I spent several weeks transcribing the documentary Bill Cunningham New York this fall before its full release to theaters, and I’m super excited to see that it’s finally getting out there for all everyone’s viewing pleasure (though hopefully not everyone will have to see it as many times in a row as I had to). As the director Richard Press (who I’ve written about before here) explains, “When people ask how long it took to make Bill Cunningham New York I say ten years: eight to convince Bill to be filmed and two to shoot and edit the film. Had it been any different, Bill wouldn’t have been true to who he is or nearly as interesting a subject to film.” It’s a beautiful case study into an extremely genuine, quirky, and talented man who usually has the lens turned on other people, not himself. The filmmakers use choice dialogue, and allow Bill’s work, what Bill is known for and what he shapes his whole life around, speak for itself. It’s absolutely a testament to Press and producer Philip Gefter’s cumulative background in photography (this is the duos first film).
Bill does things old school. He doesn’t rely on digital cameras; everything is done in film. To watch him go through his film is to take a step back in time, and I found myself almost yearning for a wax pencil with which to circle my chosen shots. Barely anyone in this film has anything bad to say about Bill, making this is less of a full-bodied picture of a man, and more of a film desperately trying to find out anything about perhaps the most private individual ever. Annette de la Renta says, “He catches you crossing a street with boots and blue jeans and this, and he’s so happy. And he’s much happier when you’re in this, looking terrible, and ratty, then he is if he saw you in something, incredibly elegant and smart.”
Not everyone loves him or knows him (there is one shot of him attempting to take a photo of a group on young high school black girls, who shout “Don’t take a picture of us! I’ll break that fucking camera over your head”, but the film is a bit of a love letter, especially with commentary from the Queen of the fashion world, Anna Wintour. “I think everyone who knows Bill, and understands who he is and what he represents, will always be thrilled to be photographed by Bill. I mean I have said many times that we all get dressed for Bill,” she notes.
The filmmakers wisely don’t limit their scope to Bill; his home, and the cast of characters surrounding him paint a picture of a world in fashion and art that is slowly fading, but still represented by some strong personalities. His friend Editta Sherman lived down the hall from him in the Carnegie Hall apartments and was rather famously covered in this New York Times article. In one scene, Editta, a photographer, shows off some of her shots, exclaiming, “See this is uh…you know who she is!” An off-camera voices asks, “Tilda Swinton?” Editta shouts “Yes! Swinton! Isn’t that nice?”
Bill is unique in that he does not consider himself a great photographer, but he does consider himself a great lover of fashion. I would argue that he is a great photographer, in that his compositional skills and ability to see something others would pass by are outstanding. He first started shooting when a friend of his gave him a camera and said, “use it like a pen. Like you take notes,” and it’s clear this mantra has never left him.
Bill’s changing surroundings and his documentation of them are an undercurrent throughout this entire celebration of his work. I would have imagined him to be intensely saddened by his move from his long-time Carnegie Hall apartment (it’s worth watching the film just for the footage of its size and how he utilizes it; it is miniscule, full of filecabinets with his photos, and holds no kitchen). His only comment about moving? “It’ll be an apartment with a kitchen and a bathroom. Who the hell wants a kitchen and a bathroom? Just more rooms to clean….I have more fun going out and photographing.”
Bill is aware of class hierarchy, but he doesn’t dwell on it, because looks are more important, no matter where you are from. At one point he runs into some “kids” who ask where their photo will be printed. When he answers The New York Times, he clarifies that “The Times has a little benefit page. It’s small stuff. Unimportant.” The young man says, “We’ve got to be in it. We’re pretty good looking people.” Bill says, “Yea. That’s what I thought.” His close relationship with Brooke Astor includes footage of him at her birthday party, describing her as “a rarity. She had such a human touch — a correctness about her. But not in a stuffed-shirt way. She immediately made people feel at ease. She believed, not in exclusion, but inclusion. We’re all the same, we all have the same problems, we all have family members that are…whatever the hell it is.” The camera cuts to her son Anthony Marshall, recently sentenced to prison time for embezzling from his mother, saying emotionally, “I’ve loved and admired my mother for more than three-quarters of a century. Let’s all toast to my mother, who was born, not only on the 30th of March, but in 1902, the 30th of March was Easter Day.”
Wealth is never to be taken too seriously, however. At a protest about the lack of clothing actually made in the Garment Industry in New York these days, Bill runs into Michael Kors, and admires his pea coat. “Get ready for the best part of the pea coat. Cashmere and neoprene,” Kors says. Bill laughingly responds, “Oh, too rich for me.” His love of fashion is juxtaposed lovingly with his intense frugality in a way I doubt many could uphold.
This film is not all celebration. I couldn’t escape the feeling of tranquility and melancholy wafting through it, despite the fact that I’m certain Bill wouldn’t have his life any other way, or perhaps he wouldn’t allow himself to even think of having it any other way. I won’t reveal too much about the most touching and personal part of the movie, a stark, one-on-one interview with Bill that covers his sexual orientation, family, feelings about religion, and lack of close relationships. The filmmakers allow long moments of silence speak more than actual conversation does. The one thing Bill will admit about his life is to say that perhaps he is in love with his work, as impossible as that sounds. Better yet, he almost proves no one else could pull it off but him.
The film opens at New York’s Film Forum today for a two week run.