I’m what you would definitely define as “fashion challenged.” I guess I’m geek chic as I live out my daily existence in converse high-tops, rock concert or movie themed t-shirts and a hoodie and I’m totally o.k. with that. Not only do I not give a s**t about my personal sense of fashion, I could care less for the industry of fashion. All the chicks look too skinny, the guys too perfect and the clothes, all wholly uncomfortable. So imagine my sense of dread when “Bill Cunningham New York” started and it’s all about the New York fashion scene. While “Bill Cunningham New York” is definitely about fashion, particularly those who love it, it’s more about Bill Cunningham an octogenarian with boundless energy who photographs New York fashion. Not only does he hit all the swanky parties and fancy runway shows, he cruises the streets of New York all day long on his bike, photographing fashionable people who have incorporated high-fashion into their lives as well as those who may be setting up the next big trend in fashion. And this guy is 80 years old!
As a person who cares nothing for fashion, I was pleasantly surprised when I gave myself over to this infectious and, well, delightful film about Cunningham, an enigmatic and ubiquitous presence who ha covered his passion for well over 30 years. His photos appear in magazines and in his column is featured in the New York Times yet Cunningham remains completely down to earth, sweet and devoted to his craft. Even calling his photography a craft rings false, his photography is his life.
Throughout the film we meet pretty much every matriarch of the high-powered fashion magazines and they all regard Cunningham with warmth and respect. We meet fashion-oriented people who all seem to be wearing “Where’s Waldo” glasses and no one has a bad thing to sat about him either. While this may sound like a puff-piece documentary, I honestly believe that Cunningham is so likable, charming, dedicated and principled, it would be tough to find anything bad to say about the man unless you were really trying.
Later, we venture to his teeny-tiny room in the Carnegie Hall Studios where he’s lived (pardon my dodgy math) for well over 50 years. And it shows as Cunningham’s room has him barricaded in with boxes of photos, file cabinets and books on fashion. It’s like an episode of hoarders. The film takes a slight diversion here as we learn that the tenants of this building, which was extremely important during the Andy Warhol New York art and fashion explosion, are being evicted to make office spaces. This section of the film could well be it’s own documentary as we meet other elderly, arty and charismatic tenants, but director Richard Press does a nice job dovetailing it into Cunningham’s story.
“Bill Cunningham New York” is one of my most favorite types of documentaries because it took me on a journey to meet a fascinating person who I’d previously known nothing about. Press handles the film well by keeping it moving jauntily along and choosing Cunningham at his most entertaining. Whether it be him explaining how he never even accepts as much as a glass of water at events he covers to torturing the Times’ art director by taking forever to get his page right, Cunningham is so passionate and great you can’t help but fall in love with him by the end of the film.