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Monday, 27 February 2012

Bill Cunningham New York

After A Man's Story, my next fashion film at the Glasgow Film Festival was another documentary about a workaholic fixture of the fashion world. Aside from that similarity, though, Ozwald Boateng and Bill Cunningham couldn't be more different. Bill Cunningham New York is an affectionate and respectful look at a man who finds happiness in his work to the extent that it frees him from the restrictions of everyday society. At over 80 years old, he's been photographing people on the streets of New York City for four decades, and is a familiar face at the various Fashion Weeks. He isn't interested in the money -- in fact, he used to tear up his Details Magazine paycheques back in the day when his photographs were taking up 40 pages per issue. As long as he gets to take pictures of peoples' clothes, he's happy.
This is a film about a true egalitarian, something that's about as common as a unicorn when it comes to the fashion industry. Bill Cunningham doesn't know or care who the celebrities are when he photographs them at charity functions or fashion shows: he only cares about their clothes, and treats everyone he's photographing with the same shy, smiley respect. He's such a widely-loved figure -- both because of his sheer likeability and for the slightly more cynical reason that appearing in one of his On The Street columns is an honour -- that people can hardly complain if he fails to recognise the cast of Gossip Girl. Even Anna Wintour, the Lady Macbeth of fashion, says that it's a real blow when Bill Cunningham ignores you at fashion week, and seems almost friendly during her interview.

I have mixed feelings on the subject of street-style photography. The evolution of street style as a force as strong as the dictation of high-end designers is fascinating, and people like Bill Cunningham and Scott Schuman (The Sartorialist) are very good at documenting it. But taking pictures of people on the street is far from difficult, meaning that these days there are unnumbered blogs, Tumblrs and newspaper column inches devoted to street style. Unfortunately, they often come across as either filler (in the case of the endless reams of newspaper spreads I've seen of people looking flattered but mildly puzzled that someone wanted to immortalise their rather generic outfit) or as masturbatory celebrity puff-pieces (as seen during the London Fashion Week surges of models and fashion writers/bloggers posing self-consciously outside Somerset House). In recent years I've even noticed a few mentions of people in the industry starting to get stressed out during Fashion Weeks because of the pressure to catch the eye of street-style photographers.
Bill Cunningham, photographed by The Sartorialist.
The great thing about Bill Cunningham is that he doesn't have a calculating bone in his body. He finds beauty in 80-year-old society matrons and workmen's overalls and Prada-clad supermodels and teenage skate punks alike. He's carved a life for himself that seems to adhere to all the advice given out by Buddhist monks and people who live to a hundred -- work hard, get up early, don't get too attached to possessions, do what you love, respect everyone equally. Somehow, in amongst the angry and competative pace of New York fashion, he's managed to create a little oasis of calm and happiness for himself. Bill's apartment is tiny and filled with filing cabinets of old photographs, with no kitchen because he eats out at diners for every meal and only comes home to sleep and change clothes. He wears the same blue smocks every day, the sort that French garbage-men wear. Those smocks have enough pockets to hold all his film, you see. At one point he mentions, smiling as always, that he's on his 29th bicycle -- the first 28 were all stole, but he doesn't really mind.  
The film crew follow Bill as he cycles around New York, but also takes a look at his career all the way back to the 1960s, when the concept of street style was only just emerging. Various famous and connected talking heads are brought in to talk about him, and the main thing they all seem to have in common is a sort of affectionate protectiveness towards him, everyone clearly recognising that his near-unique levels of unselfishness are not always practical. This is a truly cheering documentary, not because it attempts to follow the story arc of a feelgood movie but simply because of the subject-matter. Bill Cunningham is a charming and fascinating individual, right down to the happy "Oh!" of excitement he makes when he spots something he thinks is beautiful.

Links
Rotten Tomatoes review summary (98% fresh)
Bill Cunningham New York movie homepage.
Bill Cunningham's On The Street slideshow/audio reports for the New York Times.

1 comment:

  1. La gente compra i prodotti per la sensazione che ricevono Gucci Outlet. Come ti senti quando si ottiene una nuova auto? Sì, eccitato, fiero e ansioso di mostrare fuori un po '. Tenete a mente questi sentimenti, di parole e disegnare con i vostri annunci pubblicitari che li stimolano. Sì, sarete sorpresi dai risultati che otterrete da incoraggiare e drammatizzando i desideri dei vostri lettori.g

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