by Andrew Mooney
Bill Cunningham New York (2010) – Richard Press (Dir.), Bill Cunningham (duh)
Alright, so I’ve broken down and created a new category of viewing situation. This isn’t a relapse. I’m not slipping into my old ways of watching Independence Day every time I can’t think of anything else to do (I will not go quietly into the night, Mr. President. Never.) This is a new part of the game. It came to my aggravated attention that Netflix changes movie availability. I mean, am I surprised? Bastards. Therefore, movies harshly recommended by friends, or those that are required viewing need to be watched now or never (see what I did there? I went to college!). After an extremely forceful suggestion from my friend and work-buddy Christin, Ryan and I flicked this bad boy onto the streaming mecca that is the Flix of Net.
Now, I’ve never been a fashion person. I’m white. I’m male. I’m straight (shocking, I am aware). Thus, my predisposition for well-tailored clothing isn’t genetically probable. I spent all of high-school looking like a Backstreet Boy, then a copper-top battery, later upgrading to ‘fancy homeless person chic’ in college. It wasn’t until I began my hilariously fish-out-of-water talents towards the hair industry did I begin to see the light…and learn anything about the fine, ancient, mind-boggling art of ‘color coordination’. I’m still fairly terrible at it…but at least I’m told occasionally I dress well. The issue had always been one of apathy. I didn’t care. Fashion was for people with money. Fashion was for ladies and, as some of my relatives would put it, ‘the gays’ (God love the Brits). I’ve always been a man of words, putting them on the page, shifting them about with nerdish glee and twisting phrases like a lad ripping apart ants on the playground. Visual aesthetics have always been lost on me. During my ‘fucking idiot’ period, reaching its indelible peak during freshman year of Oberlin, I would love to lay down statements, laced with bovine fecal matter, such as, “Modern art isn’t art.” I wish I had a time machine. I’d go back and slap the shit out of myself. (And I’d also go back and insert myself inconspicuously into scenes of Jurassic Park containing Laura Dern. Don’t ask why. I don’t judge what you’d do with a time machine. Jerk.)
Alright, that’s the lengthy and, most likely, unnecessary preamble. Let’s cut the foreplay and whip out…the movie. So, there’s this guy, Bill Cunningham. He’s 83. He did live in a rent-controlled artist studio in Carnegie Hall until he was evicted. He only has about 3 outfits. He has no kitchen, no bathroom because, as he says, “Who needs all those rooms to clean?”. His bed is plywood held up by books. He owns nothing but a camera, a Scwhinn bike and about ten thousand filing cabinets. And he is one of the most respected names in fashion journalism. No fucking joke. This guy, right here, is the definition of artistic badass. If he were a warrior of art, he’d be John McClane strapped to Arnold Schwarzenegger, wrapped in a big ball of Alexander the Great and sprinkled with a dash of Death Star.
He takes photos. That’s it. They’re not prepped; there is no studio, no set up. Candid. People on the street in New York, in Paris, just wandering around. He sees something, he takes a picture. And that is all he does. He barely eats. I’m not even sure he sleeps. He simply takes photos of anything he likes. No less. No more. He doesn’t give a shit about celebrity or fame or manners or whatever. If it’s ‘boring’, you’re out of the club, bucko. Good luck next year when you’re not such a bland, cookie-cutter douchebag, crowding the streets of our cities, spreading cultural excrement in a way to build your own insatiable self-esteem…
Sorry, not sure where that one came from.
Thus, in New York, there is a man, a superhero if you will, wandering the streets in a blue windbreaker, snipping and snapping people leaping over puddles and snuck in snow drifts, documenting every inch of current fashion. An old man, who, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think was a misplaced trainspotter and/or peeping Tom, trolling for young flesh to add to his scrapbook of pre-faceless victims. But he’s not. The second you hear him talk, you realize this guy is the result of dipping Mr. Rogers in fairy-batter and baking in an oven set to ‘Adorable’ degrees. He’s probably the only person on planet earth, who could stand on a corner in Soho, taking photos of people’s butts and escape without a stiletto heel burying in his spleen.
