Directed by Richard Press
How would you react if an 80-year-old man on a bicycle, wearing a simple blue shirt, stopped to take your photograph, perhaps of your feet? Most people would be startled, but if you were a New Yorker you would be honored because renowned New York Times columnist and fashion photographer Bill Cunningham has just snapped your photograph.
Cunningham has had two columns in the Sunday Styles section of the New York Times for many years. Perhaps you have heard of them, “On the Street” and “Evening Hours”? But the fascinating thing about Bill Cunningham New York is not so much what Cunningham has accomplished as a journalist, but rather what he has accomplished as a human being. The film is not about fashion, it is not about photography, and it is not about famous people. It is about one simple man and his great passion for what he does.
Cunningham is not a photographer, nor is he truly a journalist. He is a fashion lover. That is where it starts and where it ends. It is not about the money, which he often declines because, he says, if you do not get paid no one can tell you what to do. It is not about the celebrities, as he never wants to see the guest list for the lush evening galas that he covers. He decides which to attend based on the charity instead, knowing that great fashion will abound no matter who is in attendance. For Bill Cunningham it is all about the clothes and nothing else. Fashion is his life. He was even caught snapping photos at an award ceremony in France honoring Cunningham. It is not work. It is his pleasure, he says.
The film only seems to get bogged down when it attempts to tell the stories of Cunningham’s closest friends, who are often remarkable artists in their own right. But this only serves to distract from the true foundation and hook of the film: Bill. These scenes do add to the canvas of Cunningham’s story, but very scarcely and fleetingly do they ever amount to the times when the focus is solely on Bill.
Cunningham lives in a very simple, very small Carnegie Hall studio apartment, which he has filled with filing cabinets and one small cot on which he sleeps. He never eats in, though he also never lavishly dines. He admits that in his 80 years of service to this planet as an outstanding human being he has never had a romantic relationship; he has not had the time. He also goes to church every Sunday, saying that he needs religion. These are little known facts for even those closest to Cunningham, who claim they knew nothing of his personal life, but treasure his public life and work.
Bill Cunningham is always smiling and always laughing, and perhaps that is because he knows he has gotten away with it. He has been able to do what he loves for so many years. And no one has called him on it because everybody recognizes the brilliance of his “work”. Bill Cunningham New York is a successful documentary because Bill Cunningham is a successful human being, full of life, vigor and passion.