Friday, October 28, 2011

New Release Review: Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, 2010)

Opening in cinemas November 3rd, 2011.

Bill Cunningham New York, directed by Richard Press, is a thoroughly entertaining documentary about an eccentric obsessive, a passionate and dedicated professional, and a happy, kind-hearted, down-to-earth and extremely likeable individual. Bill Cunningham is not just a New York Times photographer; he is a cultural anthropologist who has been chronicling for decades the most peculiar of New York City’s fashion trends (from the street level) and the ever-changing image of high society.

His columns, “On the Street" and “Evening Hours” appear regularly in the Times’ style section, and he has become somewhat of a celebrity himself. He has, essentially, become part of the culture of the city and as Vogue editor Anna Wintour suggests, is so recognizable (riding around on his bicycle and sporting a blue windbreaker), he prompts everyone to “get dressed up” for him. Meticulous with his vision, Bill will do anything to get the shot he wants – including running out into the middle of street, battling rival bicycles and taxis, to capture an outfit, or just a unique item of clothing, that catches his eye.

Press, who earned the respect of Cunningham – enough so that he was allowed into his home and Carnegie Hall studio, and into his office – is just as sensitive and respectful of Cunningham’s privacy himself. He asks a couple of tough questions near the conclusion, but it’s done in as kind and respectful way as possible. Not desiring to make the man uncomfortable, and prompting him not to answer if he felt it was too personal, the questions produce quite an extraordinary reaction from Bill, one that reveals the presence of sadness and regret beneath his warm and embracing exterior, but kept at bay by the joy he draws from his work, and a self-contentedness and pride in who he is.

What makes this documentary such a stirring experience is the energy it possesses – all of the captures of him scouring the streets are entertaining, watching him working with and often criticizing his assistant is hilarious and listening to the host of interviewed work colleagues and acquaintances is insightful - and how much it fills a viewer with joy. Despite being obsessed with flamboyant clothing accessories and such, Bill is remarkably the exact opposite. He has no desire to be fashionable, he lives in a small apartment crammed full of filing cabinets containing his work and he eats breakfast at the same diner on a daily basis.

Even viewers who have little-to-no interest in the world of fashion, or haven’t even heard of Bill Cunningham prior to the release of this film (myself included), will still find it very enjoyable. Press’ endeavor is not to probe into Bill’s personal life or provide insightful knowledge about the New York Times, but to bring this remarkable and highly respected human being, the passion and self-appointed motivation that drives him and the bizarre life he has lived, to curious viewers. It is no surprise that Bill Cunningham New York won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Film at the 2010 Sydney Film Festival because it is a film that makes you happy, and joins a host of stellar documentary releases in Australia in 2011.

My Rating: ★★★★ (B+)

1 comment:

  1. I'm going to have to watch this. It's on Netflix Instant actually

    Good review Andy.