Within minutes, I was convinced Mr. Cunningham was no mere mortal. His artistic passion is so uncompromisingly beautiful that he disregards romantic relationships, base needs, social standing etc. He does whatever he wants. He tore up checks from Conde Naste because, “if they give you money, they own you.” He is an artistic aesthete I’ve never experienced in my life. He’s described by fashionistas and titans of the fashion industry as ‘the most important man in the world’. And yet, he’s this 90lb bag of bones and pixie-dust jam who doesn’t even stop hiding in the sidelines and snapping shots at his own awards show. No, he is not a man. He’s a demigod, a nymph displaced from the ancient forest to the urban millennium, drifting about civilization, observing and yet never disrupting. He does not review. He does not analyze. He simply watches. When told to differentiate street fashion as ‘in’ or ‘out’ he returned with the agonizingly egalitarian, and bewitchingly brilliant “if they’re wearing it, it’s ‘in’. Everything is ‘in'” (paraphrase, sorry). In no way does he create trends. He’s a cultural scientist of such blissful objectivity that he can simply observe. He does not partake in the slightest, never accepting so much as a glass of water at events and sporting a duct-taped poncho when it rains because, “why buy a new one? It’ll just rip in the same places.”
‘Inspiring’ isn’t the word for Bill Cunningham, nor would he care for it. It’s something else. This man is living proof that artistic ideals never need to be compromised. When I complain about how my work may not allow me enough time and energy for my writing, I’m incorrect. I’m giving in. I’m allowing what is as essential to me as respiration fall by the wayside because of petty things such as ‘nice food’ and ‘belongings’ and ‘relationships’. If committing word to the page, be it electronic or otherwise, is the delicious addiction I believe it to be, nothing will get in my way to get my fix.
The movie as a whole is endlessly enjoyable. Not only does Bill “Teddy Bear Made Out of Gumdrop Dreams” Cunningham brighten every frame, but he has collected such a gallery of fascinating characters that you can only marvel at the eccentricity on display. From the 98 year-old Editta Sherman, who refused eviction from Carnegie Hall as well, declaring the film-crew uncivilized for not bringing coffee, yelling at them for filming one of her pictures of Andy Warhol and displaying one of her Cunningham original berets, to the former ambassador of Nepal modeling his collection of polky-dot, plaid, striped, furniture-stolen, manic-panic clashes of chromatic brilliance, pieces that would make a blind man declare, “That suit is loud as hell.” We have a man who refuses to you let you see his face as he changes hats (and they are fucking fabulous, of course). We have Iris Apfel, whose plate-sized spectacles and peacock-murdered attire manage, somehow, to overshadow her fun-house decorated apartment, rounded out subtly with a stuffed parrot looking directly into the camera (It’s disconcerting. I was uncomfortable). But, still, for those morsels of insanity shaved down into human form, none of his muses can measure up to the enigmatic nature of this movie’s subject.
Mr. Cunningham is an example of a curious cultural phenomenon. His fervor and unbreakable dedication to his work is not simply trapped in the world of fashion. In every walk of life there are maniacs of a similar sort, people who have crafted something seemingly minor into an art form. Look at plumbing. I guarantee there are people who care so deeply about controlling the path of water in an industrial environment that they have made it their life work. Every aspect of our society has an obsessive, unrelenting and unyielding, whittling their field down from the basic to the infinitely artful. For Cunningham, it’s what people wear. For Isaac Newton, it was calculus. For Bill Gates, its computing. They are the web of passion, coursing through every fiber of civilization, holding the whole thing together for the rest of us. The blood pumping away under the surface.
I witness it and, in vain, wish I could be one of them. I’m not. I’m just an asshole with computer who enjoys the sound of keystrokes. And that’s fine. I love being an asshole…(there should be a better way of saying that). For all the work I put into my craft, I’m still human. I am no demigod or genius. I go home at night and hang out with roommates. I have relationships. My addiction can subside without stimulation, allowing me just slivers of temporal briefness to live in the moment. For all the undying respect I have for greats such as Bill Cunningham, I would never wish to be part of the club.
There was a moment, near the end, when Bill was asked if he’d ever had a relationship. He laughed, of course, and said ‘no.’ He was then asked why he goes to church every Sunday. He fell silent and looked down at his hands. For far too long. Press, the documentarian, told him he didn’t have to answer…yet Bill had shut down. As though a kill switch had been flicked. For all his smiles and sweetness, for all his charm and gregarious nature, he was still impenetrable. There was no way into his psyche. We are simply allowed to witness. He only let’s us observe.
There’s no way into a mind such as that. Perhaps, it’s best if we simply leave it, an undiscovered country. Perhaps, under the surface, there’s nothing we would wish to see. I’m okay with that. I think.