningham New York – Film Review

Bill Cunningham NY

Review at National Board of Review web site

Originally posted on April 7, 2011

Thomas W. Campbell

Bill Cunningham is nearly 82 years old and still travels the streets of New York on his bicycle–taking pictures by day of street fashions (regular people dressing up) and by night of the most elite members of society (rich people at charity and social events). Bill Cunningham New York, directed by Richard Press and released by Zeitgeist films, displays Cunningham’s life in a way that reveals a quirky, principled, talented artist who follows a single idea to it’s most interesting conclusion. For Cunningham, fashion photography is a continuous and lifelong love affair with the unique and the individual.

The film begins with Cunningham taking his dependable Schwinn bicycle from an overstuffed storage closet and leaving a building that we will soon learn is Carnegie Hall. Setting off, he navigates the bumpy streets of New York City, on the prowl for the something unusual to train his lens on. “The best fashion show is always on the street,” he says. “Always has been, always will be.” A bouncy jazz soundtrack–drum and saxophone music by the downtown artist John Lurie–adds momentum to a montage of colorful, odd, and often outlandish street clothing that he has shot for his New York Times “On The Street” column. Cunningham waits for the world to pass in front of him, stalking the street for fashion unknowns, immortalizing a chosen few each week.

Just as the viewer begins to wonder “Who is this guy?”, Press introduces the same question into the film. Everyone in the fashion world seems to know who he is–but nobody seems to really know anything about his life. Bill Cunningham might have one of the most interesting and individualistic careers in the world–and may also be one of the least “known” photographers working today.

Unlike most everyone else in the business, Cunningham still shoots film. We see him in the New York Times office carefully viewing the 35mm negatives, crossing out unacceptable frames with a grease pencil, deftly slicing the film with a pair of scissors, preparing the frames to be scanned. Then the digital work begins–he terrorizes a bemused assistant, who must put up with Cunningham’s artistic sense of trial and error. Polite, obsessed with design, slightly overbearing, unable to accept any form of compromise, the scene is an essential snapshot of Bill Cunningham in his most natural state of creativity.

Celebrities (Tom Wolfe), Designers (Michael Kors, Annette de la Renta), Fashion Editors (Anna Wintour, Lesley Vinson, Annie Flanders), and the publisher of the New York Times (Arthur Sulzberger) appear in the film to give their own perspective on Cunningham. Everyone agrees that he has made an indelible mark on the history of fashion–showcasing trends in his column well before they hit the mainstream (or caught the attention of designers and critics). He is also seen as lovable, endearing, respectful of his subjects, etc. But he is also an enigma to the very people who should know him best–and the film does an effective job of making the viewer curious about this man who seems to have no life outside of his profession.

Cunningham turns down every opportunity to cash in on his fame. He eats a frugal meal before embarking on his evening missions of photographing the rich and famous at societal functions. When offered a meal, or even a glass of water while working the floor he politely refuses, even when his hosts insist that he take some kind of sustenance. Annie Flanders, publisher of “Details,” a 1980’s East Village fashion magazine, tells a quintessential Cunningham story. When business was slow he worked for “Woman’s Wear Daily,” the well-established fashion magazine, and did a photo spread showing women on the street wearing the same clothing worn on the runway by famous fashion models. Cunningham’s world-view is completely nonjudgmental–he felt that “everything had value.” But the editors changed the text to make fun of the women he had photographed, something that went completely against his ethics. Cunningham quit the lucrative job rather than relinquish artistic (and moral) control.

When we finally see where Cunningham lives, it becomes clear that his personal life is unusual and ascetic. His home in a small studio in Carnage Hall that looks more like a large closet–it is filled with file cabinets stuffed with every negative he has ever taken. His “bedroom” is a mattress, tucked in between the metal cabinets, propped up by boxes of books. It is an incredibly Spartan existence for someone who has two long running columns in the New York Times and is probably known and respected by most of the successful fashion designers and editors in the world.

The film makes a wonderful divergence into a special world of Carnegie Hall tenants, artists from another era who have lived in the rent-controlled upper rooms of the building for much of their lives. One tenant, 96-year-old Editta Sherman, has occupied and worked in her spacious loft for over 60 years, filling it with photographic portraits of Hollywood stars, dancers, composers, and artists. Vivid and alive, she jokes with Cunningham in a way that only old and dear friends can do. So it is a surprise when we hear that the long-time tenants are being evicted. The filmmakers use the event to create suspense by introducing the conflict then playing it out over the last half of the film. We wonder whether the artists will lose their homes and, if so, how will they adapt to being displaced from such a storied setting.

By the end of the film the Carnegie Hall eviction proceeding is resolved (I won’t say how) and the filmmakers finally ask the questions of Cunningham that we–and everyone one who knows him–have wanted to ask. We learn something about his thoughts on intimate relationships and, most tellingly it seems, about his sense of religion and how his faith might be related to the way he views his life and art.

Bill Cunningham New York is an exceptional portrait of a talented, successful and peculiarly moral man. The filmmakers make good use of archival footage of Cunningham scooting around the city on his bike in the 1980’s and follow him to a number of significant events, most importantly to Paris where he covers the fashion industry and received in 2008 the title Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres from the French Ministry of Culture. In his speech Cunningham says “I only know how to have fun every day. It’s not work . . . He who seeks beauty will find it.” It’s a beautiful and extremely moving sentiment that goes a long way in explaining the unusual career of the old man on the bicycle with the very young eye.

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