Richard Press | 81 mins | TV | 16:9 | France & USA / English | 12A
Bill Cunningham is 80. He lives in a small rent-controlled apartment in New York City that is filled with filing cabinets. His bed is little more than a mattress on some boxes. Each day, he dresses in the same distinctively simple blue smock and sets out on his bicycle. He eats at the same places each day; simple cheap food, cheap coffee. He doesn’t have a partner or kids; he may never have had a romantic relationship. He doesn’t watch TV or listen to music. It sounds like some kind of life of poverty or religious devotion. It’s neither, although you could make an argument for the latter, because all Bill does all day is photograph what people wear.
I confess, I’ve succumbed to what seems to be the standard way of describing Bill Cunningham New York, which is to big up the simplicity of his life, because that’s the striking element of the story. I don’t think it’s actually a very good representation of the film, or even the man. He’s far from friendless or starving, and the photography is his job — though I imagine he would continue it even if he wasn’t paid.
Bill is, technically, a fashion and society photographer. His real passion, however, is clothes. Real clothes. The clothes people actually wear and how they wear them. His newspaper column — a collection of photos from the streets — is essential reading as far up the chain as Anna Wintour. He doesn’t set trends, he observes them. Exposes them, you might say, because in the past he’s used his work to call fashion designers on where they’ve copied (consciously or not) the work of another from years before, and that has sparked arguments.
He photographs society events apparently because the paper just wants him to, and because he’s known — he gets more invites than he could ever hope to attend. He’s more interested in finding those with interesting people and interesting clothes, or good causes, than he is seeing where the celebrities are — when a guest list is provided, he doesn’t read it. He also photographs fashion shows, but not at the end of the catwalk with the massed bank of photographers. Instead he’s in the front row along the side, with all those Anna Wintours and half-interested celebrities of the world, taking photos from more interesting angles, and only of the outfits that interest him.
What he actually is, more than a “fashion photographer”, is a documentarian, recording how people choose to present themselves to the world, both as individuals and how that translates en masse. Fashion may seem like a meaningless, arbitrary, frivolous thing to afford such time to, and I’d have no argument against Fashion being called exactly that. But fashion — the actual clothes we wear in our actual lives — is something a good many people spend a good amount of time obsessing over; it’s how they choose to represent themselves in the world, how they indicate what they’re like as a person, how they show which groups or types of people they align with. We all do it, even if it’s not a conscious choice. Surely that’s worth recording?
That might all sound pretentious, and I’m certain Bill Cunningham doesn’t view himself in such grandiose a light, but that’s part of the charm, and perhaps part of the importance.
If this review seems to be more about the man than the film then that’s because the film is the man — it’s in the title. Perhaps I should write about the construction of the film — following Bill around on his business, interviewing his friends and colleagues and those he’s influenced; a slightly loose style, with no specific story. But that’s all an aside, probably because it’s so well done. What might be worth picking up on is that there’s no specific story. There are stories in there — like how Carnegie Hall is kicking out its handful of 80- and 90-something resident artists to make way for more office space — but the film doesn’t have an overarching tale. It’s a portrait; one of a fascinating, unusual, but likeable, and certainly unique, individual.
Bill Cunningham New York is on Sky Arts 1 tonight at 8pm and 1:50am, and tomorrow at 2:30pm.
It placed 9th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2012, which can be read in full here.