Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Film review: Documentary captures exceptional New York eye

A scene from Bill Cunningham New York.


By John Thomason


Less than two years after‭ The September Issue probed the life and work of fashion kingmaker Anna Wintour,‭ ‬a new documentary offers a look at another figure residing in the nexus of fashion and print journalism.‭

In‭ ‬Bill Cunningham New York,‭ ‬which opens Friday in South Florida,‭ ‬the subject is‭ ‬New York Times fashion photographer Cunningham,‭ ‬a man just as iconoclastic‭ – ‬and more enigmatic‭ ‬--‭ ‬than‭ ‬Vogue’s Wintour.‭ ‬Even Wintour herself manages to descend from her haute perch to say in the documentary,‭ ‬with surprising humility,‭ ‬that‭ “‬we all get dressed up for Bill.‭”

The film argues that Cunningham,‭ ‬through his columns and photo spreads in everything from‭ ‬Details to‭ ‬Women’s Wear Daily to the‭ ‬Times,‭ ‬has been the most important chronicler-turned-trendmaker in the past half-century of fashion.‭ ‬Cunningham is‭ ‬82‭ ‬years young,‭ ‬a spry workaholic in a functional blue jacket whose daily routine sees him ubiquitously cruising Manhattan streets on his Schwinn,‭ ‬snapping candid shots of outfits that catch his learned eye.‭ ‬At night,‭ ‬he attends the metropolitan area’s signature social soirees,‭ ‬photographing luminaries.

As someone who knows less than nothing about fashion,‭ ‬I found Cunningham an inspiring artist‭ – ‬a counterintuitive,‭ ‬countercultural working man in a world of materialistic elites.‭ ‬We assume he collects a paycheck from the‭ ‬Times,‭ ‬but Cunningham vocalizes contempt for money,‭ ‬ceremoniously tearing up paychecks for some of his early freelance assignments.‭ “‬If you don’t touch money,‭ ‬they can’t tell you what to do,‭” ‬he says.‭ ‬He washes his clothes at a Laundromat,‭ ‬eats TV dinners and never takes a drop of food or alcohol at the glitzy galas he covers.

Cunningham is a charming,‭ ‬self-deprecating figure full of contrarian wit:‭ ‬He had no interest in photographing Marilyn Monroe,‭ ‬he says,‭ ‬because she‭ “‬wasn’t stylish.‭” ‬He takes an egalitarian approach to fashion photography,‭ ‬where movie stars,‭ ‬visiting dignitaries and bag ladies on the street share equal weight.‭ ‬The person doesn’t matter‭; ‬only the clothes do.

As in‭ ‬The September Issue,‭ ‬Bill Cunningham New York feels the need to address the supposed frivolity of fashion,‭ ‬becoming unnecessarily defensive of a culture that,‭ ‬at this point,‭ ‬needs little justification of its merits.‭ ‬After all,‭ ‬the fashion-industry staples who are interviewed for the film‭ – ‬including Wintour,‭ ‬designer Iris Apfel,‭ ‬fashionistas Patrick McDonald and Kenny Kenny,‭ ‬and Shail Upadhya,‭ ‬a retired U.N.‭ ‬official from Nepal who makes eccentric clothing out of used furniture‭ – ‬come across as intelligent,‭ ‬witty and down to earth,‭ ‬not as the vapid celebutantes Tom Wolfe‭ (‬who is also interviewed for the film‭) ‬and others diagnose them.‭ ‬Only once does one of the film’s subjects offer an insulting,‭ ‬out-of-touch soundbite,‭ ‬when she compares the work Cunningham does on the city streets to that of a war photographer.

The film dips into its murkiest,‭ ‬and most interesting,‭ ‬waters when trying to extract a personal life out of the notoriously secretive Cunningham.‭ ‬For Bill,‭ ‬it seems that everything is work,‭ ‬and work is everything.‭ ‬He’s never had a serious romantic relationship,‭ ‬he says,‭ ‬and the question of his sexuality remains unknown all the way to the credits.‭ ‬He’s also a privately religious man,‭ ‬attending church every Sunday‭ – ‬a revelation that clearly shocks director Richard Press.‭

When asked later about his faith,‭ ‬Cunningham hangs his head for an epic silence‭ – ‬watching it,‭ ‬you may think the film is stuck in the projector‭ – ‬before offering a meditative answer.‭ ‬It’s just one of the many ways this film,‭ ‬and the man it documents,‭ ‬confound our expectations.‭

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK.‭ ‬Director:‭ ‬Richard Press‭; ‬not rated‭; ‬distributor:‭ ‬Zeitgeist Films‭; ‬opens Friday‭; ‬venues:‭ ‬Living Room Theaters at FAU in Boca Raton,‭ ‬Lake Worth Playhouse,‭ ‬Mos‭’ ‬Art Theatre in Lake Park,‭ ‬Gateway Theatre‭ ‬4‭ ‬in Fort Lauderdale,‭ ‬the Miami Beach Cinematheque and the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables.

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