Cunningham gets his shot. (Image courtesy of New Directors/New Films.)
BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK
Directed by Richard Presse
Screening Wed., March 24 and Thurs., March 25.
In recent years, American documentaries seem to have become distilled versions of the Maysles Brothers’ infamous 1975 expose, Grey Gardens. Every film student with a camera has, at one point or another, obsessed over someone living on the fringes of society. While some directors excel at these creations (Werner Herzog), what we’re often left with is a lot of middling fare that would be better suited to a fluff segment on a prime-time news program. (Wordplay, we’re talking to you.) In this regard, Richard Presse’s Bill Cunningham New York isn’t exactly mining new cinematic territory. But it does provide a wonderful glimpse into the life of one of New York City’s most beloved icons: New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham, a figure who has long lived on the fringes of high society.
For fans of the Grey Lady, Cunningham’s name is synonymous with style. In his weekly columns, On the Street and Evening Hours, he chronicles the latest street fashion and the doings of the champagne-and-caviar elite as they flit from ball to charitable ball. (His columns are benchmarks — to be caught on film by Cunningham is akin to winning the fashion lottery.) Cunningham is also renowned for maintaining his privacy. He may cover bold-face names, but he himself is rarely one. But the filmmakers nonetheless managed to record his daily whereabouts for a period of more than two years, from which they have composed a meticulously edited, briskly paced bio that benefits greatly from its subject’s ebullient charm.
The film is centered primarily on Cunningham’s day-to-day life. There is the Spartan studio apartment, furnished with rows of filing cabinets and a prison cot-style bed. There are the daily peregrinations around Gotham on his trusty bicycle, outfitted in a blue workman’s jacket, and juggling a camera with a dexterity that belies his octogenarian status. And we see plenty of layout sessions at the New York Times. There is also lots of effusive praise from the lions of the fashion industry. (The frosty high priestess herself comes on to exclaim: “We all dress for Bill.”) One of the more memorable moments shows Cunningham at home with his neighbors. He and a fellow photographer — the Norma Desmond-lite Editta Sherman — reminisce about the early years, when Cunningham was a young hat designer and Sherman would entertain her salon of chums with impromptu ballet recitals. The tenderness expressed between these two outsiders is utterly captivating. It is in one of these unguarded moments when Cunningham best sums up his passion for fashion: “Joan Crawford, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe…I had no interest because they weren’t stylish!”
And this is what ultimately makes the film special. For Cunningham is not your standard paparazzo. He is not concerned with the identity of his subjects or the larger celebrity culture — he simply wants to capture the beauty of clothes. (This clarity of purpose is reinforced during a jaunt to Paris, where he turns his back on the legendary Catherine Deneuve, unimpressed with her ensemble. Quelle nerve!) At one point in the film, the photographer appears to dodge the filmmaker’s query about his lack of companionship. But the question appears somewhat irrelevant. Cunningham is a modern-day ascetic — and fashion is his religion. His humble apartment, spendthrift wardrobe and disdain for the spotlight have practically defined his existence. Towards the end of the film, we see him in Paris, being honored with the title chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Ministry of Culture. His French is fractured, but his joy shines through as he chokes back the tears while exclaiming: “He who seeks beauty will find it!”