At their very best, films give voice to the voiceless and present information to the uninformed. And they surprise us. Bill Cunningham New York certainly surprised me.
Bill Cunningham is indifferent about celebrities. Uninterested in personal fame. Nearly uninterested in money. His bland clothes and cramped apartment are of little concern, if any. On the other hand, Bill Cunningham has one whopper of an obsession. Paradoxically, this obsession resides in a culture where materialism and wealth and ego and style all reign supreme. So Cunningham lives in one world, and his obsession lives in a contrary world. This makes for a delightful film.
Bill Cunningham New York is about an un-hip 82 year old man who is a mainstay of The New York Times "Sunday Styles" section. We follow this plain and congenial fashion photographer around the streets of Manhattan as he snaps photos of flamboyantly dressed women. We go with him to fashion shows where he selects carefully what interests him and his camera. In the evenings he is off to charity benefits, photographing more women as they stand about in their lively, and in this case expensive, attire. But cost is not the issue. What is being worn on the streets is the issue. In Paris Cunningham receives a prestigious award, which he is uncomfortable in receiving, making himself more comfortable by doing what he always does -- snapping photos of flashy dressed women. Well, not so much the women as the clothes they are wearing.
Everywhere in Manhattan's New York, the gray-haired veteran photographer travels on his rather ancient bicycle, from event to event, from street corner to another street corner, wide-eyed with big-grin as he snaps away.
What gives this film spark and grabbed me was the combination of subject and personality -- the subject of women's fashion, which I had zero interest in, and the personality of Bill Cunningham, an odd and delightfully character. Possessing a seducing smile and modest attitude, Cunningham easily and naturally disarms the New York high-fashion community full of self-importance with its ego-inflated icons. This interplay between polar opposites is the backbone of Bill Cunningham New York.
And then there is Cunningham's definition of fashion. Rather egalitarian, certainly populist, an anti-elitist conception of fashion. The only clothes this New York Times photographer is interested in -- even at the high-faluting Manhattan fashion shows -- are clothes that women can wear on the streets of New York. Clothes that are exciting, yet also have real utility.
On a deeper level, for Cunningham' the flashy and glitzy clothes are not a statement for, "Hey, look at me." The eye-catching attire should never be about drawing attention to the wearer of the clothes. For Cunningham, these outrageous clothes are about making our all-too-drab world colorful and eliciting smiles on the faces of regular people. So the wild and crazy clothes are not about the "me," but about the "us;" not for the narcissism of individuals, but about making life brighter for all of us.
Women's fashion for many if not most males is an excruciatingly boring subject -- a film about women's fashion is simply intolerable. Yet, I found this film gripping. Not because of the subject, but because of the character and the subject.
There is Bill Cunningham zipping around Manhattan on his bicycle, standing on street corners snapping photos of women as they dart across avenues. The elated Bill Cunningham throwing that smile that says, "Wasn't that great!" The Bill Cunningham moving effortlessly between high society and downtown society. The Bill Cunningham totally engrossed in what few of men see, the fleeting fashions on the streets of New York. Sure males see the bodies, but seldom the clothes. After watching Bill Cunningham New York, I'm sure what I did not see before I will begin to see more now.