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on August 28, 2011
Prior to watching BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK, my unexamined assumptions about him - a Times fashion photog - were that he must be a man who spends his days and nights hanging around fabulous people and documenting all the fabulous things they do. In short, not typically my thing. However, after watching BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK, what emerges in this terrifically edited film is a deeply profound and beautiful study of a TOTAL artist working within the grayer than ever world of journalism. This is one of the most carefully and delicately plotted documentaries I've seen in some time and the ending of this film is ... devastating! Yet, even with the rather dark and sad turn that this film takes toward the end (you'll have to see it), you'll walk away from this doc feeling buoyed by the spirit and character of this remarkable and remarkably unusual man. This is a classic and he is a class act.
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I came across this doc film clicking around on Netflix streaming late one night. At first it seemed puzzling why anyone would make a documentary about an old guy who works for the New York Times riding a bicycle around and photographing street fashions. But I quickly got drawn into the film and understood how the filmakers had chosen this unusual man.

Bill Cunningham, now in his 80's, has worked for many years as a street photographer, riding precariously around Manhatten on his bicycle and snapping (film) photos of what people are wearing. In an age when there is so much corruption in all walks of life, what comes out in the film is Cunningham's unique sense of personal integrity. In a city obsessed with status, he seems to care nothing for status or celebrity or personalities; he is only interested in the clothes, the ideas. When he attends society and fashion functions in the evening, which he does almost every evening, he declines to accept food or drink; it would compromise his ethics. Indeed here is a man who has no apparent vices and minimal personal life. He lives frugally. He strives to be honest. He strives to do no harm. He cares little for his comfort. He has simply made a life of observing how people in New York express themselves through fashion; it is enough for him. "I have tried to play a straight game" he says about his life.

One might not be surprised to hear that a medieval monk or pure mathematician or a scholar of ancient languages had such an ascetic and, one may say, spiritually refined existence, but in the New York fashion world! And so he is a beloved fixture in New York. An inspiring documentary, which affirms how one can live in the everyday world and yet hold to an "impeccable path."
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on May 2, 2011
This is one of the warmest charming movies I have ever seen. Everyone that lives in a major city (and everyone else too for that matter) should see this movie. I love you Bill!
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on August 24, 2011
Bill Cunningham New York snuck up on me and made me feel so many things... First, If you love NYC this is a must see film. I had no idea who Bill Cunningham was, however his story changed my life. Bill's passion for fashion on the streets of NYC is the premise of the film. It will prompt you to find your passion and live it!! Can't wait till it is out on DVD. I will buy it the day it comes out and share with friends who didn't get a chance to see it in theatres.
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on January 3, 2012
Prior to watching this documentary, I knew nothing of Bill Cunningham. All I can say now is, the time spent watching Bill Cunningham work...well, not really work, he's LIVING and enjoying every moment of it, was the best time I've spent getting to know someone in a very, very long time. Thank you, Bill Cunningham, for what you do and for touching us...inspiring us...with your honest, simple approach and way of life. Most of the time with the news in the headlines, I must admit that I'm embarrassed to be part of the human race...you make me proud to be part of it. Amazing eye, amazing man...great documentary!
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on December 23, 2012
I loved this DVD because it gave me the perspective from a photographer that owes nothing to anyone, doesn't perform his job from someone else's perspective but from his own. It's fresh, intuitive in an old fashioned way. No photoshopping, no enhancing, just watching what the street fashion dictates to others and translating that into where fashion is really headed - individualism.
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VINE VOICEon March 13, 2012
If you love good documentaries on the fashion industry - The September Issue and Valentino: The Last Emperor for example - you'll love 'Bill Cunningham New York.' But even if fashion doesn't interest you, if you love New York City - either as resident or frequent visitor - you'll love BCNY. And, even if you don't think or care much about NYC, you'll be fascinated by this insider's look at this one-of-a-kind, impassably dedicated, deceptively complex man. How this film from Richard Press didn't get an Academy Award nomination is beyond me. [Oh, right: Harvey Weinstein didn't back it.]

