In the middle of Bill Cunningham New York, an organizer outside a high profile fashion event moves security aside to allow Bill Cunningham, our subject, a private vantage point for photos, telling the security personnel that Bill is the most important man in the universe. This is quite the praise for an 80-year-old man who wears a blue jacket that is the uniform for Parisian garbage collectors. Bill Cunningham New York is a short, affable documentary that explores just what makes this peculiar old man so important.
Bill Cunningham is a lovable oddity.
He currently works as a photographer and fashion writer for the New York Times, but during his decades-long career he has also worked for the Chicago Tribune and Women’s Wear Daily. He was 80 when the documentary was filmed, but has continued to work since then. He has no plans of ever quitting. He loves his job and fashion too much — it is the sole passion of his life.
Cunningham is something of a monk. He used to live in a tiny artist’s studio in Carnegie Hall until he was evicted and moved into an equally small apartment overlooking the park. He opts for kitchen-less, bathroom-less rooms since he doesn’t cook and uses the bathroom down the hall. He doesn’t have time to cook and pamper himself. He’s too busy pursuing his photography.
Fashion is his passion. He spends almost every waking moment of his day snapping photos of people in interesting outfits on the streets of New York. He keeps every photo he’s ever taken in a series of filing cabinets that fill his room wall to wall. He even sleeps on a makeshift board and mattress that rests atop some small filing cabinets.
Every Sunday, the Times runs a page of Cunningham’s street photos that highlights some trend that has occupied his attention on the street. Often, his compilations predict fashion trends months before they occur. Top fashion designers look to his photos to tease out future styles.
Think about it: this strange, little old man helps determine the fashion industry. No wonder they think he’s the most important man in the universe.
Bill Cunningham New York goes quite a ways into exploring just how influential and beloved Cunningham is in the fashion world. Fashion designers and magnates, people we think of as haughty and superficial and lacking reality, genuinely love the man. He seems to bring out the best in everyone he encounters, which is no wonder since he seems like such a nice person. Much of the pleasure of the film is enjoying Cunningham’s company — 84 minutes seems too short a time to spend with such a person.
The director, Richard Press, follows the photographer through his daily routines over an unspecified amount of time. He takes a subdued approach to the documentary, devoid of snappy voice-overs and graphics and pop-culture bytes. Instead, he lets the footage of Cunningham and interviews with fashion experts do the talking.
When Press finally asks his subject personal questions, Cunningham is evasive. He asks Cunningham whether he’s ever had a romantic relationship in his life. Cunningham is hesitant to answer and then laughs, asking whether Mr. Press is wondering whether he is gay, like many influential fashion people. He only clarifies that he has never had a romantic relationship in his life and that his work and Church — he goes to Mass every Sunday — help him to avoid any inevitable passions. Cunningham doesn’t regret this fact — his life has had other pursuits.
The only flaw of the film is that Press doesn’t pry far enough into the life of his subject. We don’t come away from it understanding how an 80-year-old man became so obsessed with fashion to the point of living like a monk in service of it.
The film is content to take the perspective of the fashion world and those who surround Cunningham in thinking that Cunningham’s identity is exactly as he presents it to be: simple, honest, kind, and passionate. The film accepts that Cunningham’s love for fashion is what drives him, but never asks what drives that love of fashion. All in all, this lack of clarification leaves the film being a little superficial, much like the clothes people wear. Clothes give an image of the person who wears them, but do not encompass the person’s entire being — how could they?
Bill Cunningham New York is a worthwhile documentary and it is not only meant for those who enjoy fashion. People with no interest whatsoever in fashion will find the film enjoyable because Bill Cunningham is such an interesting, likable individual. At 84 minutes, the film speeds by, bouncing from one escapade of his to another.
It may be slight, but Bill Cunningham New York will leave enough of a good impression on you that you’ll fondly think back on the experience of watching it. It will make you glad to have been introduced to such a likable and pleasant man of the fashion world.
Bill Cunningham New York plays at the Broadway Theatre on June 2 as part of a Spring Gala Fundraiser at the Saskatoon Fashion & Design Festival. It opens for regular showings on June 3.
image: First Thought Films/Zeitgeist Films