The spry photographer at the center of Bill Cunningham New York definitely isn't a household name, unless you read the New York Times or frequently mingle in Manhattan society. By the time this film breezes through its 84 minutes, though, most viewers will be too busy grinning from ear to ear to care. This film performs the neat trick of sucking the viewer into Cunningham's uniquely frenetic world of fashion, art, and living for the moment.
Director Richard Press opens Bill Cunningham New York with shots of 81-year-old Cunningham in his daily routine: biking through the streets of Manhattan, camera at the ready to capture the city's pedestrians as they go about their business. His focus is not so much on the people as the clothing they wear, with a practiced eye for spotting certain trends (a specific shade of pink, for example) and outfits that express the personalities of whomever is wearing them. The people snapped with his lens might be socialites, drag queens, regular joes or the homeless - so long as they know how to rock a certain piece of clothing, it doesn't matter.
Cunningham's main business is his "On The Street" column, which has been a regular feature in the New York Times for more than thirty years. As the affable yet feisty Cunningham nitpicks over a layout with a Times designer, we see it all come together as the photos are grouped into a cohesive whole, documenting whatever sartorial fancy struck Manhattanites at that particular moment. The photos, individually, aren't all that artistic (they're more like snapshots, actually) - but they do capture the energy and spontaneity of the city. The liveliness in the shots is matched with the film's tight, kinetic editing. Best of all, the film captures Cunningham's utter delight and fascination with people and how they express themselves.
Cunningham is much beloved within the fashionistas and social strata of New York, which is proven with glowing testimonials from folks like Vogue editor Anna Wintour and author/white suit wearer Tom Wolfe. The film practically brims with interview footage from some of Cunningham's more eccentric subjects, including self-described dandy Patrick MacDonald and Shail Upadhya, a retired U.N. official who apparently never met a loudly patterned suit he didn't like.
Ironically, many of the people who have dealt with the man for years and even decades don't know much about him personally. The filmmakers attempt to correct that by following him into his modest apartment, stacked ceiling-high with filing cabinets, books and magazines, in Carnegie Hall. For a guy with such a keen interest in clothes, his own wardrobe doesn't extend much beyond the cheap and simple blue coat he adores (which comes from the uniforms on Parisian street cleaners!). The Cunningham on display is a remarkably friendly guy, but he's also rightfully guarded about revealing too much of himself. We learn that he served a tour of duty in the Army in the '50s, a time that exposed him to the rich couture scene in Paris. From there he wrote fashion journalism and had a brief spell designing hats in Manhattan. A passion for photography led to jobs at various publications, including a satisfying tenure chronicling runway and street fashion for the original black & white edition of Details magazine. This segment was especially fun, with Cunningham and original Details editor Annie Flanders chewing the fat while reminiscing about the old days.
The film also deals with Cunningham's other job at the Times, chronicling various social gatherings and benefits for the hoi polloi around Manhattan. These segments, while not nearly as interesting, reveal a bit more about Cunningham's character. He's seen often chatting with the attendees in his usual open style, but he never gets overly friendly or schmoozy. He's there to document the event, even taking the extra step to refuse any food or gifts offered to him. We also find that he apparently only accepts enough money from his work to live on, nothing more. This rigorous self-discipline is a point of pride with this person (a devout Catholic) who has basically dedicated his life to documenting, documenting and more documenting.
Bill Cunningham New York is basically a lighthearted film that spotlights a man with an infectious joy for life and learning new things (it reminds me of the recent Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, in that respect). The film briefly goes into intrusive Grey Gardens territory when the filmmakers find him in a vulnerable mood and question him about his sexuality. Does it really matter whether he's gay or straight? Nope.
That uncomfortable interlude is soon swept aside when Cunningham goes to his beloved Paris and shares a revealing anecdote. At one point, the legendary Catherine Deneuve is seen with paparazzi swarming around her, but Cunningham is unimpressed and skips out on snapping her photo. "I didn't like what she was wearing," he quips with a smile.
Zeitgeist Films' DVD of Bill Cunningham New York is packaged in a slim width digipack with a 12-page booklet that reproduces two of Cunningham's "On the Street" columns.
Bill Cunningham New York's disc has a nice, cleanly balanced soundtrack in 5.1 surround or stereo. Optional English subtitles are also available.
This shot-on-video feature is presented in a beautifully balanced 16:9 picture. Nice photography is one of the film's better traits, with subjects interviewed in tableau-like fashion with i.d. tags done in New York Times fonts. Pretty chic, if you ask me.
The DVD's bonus material includes the original theatrical trailer and about 20 minutes of additional footage. Bonus footage on films like these are usually dull, but these scenes are as absorbing as the film itself. A director's commentary is sorely missing, but it's somewhat made up for with a written statement from Richard Press in the disc's accompanying booklet.
Bill Cunningham New York crackles with the life and energy of the man it profiles. Even those who would normally not care about fashion or Manhattan life will be entertained and enlightened by this humble yet totally remarkable fellow. Highly Recommended.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.