Monday, June 6, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York

Yesterday, I went with my adorable fashion designer niece Holly Smith-Smith to see the Richard Press documentary Bill Cunningham New York. Not being a New Yorker and knowing little about the fashion scene, I had never heard of Cunningham. He is best known now for two columns of photos that run in the New York Times. Evening Hours chronicles the mostly very well-to-do New Yorkers at charity events. On The Street features photos Cunningham gleans out hundreds of shots of passersby on the streets of New York every week, which Cunningham then edits to show some trend in the fashions being worn by everyday people.

If I were writing this review hoping to increase business for this film, this would be almost the perfectly wrong time to write it. The movie, which first opened in 2010 on the film festival circuit, has been in the theaters about three months now. It is currently playing on a total of 21 screens across the United States and has barely done $1,000,000 worth of business, a pathetic number for a regular movie but a minor success for a documentary. No date has yet been set for its release on DVD.

So I'm not writing this to tell you to see the film. When it's available for home viewing, I'll put up a post reminding my readers. I'm writing this post to say this film made we want to do something different with my life, to use what few talents I have to create more art.

Bill Cunningham is now in his eighties. As a young man in the early 1950s, after doing a stint in the Army, he became a milliner, but he gave that up. But this was not the end of his love affair with fashion. In the 1960s, he began to take photos of people who dressed distinctively, and at that time that meant the flower children and hippies. He became obsessed with taking candid photos of people out and about who caught his eye. He worked for Details magazine in the early 1980s chronicling the lesser known fashion designers before it was sold to Conde Nast. He refused to take the corporation's money, so never was seen in the magazine's pages since. He sold pictures to Women's Wear Daily of models and everyday women on the street wearing the same outfits, but quit in disgust when captions were added mocking the non-models.

Cunningham is a hermit in the biggest city in the world. He rides a bike around town, bravely sharing the road with the crazy cabbies. He wears the same utilitarian outfit every day. His jacket takes a lot of wear and tear from the camera around his neck, so he repairs it with plastic and duct tape. His apartment is filled with filing cabinets. He uses an old style Nikon camera and gets his pictures developed at a local shop called Photo King. He loves the socialites at the big charity galas every bit as much as he loves the people whose pictures he takes on the street. Several people who know him are interviewed and nearly none of them know much about his life.

Holly had seen the movie two times before and she was happy to see it again. She told me she had an old man crush on Bill Cunningham. It's easy to see why. There are a few pictures of him when he was younger, but now as an old man with a big smile filled with big teeth, he kind of reminded me of Jimmy Carter or Mr. Rogers, not only for the size of his teeth, but that all three men do what they love on their own terms. (Sadly, for Rogers that last sentence should be in the past tense, since he died in 2003.) Carter and Rogers are much more famous and greater successes in worldly ways, but Cunningham may well be the greatest artist of these three.

There are two times I have seen movies that have made we want to create art. After I saw Pulp Fiction, I went home and wrote a short story that had nothing to do with the film. After seeing Bill Cunningham New York, I've decided to buy more Penrose tiles and make some really big mosaics that I will photograph upon completion then dismantle, kind of like the sand paintings of the Tibetan monks.

I do not know how long the inspiration will last. I am not as single minded or talented as Mr. Cunningham, but I do hope to emulate his generosity of spirit in my own life in some small way.


namastenancy said...

I love Cunningham and I'm glad to share that love with other people. He is a real inspiration. But you know - you do have art in you. I've been very impressed with the designs that you've been making with the Penrose tiles. They may be representations of mathematical theories but they are also quite beautiful.

Nelly Frittata said...

I enjoy Bill Cunningham's NYT "On The Street" slideshows not because I care about fashion but because I love to hear the absolute joy bursting from his being as he describes the people he photographs. I am very much looking forward to seeing this film.

ken said...

You've created art before. Maybe not high art, but video games are art.

Matty Boy said...

Nancy: Thanks. The math is going to get more mathy in the next few posts about Penrose tiles, and then it's gonna be about big honking patterns, once the new tiles are delivered. (Currently on back order, I hope available by next weekend.)

Nelly: It's still in some theaters in a nice metropolitan area like San Francisco, but when I put it on my Netflix list, there was no release date mentioned yet.

Your instincts are correct. You really want to see this film.

Ken: Video games are art, and my Pascal's Triangle website had artistic aspects as well. In the latter case, as with the Penrose tiles, my hope to make math interesting to people who don't see it that way yet is the driving focus. I had no driving focus when I wrote video games other than "Is this enough fun that complete strangers will waste massive numbers of hours playing this?"

Those may not be the criteria most people use to distinguish high art and low art, but it's good enough for me. ;^)