Monday, March 14, 2011

Richard Press' piquant portrait of NY Times photographer Bill Cunningham (who long ago shot TM's daughter "On the Street") puts fashion & fashionistas in their place

The year is young, but for a moving, meaningful documen-tary about a genuine original (in an indus-try that's so faux), look no farther than Bill Cunningham -- the man and the movie about him. A fixture in the fashion field for decades, as well as at The New York Times (and during the early days of Details magazine), Mr. Cunningham is one of the most unusual men to ever grace a major documentary. Richard Press' lovely ode to this little guy and his very big career -- BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK -- is in many ways a model of its kind: It gives us a good amount of the photographer's wonderful work to pour over, while letting us slowly get to know and warm up to this joyful loner, who turns out to be not only smart, talented and, yes, very set in his ways -- but also quite the private person.

So expertly does Mr. Press (at left) show us the man and his work, along with the scoop on why this work is so important to Cunningham (and, hello, to fashion) -- why, for instance, he refused to accept money for his work for Details magazine, and how and why his split with Women's Wear Daily occurred -- that, as private as the photographer is, by the end of the film, we feel that we know him as well as we ought to, given his desire not to share. When, maybe twice during the movie, Press presses his subject for more information, the filmmaker is an absolute gentleman as he goes about it, explaining, "You don't have to answer this if it upsets you."

One of these moments clearly does, if not upset Cunningham (shown above, with his big grin), at least makes it difficult for him to answer. When he finally speaks, the scene is moving and graceful, genuine and caring. And we in the audience actually come away not wanting to know any more because we realize that the knowledge we'll gain -- in this case regarding Cunningham's religion and sexuality -- is not worth the possible pain or disturbance to this kind man. Together, treading a path of honesty tempered with discretion, Press and Cunningham actually make better people out of us viewers.

In any case, what we do learn is plenty. Cunningham, in his work over the past fifty years, keeps showing us fashion -- the real thing, worn by people on the street, rather than the stuff dictated to us by WWD, Anna Wintour (caught in Cunningham's lens, above) and the rest of the rat pack that has been passing itself off as the cognoscenti of true fashion. I'm not saying these people and their magazines are worthless, mind you -- not quite, anyway -- just far too self-important and deluded. All you need do is take a good, hard look at at least half the stuff raved over by these fashionistas, and then compare this with what Mr Cunningham has photographed -- those shoes and the women in them, shown below, for instance -- to understand who and what really matter.

Regarding WWD, it was when that rag used the photographer's work -- which he had shot to demonstrate how people on the street can put together their own wardrobes with a real sense of fashion and understanding of what works -- with copy that stated exactly the opposite, that these "street people" were laughable and had no fashion sense, that the photographed parted ways with WWD forever. The movie shows Cunningham at work on the street, where he draws all his inspiration.  Now 81 (or maybe 82?) the film shows us his 80th birthday celebration at the NY Times), he's still going strong, having been evicted from his long-time living quarters in the Carnegie Hall apartments (those are his filing cabinets full of old negatives, below), but thankfully having been placed elsewhere in decent digs.

We also see the man's fine design sense in the way he organizes his weekly On the Street with the help of his NY Times art director, his time in Paris (both recently and back in the 1950s), and some great photography hints ("Use you camera like a pen -- to take notes!"). There is so much to see and mull over here -- Bill shooting and chatting up the two Houndstooth honeys, below -- that not a minute is wasted, and when the movie ends, you'll have spent some quality time with a fellow who's absolutely unforgettable.

Bill Cunningham New York, another winner from Zeitgeist Films, has its world theatrical premiere this Wednesday, March 16 in NYC's Film Forum. Click here for Film Forum showtimes and tickets -- and here for further playdates (there'll be lots of them) cross country.


Oh- yes: I mentioned in my headline that Cunningham had once photographed my daughter Laura for use in one of his On the Street Sunday fashion half-pages for The New York Times, dated June 3, 1990.  That's she (above, center right), striding with bag in hand. Here's a link to the article itself but -- shoot! -- no pictures in the Times' archive?! (It turns out that the photographer also shot my grand-daughter Marlo at a recent ballet event -- but that one didn't make the cut.)

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