Film Review – Bill Cunningham New York
What must it be like to really have a calling? To make it your 80s and feel like you’ve spent your life doing what you were meant to do? This wouldn’t mean you didn’t make sacrifices—quite the opposite, really. True dedication requires giving up other things; at times, it may seem like all the other things. But if it’s truly your calling, like a faithful nun on her deathbed, you won’t have any doubt that you made the right choices. So it is with Bill Cunningham, fashion columnist for The New York Times and living encyclopedia of the history of fashion in New York City. He is the subject of the lovely documentary Bill Cunningham New York, from director Richard Press, which begins playing in Seattle today at the Harvard Exit theater.
If you run a fashion blog, especially one of the troves dedicated to street fashion, it seems you owe something to Bill Cunningham. After a career spent writing for many publications, including several now-defunct fashion journals that paved the way for all that’s developed after in fashion journalism, Bill landed at the NYT in the 1970s. He is known now for his photo columns “On the Streets,” which chronicles trends he captures among the people of New York, and “Evening Hours,” which displays the people and clothes on parade at society events. For Bill, the point of his work isn’t to critique the clothes or to comment on where he thinks fashion is going. It’s just to make a record of what is happening at that moment, and in doing that, to celebrate that fashion happens at all.
Bill cares nothing for engaging in fashion himself. He wears khakis, sneakers, and a blue jacket with multiple useful pockets for his camera equipment, every day. No doubt his uniform has helped to cement him as a recognizable fixture on the city streets, where he patrols on his bicycle, always ready to snap a photograph if something catches his eye. The film follows him as he goes about this routine, and truly, it looks exhausting. Miles biked every day, plus hours spent in the office, going over the photos and making layouts. But Bill’s energy is boundless, and if there’s anything he ever seems to be frustrated about, it’s the fact that he’s got these pesky people breathing down his neck about deadlines. He cares about making the column perfect, not getting it done on time.
The film features brief interviews with many people involved in the New York fashion scene—most notably, living icon and Vogue editor Anna Wintour—who all agree that while Bill may think of himself as simply a chronicler, his vision is deeply influential. Whether or not Bill takes a photo of you matters. (At one point, we see him having a bit of trouble getting into a runway show during Paris fashion week. One woman takes a look at his ID and immediately tells the security guard to let him through. Translation: “Please, he’s the most important person in the world.”) Everyone also speaks of Bill with genuine affection, which is not surprising. If the description of his obsession and perfectionism creates a picture in your mind of certain kind of domineering or unpleasant personality, that’s not Bill at all. He is delightful. He seems so truly happy to be doing what he’s doing that it’s infectious. It’s clear that everyone around him adores him.
The film gives us a lot of insight into Bill’s daily life. Because of his own choices, it’s free from much of the glamour we might associate with being a fashion photographer. Others interviewed speak of how he’s never been interested in working for the money, and has always lived simply, to the point of absurdity (wait til you see his apartment). He speaks eloquently and brightly, both in the present day and in archival footage from the 80s, about the importance of the choices we make with our clothes—our armor against the daily world—and the integrity of his work. It basically boils down to the fact that if you’re not in it for the money, you don’t have to answer to anyone but yourself.
This is definitely a film to see if you enjoy fashion; the clothes on display from Bill’s photos throughout the years are incredibly fun to see. But even if that’s not your thing, if you have any sort of joyful devotion to something, especially a creative pursuit, this film will inspire. You will want to go home and work on what you love. The film does question a little the hyper-focused life Bill has chosen, but I liked the way that it did it: by simply letting him speak for himself, and never judging. This is the story of one man, and though bigger themes will always be present in a good narrative, I appreciated that the film doesn’t try to come to any generalizations about how a life should be lived.
If I could find anything to complain about with this movie, it would be that I wanted it to be longer, so that we could see MORE CLOTHES. It’s a fun and respectful look at a worthy subject. I hope we never run out of interesting characters with special obsessions to make these kinds of movies about.
Final Grade: A