If you asked me what’s my favourite documentary film, as quick as a flash I would answer Bill Cunningham, New York. On first watching, I immediately fell in love, with each subsequent watching my heart was filled with warmth, and I felt a little better about the world. Film critics at the time seemed to unanimously agree that the film was heartwarming and feel good. It is placed at 46 in the Rotten Tomato’s Top Documentaries (Rotten Tomato, 2016).
“He who seeks beauty will find it”
(Bill Cunningham in Bill Cunningham, New York, 2011)
The film is a portrait of a man in his eighties still full of a zest for life and following his one true passion; documenting the fashion on the streets of New York. Footage of Bill photographing out on the streets and preparing his spread back at the New York Times offices is interspersed with interviews of Bill’s collaborators and subjects, old footage and photographs. It is obvious that the filmmakers and interviewees had a great deal of affection for Bill told through the warmth of their stories about him.
When Bill passed away earlier this year, aged 87, I felt a surprising sense of loss for me and the world that he would no longer share his talent and love. A tribute to Bill in the Sunday Styles (New York Times, 2013) that many others felt the same way. The key difference, though, was that those people knew Bill in person, I only knew of him because of this film. The film, I think, was largely successful in painting the picture of a man who was kind and loving human being, demonstrating great devotion to his passion and a celebrator of individuality and creativity.
“See a lot of people have taste, but they don’t have the daring to be creative. Here we are in the age of the cookie cutter sameness, there are few that are rarities, someone who doesn’t look like they were stamped out of 10 million other people looking all the same”. (Bill Cunningham in Bill Cunningham, New York, 2011)
Bill was a highly ethical man. He went to great lengths to ensure integrity of his work by refusing refreshments at any event that he is photographing so that he could not be bought out. He was an egalitarian and fought for inclusiveness all members of society particularly the LGBTQ community through pushing the boundaries of what pictures the New York Times would publish.
“ (…[He said] )I am so disappointed, the Times said we can’t put you in because you’re wearing a dress. And he said but I am going to keep trying to get you in. And I was like ‘what the hell?’, I said I am wearing a pair of workman boots with that dress. And he said I know Kenny, but they won’t put you in but I am trying. And now, they put everything in. He’s such a maverick. Really a maverick, he means so much to people like us, really.” (Kenny Kenny in Bill Cunningham, New York, 2011)
I identify with Bill. Through photography I have felt lost in the moment in a similar way to in which Bill described waiting on the “streets to speak to you” (Bill Cunningham in Bill Cunningham, New York, 2011). I am highly creative and a little quirky and have sometimes felt as though I have had to tone down who I am in order to fit in. As such, someone who celebrates the different is very appealing to me. Bill had many qualities that I feel many would wish to emulate and so it is hard not to love him or the film.
Despite my love of this film, I was initially a little reticent to consider this film as “my influential film”. After all, nothing really happens. There are many more documentaries which cover profound issues that could be my influential film. However, as I gave this more thought, actually the fact that it is a documentary in which nothing really happens, but I can watch over and over again, is precisely why it should be my influential film. It is quite an achievement that the Director, Richard Press, was able to create a film that is so gripping to someone who does even like fashion, with a seemingly pedestrian film.
Looking down the list of Academy Award winners for the category of documentary from 1942 onwards, it is apparent that most of the shortlisted nominees and ultimate winners, tackled serious, heavy going, or controversial topics which made you think and reflect, and possibly called you to action. A shift in this began in the 2010s with both Searching for the Sugar Man and 20 Feet from Stardom taking home the award. Some online bloggers and film communities Pond, 2014) seemingly were displeased by this shift feeling that films documenting more worthy causes had been overlooked in favour of the feel-good factor.
Others, such as The Economist (2013) viewed this in a positive light reporting that documentaries could be entertaining stating:
“Instead of picking worthy social causes and expecting people to be interested, film-makers are choosing charismatic central characters with naturally dramatic stories and presenting them in innovative, memorable ways”
I also believe that there is a definite place for entertaining, feel-good documentaries which are able to have impact without a controversial or negative subject. With the rise in popularity of the feel-good documentaries, I have now seen other films (I am Big Bird, Iris, The Last Man on the Moon, Bueno Vista Social Club etc. etc.) but Bill Cunningham New York was highly influential to me as it was one of the first documentaries I saw which fell within this category.
So taking a closer look at this film, what techniques is it that the director and cinematographer employed to hold the audiences’ attention for 84 minutes, and that resulted in the film winning numerous awards from film festivals?
Documentaries often hold the viewers’ attention through use of a strong narrative arc and a train pushing the whole film forwards. Bill’s struggle with has landlord to remain in his rent-controlled studio in Carniege Hall could offer this in the film. The viewer is introduced to this struggle approximately a third of the way into the film. We take a closer look at his simple living arrangements in amongst filing cabinets with a thin mattress for sleeping on held of the floor by more files.
