Monday, March 14, 2011
Bill Cunningham New York
In the last 20 minutes of the documentary Bill Cunningham New York there are two questions that stand out. Richard Press, who directs the film that was ten years in the making—eight convincing Cunningham and two actually making the film—sets these two questions apart in several ways. Firstly he includes a disclaimer that Cunningham need not answer the questions if he doesn’t want to, but additionally this is the most interrogative dynamic that we see between filmmaker and subject. The pace has slowed down and the tone has become quieter. I was reminded of a confessional.
In much of the film, Cunningham’s boisterous, humble, playful personality shines through. He laughs and jokes with everyone. ‘You’re a lumberjack. What am I talking to you about dresses for?’ he quips to John Kurdewan, Production Artist at the New York Times. As notes Kim Hastreiter, editor of Paper Magazine, Cunningham has a disarming way of treating everyone the same. Because he had always been as much at ease with Brooke Astor as he is with an anonymous but inspiringly clad stranger, Hastreiter had long assumed that Cunningham came from family of wealth and status. He did not. By his own account he hails from a working class, hard-working Catholic family. And his humility is ever apparent. Cunningham remarks that any real photographer would call him ‘a fraud. And they’re right!’
So when the camera settles on Cunningham and Press asks, have you ever had a romantic relationship, we wait with baited breath. His immediate response is to laugh after which he asks, do you want to know if I’m gay? The reply to Press’ question is decidedly no, though he confirms that he has had close friends, such as Toni ‘Suzette’ Cimino, his eyes lighting up when Press mentions her name as his eyes do. Regarding Cunningham’s follow up question of his own homosexuality, his reply is somewhat more circuitous. He speaks of his family, explaining that this never would have occurred to them until much later along in his life and career. Homosexual relationships just weren’t done, he seems to say, and so he didn’t do it. Nor did he have time for relationships. Though he is of course human and a warm one at that, his love, his life has been and is his work
Related to Cunningham’s reply, however, is Press’ second question, does religion play an important role in your life? This moment is so poignant and deeply personal. Cunningham is vividly moved by these questions—he lowers his head in a quiet sob. We sense that perhaps he does not often concretely contemplate the role of religion in his life though it resonates when he stops to do so. Cunningham is able to bounce back to his jovial mood rather quickly and replies that to him religion has been very important. We know from earlier in the film that he attends church every Sunday, though here Cunningham laughs that as a child all he would do in church was look at women’s hats. And from the account of Cunningham’s ‘falling out,’ as termed by Harold Koda, with WWD, we’re made aware of Cunningham’s upstanding moral and artistic integrity. ‘If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid,’ we see Bill saying in a clip from the 70s. It is here solidified for us how deeply these moral strongholds lie, how fundamentally they are a part of Cunningham’s character and actions.
Hastreiter also compares Cunningham to a war photographer, dashing off mid-sentence of an engrossing conversation in order to get the shot. The association might be made between his time spent in the army were it not so evident that the only source of his profound success is his devotion, self-sacrifice and insatiable hunger for visual nourishment, to capture the way women dress, the way the best looking, most stylish women look.
I have given much thought recently to how my generation has been guided to pursue interdisciplinary approaches to our careers and interests. We are taught to draw from a wide range of sources now available to us via just a few mouse clicks or taps on an iphone. While diversity of resources and information enhances our understanding of the world and our own place within this broad landscape, I sometimes feel overwhelmed by the possibilities, and inundated by information. I feel a pressure to be knowledgeable in such a wide range and vast array of topics. Meanwhile when I look at experts in their fields, these individuals have reached the pinnacle through quite an opposite approach, one that is focused, refined and honed in on a niche.
In this sense Cunningham is an archetype of becoming an expert through arduous devotion, and for that I am so grateful, as I think so many of us are. He is arguably the single greatest fashion historian of our time. He is singularly focused but egalitarian in his outlook. While at times Cunningham’s Spartan austerity seems an extreme—he refuses even water at an event he attends (‘I eat with my eyes’) and his quarters while living in Carnegie Hall consisted of a cot laid atop boxes of archived film negatives, surrounded everywhere by filing cabinets of the same—his extreme self-sacrifice, undying, unyielding focus is an inseparable part of his process, one that results in an unparalleled body of work over the course of more than six decades. It also helps that he is devoutly observant of Aesthetic Truth. As Cunningham says, ‘He who seeks beauty will find it.’
UPDATE: Kim Hastreiter and Mickey Boardman will be hosting a Q&A on Wed, Mar 23 after the 6:20pm showing at Film Forum. Tickets are sold out online but may be available from the box office on the day of the show.
Bill Cunningham New York, playing at Film Forum starting March 16