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Fashion on Film: Movie Review, Bill Cunningham New York

Bill Cunningham is the man behind the camera. He’s the photographer whose column in the New York Times, Sunday Styles section has gained iconic status. His images in On The Street aren’t high fashion neatly packaged for the runway. He captures New Yorkers strutting their stuff on the pavement. Anyone can grace his page. You don’t have to have celebrity to back up your style. You don’t have to be rich enough to shop on Fifth Avenue. Maybe, one Sunday, you’ll be flipping through the paper and find you or me. His fashion picks each week give us all hope.

 Director Richard Press’ smart documentary, Bill Cunningham New York, shows the man’s democratic spirit in action. He’s as nimble as Nijinsky, at nearly 80 (he turns 80 near the end of the film). We see him darting through traffic and crowded sidewalks to get the shot of the woman walking on the street in a sequined mini-dress. He’s a man working from the ground up. As he says, “(I) let the streets speak to me.”

Cunningham’s been doing it for close to a half a century and, besides a slight hunch, grey hair and a few wrinkles, he’s still as fast on his feet and joyous about his work as the archival footage that shows him doing exactly the same thing in the eighties. Indeed, he’s on his 28th Schwinn bike (the other 27 were stolen), which he uses to dart from uptown to downtown and back (without a helmet). He’s searching for something, trying to spot the latest trends both high and low. He’s “not looking for taste, (but) looking for daring.”

It’s a singular focus that appears again and again in the documentary. Before he became a photographer in the sixties, he was a milliner to the stars. Clients like Marilyn Monroe, Ginger Rogers and Joan Crawford held no interest to him, “because they weren’t stylish”.

Yet, he’s no reverse snob either. We learn that he has an encyclopedic knowledge about high fashion, has front row seats at Paris fashion week and rubs elbows with the likes of Anna Wintour and Brooke Astor (he also has a weekly society column in the New York Times). It’s a seeming contradiction, but one that actually fits with his exacting vision.

Style is king. Everyone can have style.

He never wavers from this pure approach to his work. Indeed, he lives an almost monastic life, eschewing all of the trappings usually associated with his chosen career in pursuit of creative freedom. We see his small studio in Carnegie Hall, one of the last remaining artists in residence there (there is a plot in the film about Carnegie Hall’s successful bid to evict them). Filing cabinets fill the space and hold decades of negatives. Fashion books reach the ceiling and look like they are ready to fall over on top of his small cot in the center of the room.

We learn that he’s unconcerned about how he presents himself, preferring to wear the same French workman’s jacket each day. He doesn’t care what he eats and lives without a kitchen. He doesn’t aspire to great fortunes either explaining, “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do.” All material concerns seem sublimated to his precise vision and uncompromising ethic.

At one point, near the end of the film, Cunningham says, “To be honest and straight in New York...that’s like Don Quixote chasing windmills.”

Then, Bill Cunningham is Don Quixote. If we had started watching this movie to get a glimpse into the rarefied or status-conscious world of fashion that’s typically portrayed in documentaries of this genre, we’ve gotten much more than we bargained for. We have learned about living a creative life with abiding integrity.

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