Published Apr 21, 2011Paulo Coelho has a quote about fashion that reads, "We dress in the same way. I belong to your tribe. Let's gang up on the weaklings as a way of surviving." It pertains to the arbitrary, derivative nature of the fluid image performance that Bill Cunningham obsessively documents every day, riding around on his bicycle, snapping photos of emerging NYC fashion trends for his two weekly columns in The Sunday Times. He is the spectator that provides the fleeting validation insecure poseurs desperately seek. But who is he and from where does this obsession stem?
Richard Press's documentary delves into the personal life of the 80-year-old recluse, following him through his daily routine, interviewing various photograph subjects, along with recognizable figures like Anna Wintour and Tom Wolfe. We enter his cramped studio in Carnegie Hall, crammed with filing cabinets full of negatives and a small bed propped up on crates, which seems appropriate given his preoccupation with cheap cuisine and tendency to use duct tape to mend his clothes.
Throughout the various cleverly juxtaposed and smartly edited interviews, we hear a lot about the influence Cunningham has had on others whose identities have been defined by his photographic acknowledgement and observation of aesthetic trends. But no one seems to know much about him. They speculate about his background, given his comfort in upscale locales and preoccupation with the superficial, but it's mostly projections based on the values of the interview subjects.
This is where Bill Cunningham New York transcends its subject, dissecting a person, their persona and the cold surface distraction that is fashion. When asked about romantic involvement in his life, Cunningham reluctantly admits to never having any, stating that his family tried to keep him from fashion for fear of potential homosexuality, quickly jumping back to his single-minded pursuit of fabric as identity.
While there are an abundance of laughs to be had throughout this deceptively light-hearted documentary, an overwhelming sense of isolation and disconnect dominate thematically, revealing an industry founded on the human need for constant attention, where the only person watching is completely alone. (Films We Like)