Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Movie – Bill Cunningham New York (2011)

Note: When I put together my Top 10 Movies of 2011 list, I included the film Bill Cunningham New York.  I did not have a review of it posted, though, so I only wrote a few comments in that post and said I would get a full review up someday.  At the time I had planned to include it in a movie category in the next couple months, but that didn’t happen.  I’ve decided to put the review up now.  If/when I do a category that this belongs in I will come back and add that label to this post.  If you are interested, you can see my Top 10 Movies of 2011 list by clicking here.

Unless you read the New York Times and/or are in the fashion world, you’ve probably never heard of Bill Cunningham.  I never had.  Who he is is possibly the most influential person in the world in regards to documenting trends in fashion as they are just starting.  For decades he has had a weekly page in the New York Times where he publishes photos he has taken on the streets of New York – not of famous people, but of anybody who catches his eye.  You may now have a picture in your head of some snobby guy who is way too full of himself.  Nothing could be further from the truth, and therein lies the delight in this movie.  We get to see the real Bill Cunningham and he may be one of the most interesting people you will ever meet.

I am probably the last person to be concerned about fashion.  (As I wrote in my About this Blog page – the only clothing tips I will offer on this site are “when you go out in public, wear some.”)  Just like with the subject of ballet in regards to the film Black Swan, you don’t have to know or care about fashion to appreciate this documentary.

The filmmakers interview a number of people, in addition to Bill himself.  Almost all of them say that they really don’t know anything personal about the man; they only know the little piece of his world where it has intersected with theirs.  He has always remained a bit of a mystery to them.

It turns out he lives in a tiny apartment filled with file cabinets containing picture negatives.  He doesn’t even have his own bathroom.  His apartment building has a long history in the city, but a new owner is fighting to evict Bill and the few other tenants that still live there.  He also does not own a car.  Despite his age (mid 70s at the time of filming) he still gets around New York City on a bicycle.  At one point he comments that he’s had 28 of them stolen over the years.  He also is not a fashion icon himself.  He always wears the same blue coat everywhere he goes on his bike.

Any time he sees someone who looks interesting he will stop and take a photo.  Bill has an almost photographic memory (yes, I went there) that allows him to see trends even before anyone else notices they are happening.  This may be shirts with a style of writing on them, hats, sunglasses, etc.  He then puts together these pictures he has taken over months to show all these random people starting to generate their own fashion trend on the streets – far from the lofty towers of the big name designers.

He seems just as comfortable in that crowd, too, though.  He goes to many events, but his own policy is that he never eats at them.  He is there to work only, and then to go on his way.  He feels if he accepts anything from them that this might possibly bias his work.

Through all of these things, we get a picture of what may be the happiest man on the planet.  He is doing what he loves and can’t imagine wanting to do anything else.  I smiled a lot while watching this. 

The best way to sum up who Bill is gets spoken by one of the people in the film who happens to be giving Bill a prestigious award.  He says that he knows that Bill will feel very deeply that he does not deserve this award….and that is precisely why he does deserve it.

Please don’t avoid this movie just because it is superficially involved with fashion.  You would miss out on meeting a fascinating man.  I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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  1. Couldn't agree more. I watched this film as my girlfriend is very into fashion and asked me to review it for her magazine, and though I too have absolutely no interest or knowledge of fashion, I found Bill to be just wonderful, though his cycling skills left a little to be desired as he takes on taxis in New York.

    1. And he also didn't seem to be too worried about stepping out into traffic to get a picture either. He must be doing something right, though.

  2. This is one of the most feelgood movies I've seen in a while.I hope I'm this active and productive when I get old.

  3. The final paragraph of your review sums up my thoughts exactly on this excellent documentary. My favorite moment was Bill's reaction when asked if he's religious. That was really something.

    1. Thanks. I agree on that scene. It was very moving.

  4. I loved this documentary, I was pleasantly surprised by it! I admire the fact that he doesn't take advantage of his position to gain access to material things, like clothes or food, but he uses his time and power to help fashion move forward. I also found touching the moment near the end where he is asked a personal question and suddenly stops- that reaction is the most genuine, interesting and revealing thing I have seen in years!