Bill Cunningham New York
2011, NR, 84 min. Directed by Richard Press.
REVIEWED By Kimberley Jones, Fri., May 20, 2011
The title's punctuation, or lack thereof, is a curiosity. Many might argue for the possessive: This is Bill Cunningham's New York. "We all get dressed for Bill," Vogue editor Anna Wintour purrs by way of intro to this documentary about New York Times shutterbug Bill Cunningham, whose two weekly photo spreads, “On the Street” and “Evening Hours,” have chronicled, respectively, the shifting mores of New York fashion and the town's glitterati. Cunningham is portrayed here as a gentle eccentric, an ever-smiling eightysomething who tools around town on a bicycle, snapping shots of the natives in a kind of populist fashion parade. At first, there seems to be an almost comic disconnect between Cunningham's own thriftiness – he duct-tapes the tears in a plastic poncho and raves about his $3 breakfast sandwich – and the monied philanthropy and fashion communities he photographs and with which, to a certain extent, he is chummy. But as the film expands, Cunningham's all-abiding and egalitarian passion for individual expression crystallizes. Harder to come by is a hard-fact understanding of Cunningham's biography; his early start as a milliner is briefly touched on, as is his family life, but documentarian Richard Press delays any real probing until a late interview that is candid but incomplete. There's also a subplot involving Cunningham's pending eviction from the historic Carnegie Hall Studios that lightly recalls Thomas Reichman's short doc "Mingus: Charlie Mingus 1968" about a similar dislocation, but on a seesaw of the sexual-appetite spectrum, Mingus' legendary horndog ways are probably evened out by Cunningham's apparently sharply ascetic lifestyle. That’s the impression, at least. While certainly an affectionate and admiring portrait, Bill Cunningham New York, by its end, provides no revelations and left this viewer, at least, puzzling over whether the picture Cunningham has allowed to develop of him is completely transparent or utterly impenetrable.