Bill Cunningham New York (DVD Review)12 Sep, 2011 By: Mike Clark
Box Office $1.49 million
As tough as it must be fashioning fictional movies that deal with so-called lovable eccentrics who too often cloy, filmmaker Richard Press absolutely hit the mother lode in his deservedly praised documentary about Bill Cunningham, the New York Times’ premier chronicler of fashion trends in the reader magnet “On the Street” column. Living in better digs (though nearly as spartan) than the ones Joe Pesci’s roving Weegee-inspired photographer had in 1992’s The Public Eye, Cunningham’s life has been devoted to snapping un-posed shots of walking fashion statements he spots on the sidewalk. They’re mostly just regular folks, though getting one of the first candids of the decidedly non-regular (and notoriously reclusive) Greta Garbo proved to be a major career break
Addressing everyone less than his age (early 80s) as “child” or “muffin,” the effervescent, almost giggly Cunningham isn’t like a standard paparazzi type because (Garbo notwithstanding) he doesn’t wish to ambush his subjects or otherwise embarrass them. He even had a falling-out with onetime employer Women’s Wear Daily over that publication’s desire to use his photos to demean the looks of certain people he’d shot, via some kind of snitty/snotty layout. He doesn’t like posed photos and tries to be unobtrusive, which is one reason why even the late Brooke Astor asked him to her hundredth birthday celebration (where the waiters weren’t exactly tripping over other journalistic invitees).
Director Press says it took him about 10 years to get this documentary on film, eight of which involved just getting Cunningham to do it. In other words, we’re talking about an extremely private person for someone who is otherwise easily spottable out and about zipping around town (like someone’s messenger-service employee) on his 29th bicycle, due to the fact that the previous 28 were stolen. For a while, Cunningham was one of six remaining artists allowed to live in Carnegie Hall — until, in a subplot of this portrait, small minds decided to evict them (albeit with silk gloves) to make room for something that probably didn’t matter that much in the great scheme of things. We see that he sleeps on a cot surrounded by file cabinets of photo treasures that will likely someday consume the life of some designated cataloger. Late in the documentary, Press warns his subject that two extremely private questions are coming and that he doesn’t have to answer them if he doesn’t want. Interestingly, the one that seems to bother Cunningham (to which he nonetheless tries to give an answer) isn’t the one that wonders if he has ever had a sex life. (Apparently not; there are all those pictures to snap, you know).
The result is a nice dovetail with the recently-in-theaters Page One: Inside the New York Times (this is its equal in fact), as well as 2009’s The September Issue, which profiled American Vogue editor Anna Wintour. Among those interviewed here is Tom Wolfe, his dandy quotient still intact (and what a great subject he’d be for a documentary). Plus, in fact, Wintour — who, in what seems like a naturally human reaction, seems more comfortable talking about Cunningham than she did about herself in Issue. You do, however, wonder how many people there are around who could get away with calling her “child” or “muffin.”