We learn about the bohemian lifestyle which he and the other residents of Carniege Hall experienced. At one point Bill, Editta Sherman and Toni (Suzette) Cimino reminisce about Andy Warhol filming Editta performing the Dying Swan by moonlight in her apartment. These stories give you a sense that without Carniege Hall the artists may not have had so much inspiration or success. Later in the film you see Bill considering other apartments where he could be rehoused, and true to expectations with the narrative arc, this storyline is resolved at the very end of the film with text informing us about Bill’s apartment. However, while I am sure that Bill thoroughly enjoyed his time at Carniege Hall, remaining there seemed less of a concern for him that Editta and Suzette. When apartment hunting, he is more concerned with where his filing cabinets will fit, where he can store his bike, and what is out of the window, rather than leaving Carniege Hall. He confides to Lesley Vinson, that he has more fun on the streets photographing anyway. As Bill does not seem too concerned with this transition, it is hard for me as the viewer to concern myself with it either.
There is one intense moment in the film when Bill is asked about his romantic past and immediately understands that the question about whether he is gay. He responds without any difficulty but becomes emotional when asked to talk about is faith as a Catholic man. It could be interpreted that Bill has never acted on any romantic impulses because of his faith and therefore finds this line of questioning upsetting. This scene gives a glimpse below the surface to a complex and staunchly private man. This scene where Bill is silent and the Philip Gefter (producer) says its ok if he doesn’t want to answer is the closest the film really comes to any kind of conflict. However, this is not weaved into a narrative arc and therefore whilst a poignant moment within the film, there is no story leading to this.
In the absence of a strong narrative arc, I think that the film maker had great success in painting a portrait of Bill with each individual story being told like a brush stroke gradually leading to the development of a rich masterpiece. So what keeps the viewer engaged whilst this masterpiece is being created?
The gentle storying telling allows us to warm to Bill’s character and the film is cut in such a way that one story naturally leads to another. For example, early in the film when we are learning about Bill’s process for editing, he mentions rainstorms and this naturally leads to interviews and photo montages about being photographed by Bill in the rain and snow.
There is continual movement throughout the film; the opening sequence is a mixture of footage of Bill at work on the streets, spliced with photos he has taken, the resulting spreads, and interviews. The way that the newspaper spreads are displayed with hopping from one picture to the next prevents anything from being static. This is accompanied by frenetic jazz upping the pace further. Shots of Bill at work taken on the streets allow traffic to come between the camera and Bill revealing the bust and vibrant streets of New York.
Indoors, the cameras are close and Bill is shot in natural light whilst going out his normal business. These camera choice make you feel though you are there with them, for example the fourth person in the discussion about the layout as shown in the still below.
Whilst I enjoyed this intimate camera style, it was later revealed by Director Richard Press, that this was a necessity rather than choice as Bill was reticent to have a film made about him, and would not have had the patience for complex lighting and camera set-ups (Elliot, 2011). It is interesting that the two people responsible for filming Bill had be almost invisible to be able to film him emulating the style that Bill undertook whilst out on the streets. Bill said “My whole thing is to be invisible. You get more natural pictures that way too”. (Cunningham, 2002)
The Director was able to convince Bill to be interviewed at a couple of points within the film; within his apartment and in a cafe in Paris. In his apartment, he sits for the interview on his simple bed and the lighting is natural. The scene within his apartment surrounded by filing cabinets helps the viewer understand the singularity in Bill’s life in the pursuit of “this fascinating manifestation of culture” (Harold Koda in Bill Cunningham, New York, 2011)
The other stars of the film were seemingly more willing to be interviewed. The location of the interview an the props on display help to reveal information about the interviewees character.
Shail Upadhya “The Designing Diplomat” is shown showcasing his suits: “This used to be my old sofa, and the pants my ottoman”
Iris Apfel in her opulent lounge surrounded by luxurious fabrics and quirky items such as the stuffed parrot and stuffed dog looking straight at the camera,
and Patrick MacDonald “The Dandy with the hat”.
Through these depictions we can learn more about Bill’s obsession with fashion and the stark contrast to his own life. The apparent contradiction makes Bill more intriguing. This was the intention of Director Richard Press stating:
“I tried to lessen the tyranny of the bland talking head by filming each character in the form of a photographic portrait – one that gives as much visual insight into who they are and how they live or work—and trying to make each person a character in the film in their own right.” (Indiewire, 2011)
By the end of the film, the masterpiece has been created and a clear portrait of the key character has emerged. Bill was so vibrant with life as he had found his passion. When it commented that he is working at his own party in France when receiving the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, he replies:
“My dear it is not work, it’s pleasure”
(Bill Cunningham in Bill Cunningham New York, 2011)
My hope that through our endeavours is that we all find vocations that bring this pleasure, and if not, we can always turn on the tele and watch Bill.