Posted on 1/29/13 11:27 PM
A Sweet, Charming Man Who Loves What He Does
The only thing depressing about this movie is the fact that Carnegie Hall turns out to have evicted all these people who had apartments and studios and things in the building for decades so that they could rent out the offices to businesses instead. The studio where Agnes De Mille choreographed Oklahoma! (not that I like Oklahoma! all that much) now houses telemarketers. I mean, that's disheartening on just about every level. The film shows a spokesman for Carnegie Hall saying in a grumbly way that the history of the hall is about music, not art, but surely telemarketing isn't either one. Yeah, they're doubtless making more money now--Bill Cunningham's studio was rent-controlled, and he'd been there for decades--but so what? Aren't there some things that are more important? I mean, Andrew Carnegie was a ruthless businessman, and he knew that we need culture, too--that's why he had that building, and all those libraries, built!
Ahem. Bill Cunningham. Born in 1929. He is best known for taking pictures of random New Yorkers, seldom much worried about who they are, and putting together displays of what clothing they are wearing. He's been doing this for decades for the New York Times, and his photos track pretty much every fashion trend that's come up in the city since the '70s. Sometimes, he takes pictures of women wearing actual high-fashion clothing on the streets of New York, which is an interesting idea. He works almost all the time, seven days a week, because it's what he loves to do. His personal needs are so small that when he did move into a new apartment, he had his landlord remove the appliances in the kitchen to make more room for his filing cabinets. He wears blue smocks that are sold in Paris for wear by garbage carriers, because those smocks are cheap and have a lot of pockets. His interest in fashion is clearly more abstract than personal.
What I like about Bill Cunningham's photography is that he never intends to show anyone up. It's always about how interesting their clothing is to him or how common their look is becoming, not how ugly or badly dressed they are. And indeed, some of the things shown to fascinate him are rather ugly to me. Still, he seems to be one of those delightful, utterly necessary people who see the beauty in everything. Someone says that he was first photographed by Cunningham many years ago, but Cunningham later told him that the Times wouldn't run the picture, because the man was wearing a dress. (Back in the '80s, possibly?) One of the later trends he documented was men in skirts. So yeah. Indeed, Cunningham befriends several of the people he regularly sees wearing interesting clothing, simply because he is fascinated by their clothing. It's sweet. He is clearly one of those lucky people who is able to do what he loves for money, and there is no happier life.
What would probably be fairly interesting is a retrospective--the trends that he spotted which eventually left New York and made their mark, for example. Did he spot the Annie Hall look before it was making it into fashion magazines? Were there trends he saw which never made it east of the Hudson? His drive was clearly chronicling things he saw that struck him as interesting, and anyone doing that in any field is of value to those who come after. He is rather snarly about how rare it is to come across anyone with a truly unique style anymore, and he lives in one of the world's great fashion cities. (We also see him in Paris, of course!) However, we also see some of the people he has chronicled often over the years, because he has found some of the people with the most unusual style and kept track of them. Naturally, these are seldom people who spark trends, because they are in little fashion worlds of their own. That's okay; the outliers are worth tracking to show where the center is.
I think this was shortlisted to the Academy's Best Documentary Feature list a couple of years ago. I know that it's been sitting on my instant queue for some time now. If I'd known how entertaining it would turn out to be, how much I'd really like Bill Cunningham, that would not have happened. I don't always like the people documentaries are about; it's arguably the case that unlikeable people make for better film. However, every once in a while, I think we need a Bill Cunningham, a Rodriguez--a pleasant, likeable person who is content in their own life but who has touched the lives of untold others as well. They're even better than the wackier ones, the Mister Brainwash types. They remind us that there are really people like that in this world, and I think we're the better for hearing their stories, even if we don't care about the fashion trends of New York or a minor singer-songwriter who did two albums in the early '70s.