[BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK screens Friday July 8th at 7:30pm and Sunday July 10th at 3pm at the Cleveland Cinematheque.]
Review by Charles Cassady Jr.
Having just been laid off by a daily paper I may be oversensitive, but - hell! - don't let any newspaper publishers, especially from The Plain Dealer, watch BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK. The documentary feature directed by the aptly named Richard Press and partially produced by the eminent New York Times itself lovingly profiles one of the Times' own star writer-photographers. And dig it: Bill Cunningham is an elderly bachelor with no personal life, dependents or intimates - just work. He didn't even deposit his paychecks from one filthystinkingrich employer (the same Newhouse family that owns the PD) on principle of retaining his creative control. He doesn't partake of offered freebies and refreshments (not even water).
Now Cunningham faces eviction from the ridiculously small Manhattan home/office where he dwells in monkish isolation. And, seemingly, he's happy as ever about his life as a Timesman. You really don't want upper-level news-media management to think this dude represents a typical employee. Of course in Cleveland they’d probably lay off Cunningham all the same and outsource the picture-taking to Mumbai; leave it up to the sportswriters to explain why the Cleveland Indians are now all carrying cricket bats.
Okay, here's the review for those of you happy people who did not attempt to pursue a career in Journalism -I mean Unemployment. Cunningham, still spry and riding his bicycle around Manhattan in his 80s (the 60-year-old Cunningham, in clips from 1989, recalls David Byrne in looks and intensity), was a fashion designer, specializing in hats, when he took a gig shooting images himself. Unlike reigning Vogue lensmen like Richard Avedon or Horst P. Horst, who would do elaborate studio setups, Cunningham - who probably couldn't afford a studio anyway, couldn't even afford color film back when that was new - took to shooting New York people-in-the-street (or Central Park; he describes a hippie "happening" there as his eureka moment), preserving the fashion and cultural trends over the decades, how real people suited up, even outrageously, to go out in public.
Now a city institution, Cunningham continues on his 29th Schwinn (the other 28 bikes having been stolen). He maintains a marathon schedule to street-shoot solo, guerrilla style, at ritzy galas and gallery openings or at rainswept crosswalks, with 35mm, non-autofocus semi-pro Nikon gear (cameras even I own), catching average pedestrians, flaming homos and haughty VIPs (like feared Vogue editrix Anna Wintour) alike. It's all stated to be perfectly democratic; as long as their attire appeals to him, Cunningham shoots and the Times prints, and we're told that he's never been unkind to a subject or paparazzi-vulgar in approach. Some of his subjects turn into regulars. One Patrick MacDonald is a makeup-encased, latter-day Beau Brummell who dresses outlandishly and has made Cunningham's photo layouts numerous times as a walking work of art; "We're all blank canvasses in the morning," he states.
Midway, we learn that Cunningham and fellow photographer Editta Sherman are among the relics of an aged artist-in-resident colony dwelling in Carnegie Hall, in rent-control situations (Cunningham's place is miniscule; Sherman's roomy and palatial). Carnegie Hall is no less immune to greedy-bastard-hood than any other corporate entity and wants them tossed out to make their longtime homes into high-end Manhattan office spaces. Late in the movie we also attend a public protest by remnants of the Big Apple's Garment District, calling attention to all clothes manufacturing now done abroad by slaves. Hey, I just figured out who stole Bill's other 28 bikes: His publishers, making some extra money fencing them off the loading dock.
Cunningham himself is ever smiling (even when visibly irritated with assistants and the documentary filmmakers), tack-sharp and cheerful, seemingly with no secret agenda or deep pit of psychological torment that he fills via his circulating amidst the rich and famous. He's just a nice, modest, churchgoing Catholic fashionista doing what he adores, and hence a complete enigma to intelligentsia (one is reminded of how analysts are equally puzzled by Ronald Reagan). Rather sadly, you get the sense that gentlemen of this caliber just aren't around much anymore. If they were in greater numbers, the media would be all the richer for it. In more ways than one, AnselAdamsdammit. (3 out of 4 stars)