Noticing New York readers are in luck. Here I was thinking this post would be too late, but it’s not: You can still catch the documentary “Bill Cunningham New York” in New York area theaters. The sweetly charming Cunningham, a man of extraordinary magnanimity of spirit, is a beautiful nerd, a man who, by giving himself over entirely to his obsession with fashion, achieves a singular greatness few of us can ever hope to achieve. With his two contrasting photographic features appearing weekly in the New York Times, Cunningham meticulously and with relentless energy chronicles the upper echelon fashion at New York’s exclusive charitable soirees and, also, more important, street fashion.
I’ve met Cunningham a couple of times and found him to be exactly as charming as depicted in the film. As he is also something of a ubiquitously present street character, famously relying on his bicycle (his 29th) to traverse the city, you may realize upon seeing the film that you too have seen him busy at work without it ever registering who you were seeing. Concentrating on his work, Cunningham has a genial way of blending into the background as he happily snaps photos of woman’s footwear or other accouterments (or men's) whereas some other similarly preoccupied fellow might be have everyone around on edge with suspicions that he was some sort of fetishist.
Impressively, the film by Richard Press is apparently one of the first things Press has done. According to the narrative of the film, it took many years for him to persuade Cunningham, now in his early 80's, to consent to the project. Cunningham is still plying his trade and the bike riding seems to have kept him admirably spry.
Cunningham isn’t like your typical fashionista. Totally brilliant about style and what superb craftsmanship may be essential to the mechanics of achieving a look (Cunningham once designed hats), Cunningham isn’t a snob; he is totally egalitarian which is really the story behind his coverage of street fashion, something he is probably more responsible for than any other individual.
What Cunningham seems to value more than anything else is fashion courage as individuals find ways to express themselves. When he goes to the high society social soirees, the rich and powerful who go there to be seen and hob nob importantly don’t get photographed by Cunningham unless they are wearing something interesting. As one of our party on the trip to see the movie observed: “Cunningham is more of an anthropologist of fashion than anything else.” (This particular viewer from our party was back to see the film for the third time in one week. The rest of us were newbies.) Cunningham is quite aware of all the ways that fashion is used to signal the nuances of social strata; it is just that he doesn’t participate in those value judgments while observing them.
The only thing Cunningham might be a snob about could be an illegitimate pretenses of originality. Blessed with a remarkable memory of the fashion past Cunningham can readily exhume archived material to show when a design has been done before, sometimes, as the film shows, with devastating effect.
Intensely moral and scrupulous about his standards, Cunningham is unusual in the way he will not compromise his integrity. He refuses to be seduced into supporting any of the prevalent stratifying cruelties of the fashion world. It is interesting to learn that Cunningham (and therefore, to a significant extent, the New York Times) selects the multitudinous weekly charity events he attends based on what he thinks is the value of the work the charity is doing. Cunningham, will also, when attending society events, never accept food or drinks, not even so much as a glass of water.
A List of New York Reasons to See This Film
Here is a list of the particular reasons Noticing New York readers will want to catch this film, the trailer for which is below or you can find it here.
It will give you a prism through which to see the city and think about ALL the following subjects (and then some):
• The contrast between the elite high-cost fashion of the power brokers (making, for instance, decisions about rezonings and mega-projects using eminent domain) and the fashion that generates up from the street level is emblematic of many of New York’s most important contrasts. One doesn’t have to scrutinize it very hard to find in it the Robert Moses/Jane Jacobs dichotomy of city life. A Cunningham quote from the trailer: “The best fashion show is always on the street; always has been and always will be.” And here is a quote from the New York Times review that sounds like an admonition lifted from Jane Jacobs herself: “I let the street speak to me, and in order for the street to speak to you, you’ve got to stay out there and see what it is.” The Times review also comments: “Mr. Cunningham has molded himself into the designated noticer and interpreter of the city. . .” - Humm, a “noticer”. . .You will probably come away from the film feeling inspired and uplifted, finding Cunningham an endearing marvel of a man, even as you still are still agog at the improbable and eccentric gift to New York Cunningham has chosen to make of himself.
• Biking as an alternative form of transportation, biking in all weather, where to keep a regularly used bike if you own one, the possibility of accidents, where to lock up bicycles on the street and the frustrating rate of bicycle theft. Also, the concern of finding bike-friendly apartments and workplaces.
• The difficulty of finding an apartment. The film was made when Cunningham, on the presumably restricted salary of a journalist, needed to find a center-city replacement for his extremely modest apartment which apartment he gives over, almost entirely, to his work, with file cabinets occupying almost all the space.
• Whether charities to whom the city dispenses special privileges such as tax exemptions are serving the purposes once envisioned or are just submerging indistinguishably into the dull grey corporate mesh of things. The reason Cunningham had to look for a new apartment was his eviction from his studio apartment in Carnegie Hall Towers, a saga in itself. The movie looks in on its waning days. For more than a hundred years the Carnegie Hall Towers studio apartments, once numbering 170 in all, had been occupied by an intermingling collective of musicians, dancers and artists who lived and spent time there, including Mark Twain, Marlon Brando, Leonard Bernstein, Norman Mailer, Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham, John Barrymore, Garson Kanin, and Isadora Duncan. When built by Andrew Carnegie, the spaces were specifically designed as workable living space with artists in mind, with high ceilings and north-facing skylights. The Carnegie Hall Corporation began evictions to clear the building of artists with steep rent increases in 1981 and the protracted struggle to clear the building of artists didn’t end until the final eviction in 2010.
• The way that charity event life meshes with money and power (and therefore, the astute will extrapolate, politics and political agenda.)
• Whither the New York Times? The future of the city, at least for the time being, is probably inextricably linked with the New York Times. As Cunningham’s work now and over the years has mostly been for the Times the film provides a valuable window into the culture of the paper, including a scene with Times publisher Pinch Sulzberger (called "Pinch" because his father was nicknamed "Punch"). A lot of the film is shot inside or just outside of the New Times building that the Times, employing eminent domain, built in a business partnership with Bruce Ratner, the notorious politically-connected subsidy collector reviled for Atlantic Yards, (a mega-project the Times refrains from criticizing or scrutinizing). The Times review of the film describing Cunningham as “legendary” gets a lot of its assessments right. See: Bill Cunningham New York (2010), By Carina Chocano, March 15, 2011. See also this Times coverage: March 23, 2010, Capturing the Elusive Bill Cunningham, by David W. Dunlap.
• The mores of journalism: If the future of the city is inextricably linked to the Times, it is also inextricably linked to the mores of professional journalists. It’s doubtful that Cunningham’s standards are representative of the ethical standards of journalism in the city in general, but the film supplies ample meditation on the subject, including the temptations involved. Among other things Cunningham consciously avoids taking money for much of the work that he does in order to maintain his journalistic freedom. A Cunningham quote from the trailer: “You see, if you don’t take money then thay can’t tell you what to do. That’s the key to the whole thing.”
• The fight to save the city’s garment district beset by globalization together with Bloomberg administration upzonings. The Bloomberg administration may or may not be interested in earnestly taking steps to preserve area rather than have it be displaced by financial institutions. In the film Cunningham talks with people he knows from the industry attending a demonstration to save it. Cunningham discusses with these insiders the way firms in this once key business have been driven out of the city.
• Parks. On the weekends Cunningham is photographing the fashion action in Central Park.
• Enthusiasm and energy. The film is all about the kind of enthusiasm and energy that makes the city so identifiably New York.