Before Bill Cunningham New York some people may not have been aware of his work in the New York Times where he took pictures of people walking through the streets in their unique clothes. He may have been just an old guy on a bicycle, riding through the streets and taking pictures of those he felt looked interesting. As Cunningham says in the film, it is all about the clothes. However, through the years, designers have valued his work both locally and internationally, and now into his eighties, Bill Cunningham New York helps shed a light into the man and his work.
As the film unwinds, we begin to realize that looking at Cunningham's life was something that was not a several weeks or months at a glance. We see Cunningham being honored by the French Ministry of Culture several years before and his appearance at a socialite's 100th birthday several years before that. Interspersed with those moments is footage of Cunningham on the job, both with his current gray hair and when it was more pepper than salt. Along with that, Cunningham is interviewed and talks about his life and passions. Admirers of his work both local (like his Times colleagues) and more recognizable (Tom Wolfe, Anna Wintour) are also show and share their opinions of him.
One of the takeaways from watching the film is how modest that Cunningham remains to be as he continues his job into his later years. He never tries to intrude on a subject whether they want to be photographed or not, as two young girls threatening to break his camera help indicate. Nevertheless, he remains optimistic and happy while doing his work because he loves to do it. Compared to the modern paparazzo, he appears to be less jaded than the others are and does not care about them, only the clothes they wear. If he does not like the clothes, he will go somewhere else to take a photo. The brilliance of the work is the simplicity. Everyone seems to be wearing something different in an expression of personality, and Cunningham hopes to capture that as part of a larger motif.
Another thing that I am left with after watching the film is that though the film attempts to show us a little more about Cunningham, the big takeaway is we know far more about how and why he does what he does, rather than of himself. Cunningham lives modestly, in a studio apartment sleeping on little more than a cot, with some of the hundreds of boxes of his photos used as furniture. He shoos away the camera several times during the film as he feels this attention to him is wholly undeserved. He may be wrong, but when your work is one who you remain understated and hope to show others a thing of beauty, his bashfulness could be understood. No matter who the subject is, whether it is a stockbroker or the editor of Vogue, he handles them all equally. Again, it is all about the clothes.
There are some moments of incredulity for me when it comes to some of the people in the New York social world and some of the fashion icons. I am never going to understand what their way of thinking is any more than they would mine. But with Bill Cunningham New York, we see a man who has been lucky enough to do something that he has enjoyed for decades, and regardless of who his topic is, the passion to do what he does is something most of us can envy and in this film's case, enjoy.
The film is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen and uses the AVC codec from Zeitgeist Films. The feature juggles handheld footage, stationary interview shots and full frame archival footage both in color and in black and white all well without DNR or image smoothing. The image contains a lot of color in moments and they are all replicated accurately and without noise or artifacts, and the archived stuff looks decent too. About what I expected.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless surround does not get many opportunities to show off in all of the channels or subwoofer, but then again there is no need for it to be. Cunningham is a quiet, reserved individual, and the soundtrack helps show this, with little in the way of channel panning or directional effects to speak of. The rear channels include a nice underlying layer of crowd and environmental noise when called upon, and the overall experience is as natural as can be with the source.
Aside from the trailer (2:05), the only other thing is a roll of additional footage. Comprising 12 scenes (18:24), the topics vary from previous jobs Cunningham had done in the past to a lucky moment when he managed to take a picture of actress and notorious recluse Greta Garbo. It kind of stinks that the film was not included in the final cut, but to have it here is a nice fallback.
Bill Cunningham New York proves to be an entertaining look at a man that few know about, but whose passion for fashion is something that even fewer could possibly attempt to match. Technically the disc is solid though lacks on the supplements, but is a fascinating and worthwhile documentary to enjoy.