For dedicated readers of the New York Times, there's the thrill of finding out what goes into compiling and editing Cunningham's iconic "On the Street" pictorial montage each week. A few viewers might find that look into the editing process tedious. But I suspect most will find it fascinating. We see Mr. Cunningham pick a theme and then work through the week at assembling his vision with John Kurdewan, a production artist and layout editor for the Times. I loved the film's focus on the work and relationship between these two: Kurdewan's technical chops (and extraordinary patience, good humor...and a bit of mock exasperation!) together with Mr. Cunningham's artistic vision (and trademark doggedness - into his 80s now, he still obsesses over the finest detail).

If there's a single word to sum up Mr. Cunningham, it is "unimpeachable." We see this characteristic most clearly demonstrated in his approach to his other signature column: Evening Hours. He is pounded with hordes of invitations. He flips through a stack on his desk. Yet, he only picks the events that he deems worthy. Throughout his entire career, he's never taken a single cent (other than his Times salary) to cover these events. It's plainer than that: he's never taken so much as a sip of water at these events. This isn't a casual decision. Mr. Cunningham makes it clear that in taking this line, he maintains his freedom. At his most serious, he intones, "Never take the money." Riveting stuff.

My favorite scene among many: Cunningham in Paris attempting to get into an important show. Were you not to know the man, you'd probably have the reaction that the gatekeeper does: Cunningham continually flashes his pass, continually gets overlooked. He never pulls rank. He never pulls the "Do you know who I am?" card. Throughout, Press keeps his camera trained at a distance. Cunningham is either unaware or doesn't care. Finally, another person affiliated with the show intervenes, pushes the clueless security personnel away with these words: "Please, he's the most important man in the world."

That Cunningham is indeed that man (in this world) and remains his singular, ascetic self makes this the most fascinating of tales. I'm so glad that Richard Press captured the story before Cunningham's unique career comes to a close.
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on June 24, 2012
This is a complicated film to rate. I give the filmmakers 4.7 stars for production, 1.3 stars for the intended message, and 5 stars for the unintended message they left me with.

Re: production, the director/production team unearthed some wonderful old footage and tied it in with the new footage elegantly and even powerfully. They picked interviewees who were colorful, both literally and figuratively. They tied strings of narrative through the documentary in order to make it less like a dry profile. And most impressively, they knew what to leave out: they didn't show Bill Cunningham living in his new apartment, and they didn't show Bill Cunningham at church. Those would have been obvious things to do, but they didn't do it, and I applaud them for that.

But in terms of thoughtfulness, in terms of helping us understand why any of this matters, the filmmakers left something to be desired. If the film had ended after the first 60 minutes, I would have given it exactly 1 star. That's because in the first 60 minutes, interspersed between interviews with ultra-status-conscious people who were out to convince the world (and themselves) that they were unique little flowers, the filmmakers were giving us little nuggets of junior varsity wisdom. They were appealing to our inner-adolescent with lessons like "follow your passion" and "express yourself" and "be nice to each other."

The final 24 minutes, though, were very interesting, much less adolescent-y, and, at times, moving. We start to get glimpses of how this is more than an obsession for Bill, how it is all-absorbing to the exclusion of all else (including romantic relationships), and we start to get glimpses (albeit somewhat unconvincing ones) of why it matters to him:

* "The wider world that perceives fashion as a frivolity that should be done away with in the face of social upheavals and problems that are enormous-- the point is, in fact, that fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life."
* "I don't think you could do away with fashion. It would be like doing away with civilization."
* "I just like fashion as an art form of dressing the body. If we all went out looking like a slob like me, it would be a pretty dreary world."
* "I'm not interested in celebrities. The cut, the lines, the colors... that's everything."
* "It's not work. I'm just having fun."

