For once, it’s nice to state that I’m not really a fan of documentaries and present that statement not as a caveat, but rather proof of how wonderful I found Bill Cunningham New York. And really, “wonderful” is the only word I can think to describe this fine little documentary, which is really less some triumph of filmmaking, but rather a testament to its subject.
The film, of course, revolves around Bill Cunningham, a man I knew nothing about before watching this film. And that’s exactly what Bill Cunningham the film gets right. By the end of the film, you wish you’d always known who he is. Cunningham himself has spent a good chunk of his life—after some hat-making and a stint in the military—as a fashion photographer and columnist for the New York Times. Riding around on his Schwinn—even now in his 80s—through the streets of New York, his work largely consists of snapping photos of people and their clothes. But this is not the story of a tastemaker, as you might expect. Cunningham instead describes himself as a historian, documenting the times and expressing his own love of fashion, something he sees as less of a superfluous luxury and more of an art. To Cunningham, it’s not a matter of who’s wearing what, but what they’re wearing.
Much of the film documents the ironic nature of Cunningham’s existence, rubbing elbows with social elites and fashionistas while living a simple, spartan, utilitarian life. His wardrobe consists mostly of navy blue smocks (the same kind, we learn, were worn by Parisian streetcleaners) and plastic ponchos repaired with duct tape. Based in a studio apartment above Carnegie Hall (with no bathroom or kitchen, crammed wall-to-wall with filing cabinets full of photos), Cunningham lives a very unglamorous life, yet it’s a life nonetheless dedicated to fashion. And that dedication shows itself in such a passionate, innocent way—never judging or snobbish, and refusing at every step to sell himself out—that the film might just make you feel the same way.
Bill Cunningham the man is such a gregarious, carefree type, always smiling and friendly—not just liked by those we meet throughout the film, but genuinely loved—that it’s impossible to dislike him. In one short scene towards the end of the film, we feel heartbroken when he discusses his sexual orientation and his religion. It’s not heartbreaking because I feel saddened by his situation, but rather how these questions have affected him as a person. It’s hard not to feel lifted by the way he answers these uncomfortable queries with grace. It’s an astonishing accomplishment from a movie with such a finite—yet infinitely interesting—focus. Not Rated.