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Home » Culture and Criticism

6/31: Bill Cunningham New York

Submitted by on December 6, 2011 – 7:45 AMOne Comment

First Thought Films

Richard Press's documentary about Times Styles photographer, and chance fashion-world icon, Bill Cunningham, keeps it light for the first hour. The tone is the gently knowing one of PBS specials about James-Cameronian construction projects of the turn of the last century, but the subject himself prevents the project from getting too saccharine or inside — and he has that grand Hepburnian accent from the golden age of shoulder-pads, too, distinctively indistinct. It's a fun film to listen to, as well as to look at: Cunningham snaking through his tiny Carnegie efficiency apartment, talking about hats or celebrities; Cunningham explaining that he eats to live and not the other way around.

So, it's likeable from the jump (Patrick McDonald, one of the few interesting parts of the profoundly tedious Launch My Line, features prominently, and I still long to hang out with that guy; Gen and I, the only two suckers who watched that whole season, developed a grand unifying theory of Ripshit Patrick Has Information in which he's perfectly pleasant and lovely about everyone until the second glass, and then he drops a casual "oh, that bitch" and the next thing you know there is opera) (hi, Mr. McDonald! I'm sure you're perfectly discreet) (call me). But for a while there, Bill Cunningham New York doesn't seem to have much weight. Then it sneaks up you. The sequence in which Cunningham accepts his title from the French Ministry of Culture is lovely, despite the harsh lighting; as Cunningham's comfortable mash-up of Boston-flavored French and English breaks down a bit, the portrait of him drops into three dimensions. How wonderful Cunningham's iconoclasm is, and inevitable; how lonely, too, it must get to belong to everyone and to no one. By the time you reach the party scene at the end, you feel like he belongs to you too, and like you were invited.

BCNY is Press's first feature, so it's hard to tell whether the slow build is his construction or the subject's, but it's effective either way; you don't have to care about fashion or photography to give it a try, because it isn't about those things. It's about the particular blessings of being your own thing.

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One Comment »

  • DuchessKitty says:

    Absolutely one of my favorite films in the past decade. I love this documentary so much. A part that really affected me was having to watch Cunningham and those other wonderful elders lose their living and work spaces at Carnegie Hall. It made me so angry and sad. I'm dying to know what happened to the old lady with the hats!

    Count me as another one of the demented few that watched the pathetic Launch My Line from start to bitter finish. I've fantasized about being Patrick McDonald's gal pal for over a decade.

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