The Times of Bill Cunningham
2020, NR, 74 min. Directed by Mark Bozek. Narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker.
REVIEWED By Richard Whittaker, Fri., April 17, 2020
When New York Times fashion photographer Bill Cunningham died in 2016, it wasn't so much the end of an era as the loss of a connecting thread. Cunningham, most famous for his snap-happy and candid street-corner photography of New Yorkers, and the pages the Grey Lady decicated to his observations of emerging trends and style coincidences, was forged in the world of post-war fashion, when having a clinet with a name like Astor really meant something. Yet he was also shared a bathroom with radical talents such as Norman Mailer, Isadora Duncan, and Marlon Brando, and was one of the first photographers to capture NYC's Pride Parades. And then, of course, there were his beloved columns, On the Street and Evening Hours.
Cunningham notoriously never threw an image away, and that same dedication to archiving is what enabled documentarian Mark Bozek to make The Times of Bill Cunningham. In 1993, the filmmaker was contacted by the photographer about shooting a one-minute biographical video: Cunningham was to be honoroed by the Council of Fashion Designers of America at their 1994 Awards, and he just needed a snippet of footage. What Bozek got was four hours of a messy, poorly structured, impromptu interview. Blame Bozek's understandable lack of preparedness (Cunningham told him it would only take 10 minutes) or Cunningham's utterly unexpected openness and garrulousness, but what on tape seems like it would be an editors nightmare translates two-and-a-half decades later into an amiable trip through a remarkable life.
What's fascinating is how Bozek consistently lets Cunningham lead the way through his own story. There's no reason to believe that he's ever lying about anything, but his version of events is truly captivating. Again, he's not hiding anything, but rather lets us look through his eyes at a unique career that he saw as a bunch of happy accidents that lead him to become a cultural institution.
Cultural institution. That's a term that that jovial, self-depracating lensman would have rejected with his trademark giggle. For anyone that saw his double-page spreads, jam-packed with shot after shot, juxtaposing trends with unique looks or just things he thought were fun - all captioned with a loving turn of phrase that celebrated, rather than indulging in scathing sarcasm. Every phase of his life was filled with happy accidents, with people that bounced him in what turned out to be the right direction. Never once does he imply that it was somehow his innate genius that made him instantly recognizable (he spends too much time talking about those he disarmingly dubs "real photographers"). Instead, he shows perpetual gratitude for everyone that took this sweet little Catholic boy from Boston with an interest in hats, and kept him fed and watered and dressed. It's not his humility that makes Cunnnigham so fascinating: Rather, his gratitude.
In some ways, The Times of Bill Cunningham is slight, but that's an element of design, not a flaw. Like everyone, Cunningham had his hardships, and was hit hard like everyone in Manhattan's fashion scene by the swinging blade and slow death of the AIDS epidemic. Yet Bozek is truly duplicating the work of the photographer. Cunningham wanted to catch people at their best. Not an incomplete picture, pretending we didn't have holes in our shoes or had thrown on an ensemble together from whatever we'd picked out of a thriftstore by-weight bin: But how we made that outfit look good, or how that one sweater made us feel good and jaunty, or the way that old pair of sneakers made us bounce. Bozek doesn't ignore that, but neither does he feel the need to be intrusive about issues like Cunningham's sexuality (there's already Richard Press's 2011 cinebiography, Bill Cunningham New York, to cross that line).
Like the hand-me-down suits that its subject wore, The Times of Bill Cunningham may be a little threadbare. Yet its comfortable charms are undeniable.The Times of Bill Cunningham is currently available through Greenwich Entertainment’s initiative whereby streaming “tickets” can be bought through virtual ticket booths for local arthouse cinemas. Choose from:
• Violet Crown Cinema (tickets here)