Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Review | "Bill Cunningham New York"

For those unfamiliar with New York's fashion scene, the name Bill Cunningham may not mean anything. But after seeing Richard Press' remarkable new documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, even those with absolutely no interest in fashion will find it hard not to come away with a smile on their face.

Cunningham is the octogenarian fashion photographer for the New York Times, whose columns, "On the Street" and "Evening Hours" have providing a fascinating anthropological study of fashion trends for years. Armed with his bicycle, his trusty camera, and his trademark blue jacket, Cunningham has traveled the streets of Manhattan for years looking for fashion trends that even the titans of the industry have overlooked, keeping a sharp eye out not only for the looks that interest him, but what the common man is wearing. Cunningham isn't interested so much in models and what the industry says is in style, but real people are actually wearing. That's where the real trendsetters are.

Bill Cunningham photographing in the street, in BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK.
A film by Richard Press. A Zeitgeist Films release.

Photo credit: First Thought Films / Zeitgeist Films

It's enough to have made the biggest names in fashion take notice. "We all get dressed for Bill" said famed Vogue editor Anna Wintour, whose magazine and personal taste has come to define the industry. And indeed it seems that everyone does get dressed for Bill. The film interviews various fashionistas who never go out of the house without being dressed in something worthy of Cunningham's photography, just in case. If he photographs you, you know you've put together something really interesting or original. If he doesn't, then you're just fading into the background.

It's interesting that a man as interested in fashion as Cunningham has such little interest in style himself. Instead he's content to document the looks of others, dutifully chronicling the trends and fads of New York fashion as worn by real people. He's not a designer, he's not a tastemaker - as he likes to put it, he's "just an observer." The real charm of the film, however, is Cunningham himself, whose boundless enthusiasm for his work is nothing short of infectious. It's nearly impossible not to get swept up in his sheer joy at what he does. Everyone and everything is greeted with a smile and a laugh, and the film simply effuses Cunningham's inexhaustible passion.

Bill Cunningham at his desk at The New York Times, in BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK.
A film by Richard Press. A Zeitgeist Films release.

Photo credit: First Thought Films / Zeitgeist Films

Cunningham himself, however, remains a guarded and enigmatic figure. He may be a delightful and well known eccentric, but few if any know very much about his personal life. When Press' questions turn personal near the film's end, Cunningham is clearly uncomfortable, hesitant to discuss topics such as sexuality and religion, a subject that obviously means a lot to him. One could say that Press doesn't try very hard to dig beneath the surface, but I was reminded of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird - dragging Cunningham's personal life out into the open would be kind of like killing a mockingbird, whose song is only meant for the delight of others.

I rather prefer Cunningham as he is - a grinning beacon of light in an industry often guilty of taking itself way too seriously. His friendly demeanor and gracious nature make the film a charming and easy-going experience, a casual observer in a high-strung, self conscious world. Cunningham is a man completely free of pretension, a welcome and refreshing change of pace, a kind of throwback to a gentler, less harried era - and one of the most indelible characters to come from a documentary in a long time.

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK | Directed by Richard Press | Featuring Bill Cunningham, Anna Wintour, Tom Wolfe, Annette de la Renta, Iris Apfel | Not rated

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