Bill Cunningham New York

“Don’t you know who he is? He’s the most important person in the world.”

This indepedent film was delicately phrased throughout, and series of snapshots and quick glimpses within the narrative of this man’s humble life. A photographer who rubs shoulders with Lady Astor, and yet repairs his $5 poncho with tape - a photographer whose first request upon moving into his new apartment in Central Park South was to have all the appliances removed to make room for his extensive filing cabinets: This is the story of Bill Cunningham, generator of the Times’ “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” columns.

The phrasing of the movie is the closest it came to touching narratology. There was nothing specifically sought out in the movie, no burning question that needed answering. Bill Cunningham New York exposed him and his life, a life of quiet moments, meetings with the high-and-mighty and anonymous alike (He calls them all “child,” regardless of their age), flitting from party to party without touching food at any of them. In that same fashion, there was no unifying structure to the film, very little conversation and interview with Bill himself (and those that were included were laced with unexpectedly strong emotion), and no story to tell – just a New Yorker on his bike, a photographer with a passion and an excellent eye, a guileless man in a city known for its vanitas.

I did find something about the film slightly awkward, as a viewer: There was an aspect of humor at the expense of Bill, or at least, the humor reflected in his earnestness and social attitude.

There was a brief scene when Bill was photographing at an unnamed benefit, and he was gently gesturing at a woman. She began to turn, more and more with each gesture, thinking that Bill wanted a photo of her profile. He finally beat the air a little more boldly, gesturing her back, so he could photograph the dress of the woman who her unremarkable white bulk was obscuring.

The audience burst into laughter at the situ, but Bill’s face was fixed in study. He was absorbed in the reality of the beautiful dress back he photographed, and the faux pas missed his attention entirely.

Countless grains of sand in the eighty-minute hourglass were similarly spent. A neighbor with her garrlous and insenstive moxy went from inadvertent butt-of-a-joke to object of beauty as the scene cuts away from an eldery eccentric trying on hats to a ballerina performing the “Dance of the Dying Swan” in a clip shot by Andy Warhol. A redeeming effort, but even as she bows her head at the clip’s terminus, all I could see was the old woman’s absurdity lurking in the shadowed eyes of her younger body. It was foreshadowing at its most sinister, and heartbreaking, because it was ultimately retrospective.

Bill Cunningham New York is told the same way. A young milliner becomes a veteran and then a photographer. He plows inadvertently into the back of a taxicab while on his bicycle, and has the grace to laugh it off. He moves the socialite aside for a moment of beauty, and weeps openly when asked about his relationship to God. Bill gives the readers of the New York Times snapshots of the city, and Richard Press has given us a vignette of Bill.

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