March 31, 2012

Bill Cunningham's New York: Just watch this documentary already

“He who seeks beauty will find it.” – Bill Cunningham, Fashion Photographer for the New York Times

This past Sunday I watched Bill Cunningham’s New York, a documentary 10 years in the making, directed by Richard Press.  I am going to do this documentary no justice by trying how to articulate how moving it was, about how carefully the film seemed to capture the essence of who Cunningham is – as a person, a photographer, a New Yorker, and an American icon. Please just watch it, for heaven’s sake. Even if you have no interest in fashion, New York, American culture, or documentaries, you will inevitably be moved by this film, because ultimately, the aforementioned subjects are not what the film is about. It is instead about an 80-something-year-old with the kind of soul you see in so few people; about a man who withholds the kind of rare combination of talent, focus, tenacity, and humility while all the while being sweet, kind, and funny.  More importantly, the film is about a gentleman who leads such a sparse, simplistic life despite living amongst a culture of indulgence and excess, and rather than judging that life of excess in order to separate himself from it, he basks in it like the most courteous of voyeurs merely through the lens of his point-and-shoot camera.

Cunningham's irony is striking because, while uber-passionate about fashion, he dons the same uniform everyday: a basic blue coat, chinos, and a button-down or a suit if he has to attend an event. For dozens of years, he lived in a one-room apartment containing dozens of file cabinets, a couple outfits on wire hangers, and a twin-size mattress atop his filing cabinets.  Luckily, he had a communal bathroom down the hall.

Bill Cunningham is the ultimate ascetic -- a man who doesn’t have time for fancy fare and who hand patches the holes in his  poncho with electric tape. He has lived a solitary life despite being around people all the time, capturing urbanites in fashiony getup on the city streets.  When filmmaker Press asks if he had ever been in a romantic relationship and then baited about his sexual orientation, Cunningham responds that he has never having been in such a relationship. “I didn’t have time for relationships,” he says.

This fact alone demonstrates how unique his disposition on life is. Romantic love, desire, to be wanted seems to be such a basic, fundamental human need. I cannot imagine a life with that feeling, that impetus. And, I don't think that I'm alone in suggesting that most of us would feel less human if such a feeling or need didn’t exist, but just the same, I consider those who appear not to be controlled by that need to be in some ways more evolved than the rest of us.

Even though Cunningham leads such an ascetic life, he is remarkably courteous and good natured, calling the people around him “kids” and “lumberjacks.” Most illuminating about Cunningham is his lack of egocentrism for someone so talented, focused, and well respected in the fashion and journalistic community. In a world where egomaniacs rule – especially those who are deemed successful by society – I am always most touched by someone who is able to maintain a sense of humility in the face of great achievement. That can be no easy feat.

A particularly moving part of the film was when when Press asks, “Does religion play an important role in your life?” Cunningham hangs his head quietly, responding that religion has always been very important in his life. As someone who was raised Catholic (although I don’t practice religion now) I am always interested in how people of the world – you know, grownups with careers, fully shaped personalities and interests, and a working knowledge of science and society, can have such blind faith or perhaps, such a devotion to religion. And while I think spirituality is certainly a need for many of us, what is particularly intriguing is that someone as seemingly evolved and worldly as Cunningham – who, despite his entire sphere revolving amidst the avante garde fashion universe, admits to such consistently conservative religious practices. While much of it may have to do with his ascetic approach to life, and because he’s a product of his generation, it is nevertheless an interesting dichotomy.

I think the best documentaries tear away the layers of the onion piece by piece the way that Bill Cunningham’s New York did. Those are my favorite kinds.  Other personal favorites have been Joan Rivers: A Piece of Work and Capturing the Friedmans.  As these films reveal, much like in real life, no one is completely what they seem, even if they make every effort to share to the world that they are inside. Just the same, none of us are black and white.

No comments: