Another Look: Bill Cunningham New York

The documentary Bill Cunningham New York came out last spring. It played in the Twin Cities as part of the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival, which is where I first saw it. It has quickly become one of my favorite documentaries. I watched it again last week (it is now available streaming through Netflix) and was struck all over again at how it accomplishes everything a documentary should.

To me, this  means that it delves into its subject and allows the subject matter to raise the questions (and there must be questions and murky areas or the viewer is left wondering why the documentary was made at all). This is especially true when a documentary is about a person. The person needs to be extraordinary themselves or their story needs to be extraordinary. They can’t be mundane unless they are so mundane it passes into comedy.

I was recently at a film festival and watched a documentary made about a semi-famous person and it was awful. Why? Because everyone interviewed for the film liked or loved that person. And it was all interviews of people talking. The one person who said he didn’t like the subject seemed as if he was a hired actor. I grew very bored.

Bill Cunningham is a street fashion photographer for the New York Times. He also photographs charity events and the big runway shows. He started out in life as a hat designer, went into the Army when he was drafted during WWII, came back and started writing for newspapers and eventually became a fashion photographer. He is now into his 80s and still biking around New York every day, capturing photos of interesting fashion. A more complete bio and links to his work can be found here.

For Bill, it’s not about the people wearing the clothes, although he has great respect for his subjects. It’s also not about his own celebrity (street fashion blogger du jour take note). It is about the clothes and what those clothes say about the times we live in. He’s not thinking up a trend and then going out to find it. He’s patiently waiting for trends to present themselves to him and then he documents them for us.

With that in mind, here are three reasons to watch this film:

1. Bill lives a meager existence compared to many of us. He doesn’t like fancy food. He doesn’t cook (one of my favorite things in the movie is a side note at the end saying that, after Bill moved into a new apartment, he had the landlord take out the kitchen appliances so he would have room for his filing cabinets of photos and negatives). He doesn’t wear fancy clothes. His time is devoted entirely to photography. His singularity of purpose and passion in this modern world are what make him extraordinary and it’s a good reminder for us all about what makes life worth living.

2. You can’t watch this movie and feel not uplifted. That’s not to say that there aren’t sad moments in the film but it’s great to watch someone who seems genuinely happy. If I were having a down day, I’d want to have a chat with Bill.

3. This film is beautifully shot. The lighting is extraordinary. Everyone looks beautiful. Even though this was a first-time effort on a feature-length film for the cinematographers, you can tell they have experience in photography and it’s to the audience’s benefit.If nothing else, enjoy the lighting.

If you’re in the mood for documentaries, here’s a little list that might may you say, “Oh, yeah, that movie. I should see that again.”

Hell House (2001)
Capturing the Friedmans
Rize (2005)
Crazy Love (2007)
Inside Job (2010)

And here are some that are on my Must Watch Soon list:

The Interrupters (2011)
Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011)
Bobby Fischer Against the World (2010) Out on DVD on December 6th.
Marwencol (2010)
Winnebago Man (2009)


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