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DVD Review: Bill Cunningham New York

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Bill Cunningham New York, the impressive feature debut from director Richard Press, may well be the best documentary ever made about a  photographer. That the photographer documents New York, for the New York Times Style section and other outlets, makes this  one of the great films about New York, all the more important as it captures a dying world.

Cunningham was one of the last holdouts in the artists’ apartments above Carnegie Hall, whose legendary tenants over the years included Marlon Brando and Leonard Bernstein. This scene was further documented in the documentary Lost Bohemia, but BCNY gives the viewer a wistful glance at the corporate carnage at work all over the city: the wide open sapce that was once dance studio of Agnes DeMille (choreographer of Oklahoma and other milestones of American Musical Theater) has been recently broken up into telemarketer’s cubicles.

“If you can’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid.” This is Cunningham’s response to the greedy metropolis, and though he collects a paycheck from The Old Grey Lady, his early work capturing the Downtown ’80s scene for Details magazine was largely gratis – and frequently earned him 100-page special issues solely of his work.  The octagenarian photographer has documented New York fashion trends for decades – from haute couture runways to the New York gala scene. But it’s not money that draws his voracious lens (“I eat with my eyes,” he tells a waiter who offers him a plate at a gala). The artist finds what people are wearing on the street just as important, even more so.

A photographer who seeks out fashion trends might seem to be judge and jury, but while Cunningham makes aesthetic decisions, he has a fondness for all his subjects. Socialite Annette de la Renta admiringly notes, “I don’t think we’ve ever seen a cruel picture done by Bill.” Cunningham in fact had a falling out with Women’s Wear Daily when they changed his copy to make fun of the subjects.

As a study of a dedicated professional artist, BCNY is also about obsession . The documentary is populated by some of Cunningham’s  favorite subjects: the dandy Patrick McDonald, who never leaves home without his eyebrows and beauty mark in place;  Vogue editor Anna Wintour (who declares that if he doesn’t take your picture, “you’re dead!”); Shail Upadhya, the outrageously dressed Nepalese Diplomat (“This used to be my old sofa; the jacket and pants, my ottoman”). This dense film constantly  entertains with such colorful personalities. But,  as Cunningham explains that he visits Paris regularly “to re-educate the eye,” the film also gently educates the viewer: what makes a dynamic photo, how to put together a comeplling layout, how to organize your obsessions and recognize trends, from fanny packs to chains, from baggy pants to leopard prints, from improvised rain gear to dazzling snow-wear.

Cunningham can find the visual grace in people from all walks of life, and his public face is always smiling. But when that smile breaks, so do you. Despite a certain amount of professional freedom, there is a chilling sense of entrapment to Cunningham’s life. His tiny studio apartment above Carnegie Hall was filled to the short ceiling with magazines and file cabinets of every negative he’s ever made (he is the only New York Times staffer still using film). In a quietly heartbreaking scene near the end of the film, the artist is asked about his personal life; he’s never really had one. His Catholic uprbringing made his sexuality something not to be spoken of. Has his flurry of work been at the expense of his own happiness? Bill Cunningham New York is an unforgettable portrait of a man and a city. It is filled with great joy, but not without the bittersweet.

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About Pat Padua

Pat Padua is a writer, photographer, native Washingtonian, and Oxford comma defender. The Washington Post called him "a talented, if quirky, photographer." Pat has also contributed to the All Music Guide, Cinescene, and DCist, where he is currently senior film critic.