Do not stereotype this fashion photographer. Bill Cunningham is a Korean War-era veteran, who goes to church every Sunday. As for his personal life, that is one of the mysteries Richard Press attempts to plumb in his documentary profile Bill Cunningham New York (trailer here), which opens this Wednesday at New York’s Film Forum.
In addition to select runway coverage, Cunningham has two regular photo-essay columns in another major New York newspaper that shall remain nameless. One is a society spread. The other is a street-level, boots-on-the-ground fashion report, using everyday eccentric New Yorkers as his bellwether subjects. The latter appears much closer to his heart. He clearly enjoys the sight of a well turned outfit, but refuses to elevate a supermodel above an office worker with particular panache. Yet, one of the obvious ironies of Cunningham’s life is the modesty of his own wardrobe. Famous for his blue windbreaker and disposable ponchos, Cunningham would probably shop at Wal-Mart were the price-cutting chain ever allowed to open a Manhattan store.
Press temporarily veers off course when attempting to gin up outrage at Carnegie Hall for relocating Cunningham and a handful of hold-out tenants of the studios above the venerable institution. Yet, Cunningham largely undercuts him, readily admitting he could crash with his over-stuffed filing cabinets just about anywhere. Indeed, it is dashed difficult not to like the photographer, whose fundamental decency comes through quite strikingly. Perhaps most tellingly, the young Cunningham willing answered his country’s call to serve, despite the outrageous flak leveled at him by the wealthy family backing his line of designer hats.
Cunningham is a cagey interview subject, but Press successfully “hounds” his subject until he opens up, at least to an extent. There is no big third act revelation though, just more niceness. Indeed, BCNY might be the least cynical portrayal of the fashionista world to ever hit the big-screen.
Though shot with a minimal crew with off-the-shelf cameras, as per Cunningham’s mandate, BCNY still looks professionally put together. (The licensed soundtrack is also surprisingly interesting, even featuring “Blues” by the latter George Lewis.) Any film that scores on-camera interviews with Anna Wintour and Tom Wolfe may safely lay claim to some serious society cred. For that matter, how many docs can boast cameos from both Pinch Sulzberger and David Koch? More to the point, Cunningham emerges as a subject well worth spending time with. His enthusiasm for enthusiasm is infectious. A film with wider mainstream appeal than one might assume, BCNY opens this Wednesday (3/16) in New York at Film Forum.