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"It's as true today as it ever was--he who seeks beauty will find it.",
This review is from: Bill Cunningham New York (DVD)
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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Showing 1-2 of 2 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 20, 2013 8:54:08 AM PDT
Inesita L. says:
I enjoyed reading your review so much....!!!
Posted on Nov 10, 2013 2:17:53 PM PST
James Loewen says:
As I got to the one hour mark of "Bill Cunningham New York" (DVD) last night, I almost turned it off. I found it somewhat interesting but lacking in depth. I wanted to know what made Bill Cunningham tick, aside from liking clothes/fashion and the way some people wear them. The last half hour began to answer my question and this morning I searched through the Amazon reviews to see if anyone else had been bothered by and reacted to this film as I did. Then I found your review and your sentence that explains it, "He's a man who has been greatly influenced by Catholicism."
Your review also asked the questions I was hoping the filmmakers would ask, questions that might have delved a little deeper into motives behind his specific focus. When Cunningham received the award in Paris, he became very emotional as he stated, "It's as true today as it ever was--he who seeks beauty will find it." I felt that his welling emotion was actually about something else.
The filmmakers attempted to go there when they questioned him about his sexuality and lack of relationships, but they accepted his superficial answers without going deeper.
I've been reading 'The Denial of Death' by Ernest Becker which led me to 'Art and Artist' by Otto Rank. These books discuss neurosis, artistic motivation and more. If Becker or Rank were alive I think they might find your review of 'Bill Cunningham New York' as insightful as I do.
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