Bill Cunningham New York (2011)
A wonderful movie about a wonderful man.
Bill Cunningham New York is a documentary about a guy named Bill Cunningham. For some 50-odd years now, Bill has made a career for himself by hitting the streets of New York City each day and taking pictures of everyone who catches his eye. At the end of each week, he takes his favorite photographs of his favorite clothes in action and puts them all together in a weekly photo column for The New York Times. Over the years, he has become the face of street photography in the fashion world and captured every trending style on camera before everyone else even realized a trend was there. He also happens to be a model human being who’s loved by anybody he’s ever met, and that sure doesn’t hurt matters.
Now, this is the kind of movie that makes me glad I have a blog, that makes me pat myself on the back for keeping an open mind and being gung-ho about watching whatever comes my way. Before I watched this, I’d never even heard of Bill Cunningham and never so much as glanced at the Fashion section of The New York Times. If my wardrobe comprised of graphic tees and my favorite pair of ripped jeans that I refuse to throw out despite the fact that grunge is never coming back is any indication, fashion just isn’t my thing and so I assumed that a doc about Bill Cunningham wasn’t exactly my fit. But the funny thing is that this movie isn’t really about fashion and Bill Cunningham is my new personal hero. Like I said, pays to open-minded.
See, Bill Cunningham isn’t so much a fashionista as he is a lover of clothes and a lover of life. He’s just a man with a bike, a camera, and a trademark poncho who gets to take pictures of his favorite things for a living. If that isn’t a dream job, I don’t know what is. Take for instance a scene where he shows up to Paris Fashion Week and can’t get inside because one of the young female staffers doesn’t know who he is. Five seconds later, a veteran staffer comes along and informs the girl, “Please, this is the most important man in the world,” before escorting Bill inside who doesn’t seem upset in the slightest. If you didn’t know who he was, you’d never guess he was a fashion icon, but that’s what’s great about Bill and what’s even better is that he doesn’t even feel that he deserves it.
No, his life isn’t “glamorous,” he doesn’t place any real value in money, he works all day and sleeps on wooden cot at night, he’s never been in a romantic relationship of any sort, and he’s gotten his bike stolen 28 times. For chrissakes, the guy’s worn one outfit in public for decades upon decades, and it’s a blue poncho worn by Parisian sanitation workers that he rarely replaces because duct tape is cheaper. Having never met the guy, one could understandably write him off as a mole person who got evicted from his shack under the F train, but then you do meet him and instantly realize that he’s a front-runner for the happiest person alive.
And that’s the thing about Bill, in many ways he’s the personification of all those lessons you learned growing up about how money doesn’t buy happiness and that you can’t take it with you, the lessons that slowly started to fade when college and you entered the dreaded “real world.” He loves clothes – the more extravagant the better – but he’d rather look on than buy into the ridiculous frivolity and social status that those who have it hold so dear. In a society that’s so obsessed with celebrity, paparazzi, and judging others for how they’re “different” rather than celebrating them for their individuality that makes our world a far less boring place to live in, Bill Cunningham is the voice of reason. I doubt that was ever his goal and I doubt he’d ever admit to a statement like that, but it’s true from top to bottom. In the immortal words of Lester Burnham, “This isn’t life, this is just stuff, and it’s become more important to you than living. And, honey, that’s just nuts.” Bill would never be so brash as that, but you get the idea.
My love for this movie is far more about the subject than it is about the film making, but since my chance introduction to Bill Cunningham ended up changing my life, it’s a moot point to say that its technical merits don’t quite measure up to its star. Although for what it’s worth, director Richard Press does a swell job of putting everything together and he does an outstanding job of giving us a truly genuine look at the man behind the poncho without having to invade his privacy. I’m sure Press’ intent in making this movie was just to share Bill Cunningham with the world at large, but the end result ended up being so much more than that even if Bill was never even trying for it.
The difference between a documentary like this and that of Food, Inc., The Cove, or Inside Job is that, while those all enlighten us to the somber realities of the world we live in, Bill Cunningham New York acts a call to embrace the realities and joys of an ever-changing world. Not that there’s anything wrong with those other documentaries, but after nearly being brought to tears of joy by the time it was over, the 84 minutes I spent with Bill Cunningham are going to stick with me for far longer than anything else I’ve seen in ages.
It’s just so special and elevating to discover a film that affects you so deeply that it literally changes the way you look at the world. Before seeing this movie, it wasn’t unusual for me to walk by some of the more uniquely garbed individuals in New York City and wonder why anyone in their right mind would choose to dress like a hipster. Now, I feel like an ass for ever thinking that. Bill had it right all along while I just sat there drinking the Kool-Aid. For shame.
One of my all-time favorite quotes to live by is from Conan O’Brien during his farewell address on The Tonight Show when he said, “If you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen.” Well that’s Bill Cunningham, that’s why the world deserves to meet him, and that’s why I gave this my first 10 of the year. He’s a vision of kindness, happiness, and eternal youth that many lose long before they reach 80, and we could all learn from his example.