There is something about the philosophical nature of these quotes or the way he expressed them that made them not 100% convincing. They seemed more like rationalizations than reasons. But then, in a speech he gives at a ceremony in Paris, we finally get the real reason, and we know it is the real reason because he can't contain his emotions.

"It's as true today as it ever was--he who seeks beauty will find it."

It's a touching moment and one that defines the film. Or ought to have defined the film. Every decision about what to include or exclude in this film ought to have been based on that single line.

And that's where the filmmakers fall short. For them, the climax of the film is a different moment, the one where they try to penetrate his private life, asking about his sexuality and his religion. They are just trying to deliver the juice, the gossipy details that we all desire to know. But they do not ask the much more important questions:

* If it's beauty he's seeking, why doesn't he find it elsewhere, in music or food or any aesthetic other than clothing? In particular, why doesn't he find it in people (rather than just on their clothes or their bodies)?
* Why is he so unreflective w/r/t his one-dimensionality? When asked if he has any regrets about not having romantic relationships, his response was along the lines of "no, I never had the time to consider it." Really, Bill? Never while you were out riding your bike? Never while you were in a dark room processing your film did you wonder whether there wasn't more to life than what you were doing?

The filmmakers paint Bill Cunningham as a wise, loveable, almost martyr-like figure, someone who devoted his life to his passion. An American hero. Bill Cunningham is more complicated than that. He's a man who has been greatly influenced by Catholicism - you can see it in his morality, his relentless work, his asceticism, and his concern for aesthetics - but his asceticism has seeped into his aesthetics so that he seeks beauty in only one form. The filmmakers are right about the admirable and honorable parts of Bill Cunningham, but they miss (or don't pay enough attention to) the other parts.

---

Update 11/23: I was reminded of this movie over and over again while watching Searching for Sugar Man.
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on June 26, 2016
I wish i had watched this long ago to better appreciate his point of view every Sunday in The Times. RIP Bill Cunningham. Truly independent thinker. Lived humbly following his passion. Wrote his own rules, of which there were few. Everyone equal in his eyes - distinguished only by their creativity, as expressed by their fashion choices, seen through his unique set of eyes, celebrated for their uniqueness, captured by his photos.
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on December 4, 2011
I just saw "Bill Cunningham New York", a documentary movie about a person previously unknown to me, and what an exuberant work it is! The brilliance is in the editing, so that we gradually move from an outside perspective to a sense of what might be driving this extraordinary individual. A written description might give the impression that he is perhaps slightly autistic but, watching him interact, you realise he is a highly focused and driven person, with a good nature, joyful disposition and wonderful sense of ethics that is doubly wonderful because it is never imposed on others.
For me the two key take-outs were firstly, a celebration of New York and Paris, the two great cities that most embrace liberty. Thinking of my own hometown Melbourne Australia and its tut-tut brigade and rigorous policing, Bill could never pull this off here. I mean, you can't even ride a bicycle without a helmet. He'd have been arrested thousands of times for photographing, jay-walking or weaving in and out of traffic. And the people he films - those individuals who define "the edge" in all its glorious variety - again the movie enables us to develop a vivid sense of New York's vibrant imagination. Liberty - such a celebration!
The second point is perhaps more striking. This movie is much like the wonderful "Into The Wild" from a few years ago in that both chart a the true story of a man who completely forsakes the materialistic life and in the process achieves near-total freedom. The remarkable thing about Bill is that he manages to pull it off while living in the midst of a highly individualistic, hedonistic, materialistic environment. He is vigorously engaged with it but seemingly unaffected; he never seems to criticise, his photographs are invariably kind. And he takes "conflict of interest" to a whole new level; the movie undoubtedly will challenge the comfortable assumptions we all make. While "Into The Wild" charts a young man's journey into an unmaterialistic life, in "Bill Cunningham New York" he reached there many decades ago and we are left to wonder about his journey. What we do see is the daily existence of a highly productive, unmaterialistic and essentially free person, we see that it is real and possible.
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