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Bill Cunningham New York - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Bill Cunningham New York
Directing: A-
Writing: A
Cinematography: B+
Editing: A

Here is a guy who makes for one fascinating documentary subject. Bill Cunningham is an indelible part of New York City history, though you'd never know it to look at him. In fact, although he is widely recognized for his blue jacket, cameras dangling around his neck, and his bicycle, plenty of the people he photographs on the streets of New York have no idea who he is. Often he's buzzing around the most seemingly random people -- as long as what they're wearing is interesting, his one and only criteria. Sometimes he's off in a corner, waiting for something interesting to pass by, camera in hand, looking just a little bit like a creepy old man.

But, as Richard Press's documentary Bill Cunningham New York illustrates, anyone who is anyone in New York knows who Bill Cunningham is. Now past the age of 80, he has had a regular column in the New York Times since 1978. Even then, after stints at the Chicago Tribune and Women's Wear Daily, he was in his late forties. This film follows him in recent years, and often toggles back to footage taken of him in 1989, when he was 60; it's the youngest we ever see him. But he's spent years making a name for himself, both with the street fashion column and with a society column featuring photos from philanthropic events.

And that name, it seems, is all he cares to have. Until very recently -- a change documented in the film -- he's lived nearly his whole life in a studio apartment at Carnegie Hall so tiny and cram packed with his filing cabinets it might as well be a storage room. Cunningham's one true passion is taking photographs; the very idea of personal luxury, with the possible exception of having a decent camera (and even that's not all that fancy), totally escapes him. He keeps his bicycle in a separate storage shed at home, but most of the time, every day, he's out snapping pictures. He says he's on his 29th bike. All the others were stolen.

When Carnegie Hall finally forces him to move, we see him looking around in units in another building he's been offered to relocate to. One of them has a truly spectacular view overlooking Central Park; the place must cost a fortune to anyone else. Bill Cunningham makes no airs of being impressed, and the realtor guiding him clearly feels awkward with him. The look in another unit, one a little closer to the street and facing other buildings. Cunningham's first impulse is to open a window and take a picture. One suspects he is testing to see if he can get any good fashion shots from up there.

Bill Cunningham seems to have very few close friends, and later in the film he admits to never in his life having romantic relations with anyone, yet everyone who knows him appears to love him. They run the gamut of social and economic life, from gritty drag queens to Anna Wintour herself, probably the most prestigious person to grant an interview for this film. It's easy to see why. Cunningham has this unabashed joy for what he does, and his energy is infectious. He's the rare person with whom what you see is what you get.

The film crew follows Cunningham to Paris, right after Cunningham insists on camera that they won't be. You get the sense that this response is not at all a putting on of airs, but a genuine belief that he can't possibly be so important to be followed that far. In Paris, he is honored with an award, and because of his reputation as a man completely unconcerned with any type of status, more than one person is shocked that he's even agreed to accept it. He spends the entire event in his usual outfit of the blue jacket and cameras, taking photos just like he does everywhere else. "You think I'm going to miss a great picture?" he asks, incredulous.

It is said repeatedly that Cunningham spots trends on the street six months before they are recognized as trends, and long before anyone in the fashion establishment has caught wind of it. And because of Cunningham's clear affection for the people he shoots, he makes no judgment of the outfits -- there's no "best" or "worst" in his mind; only interesting or not. This egalitarianism evidently does not extend to fashion designers, as Cunningham is known to post photos of new designs next to designs from years past that look nearly identical.

Richard Press follows Cunningham around with his own camera, doing everything from biking around Manhattan to sitting in the front row at Paris's Fashion Week to choosing images for his column past deadline at The New York Times, here there and everywhere always with either a camera or film in his hands. The entire proceedings never stop being wildly fascinating. There's a riveting scene near the end where Press tentatively asks a couple of personal questions, offering him the option not to answer, and it's clear Cunningham is not at all used to such conversations, let alone these particular questions. One of them the one about his romantic experiences, the lack of which he seems totally blasé about. Curiously, he seems to have a much tougher time coming up with an answer to the question regarding his weekly church visits and if religion is important to him.

These are but a couple of moments that get to the heart of who Bill Cunningham is, and Bill Cunningham New York is packed with them. Cunningham himself laments the disingenuousness of most New Yorkers, but thanks to his own natural authenticity, his very presence goes far to neutralize such things. This is a truly dynamic man with a common effect on people from all walks of life -- and it translates fantastically on screen, affecting the film's audience in much the same way. You leave the theatre wishing the world had more people like him.

Bill Cunningham is a New York institution.

Overall: A-
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