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He Who Seeks Beauty, Finds Beauty.

March 23, 2011

I am thoroughly convinced that I will not have a greater time at the movies this year than I did tonight at the Film Forum watching Bill Cunningham: New York. The documentary about the octogenarian who has been the street style photographer for The New York Times for over fifty years was everything that I hope to experience with a movie. I laughed so hard, I cried because I was happy, I cried because I was sad, I couldn’t stop grinning, and it was an endless feast for the eyes. It had a beautiful story, brilliant characters, and more heart than any Hollywood movie I’ve seen in the past year (excluding Toy Story 3, of course). I basically looked like this little kid the whole time:

Have a look.

 

There are two subjects to the film. The first, of course, is Bill Cunningham. Now, I knew the name, and last summer I saw him on his bicycle riding down Ninth Avenue with his camera around his neck, but I never had much of a feel for who he was as a person. Well, I know now that Bill Cunningham is an incredibly beautiful and genuine human being. His positive outlook on life, his passion for his work, and his devotion to capturing the beauty in the world were so refreshing. He’s astonishingly selfless and the definition of a true artist. (And also humble, because throughout the movie he brushes off the title of artist and shies away from compliments and awards, all without even a hint of self-deprecation.) Despite easily having the ability to be wealthy and welcomed into high society with open arms, he chooses to live in the same tiny apartment in the Carnegie Hall residences that he’s been living in for decades. It doesn’t have a kitchen or a bathroom, and is packed to a bursting point with file cabinets containing negatives of every roll he’s ever shot. He sleeps on a thin mattress on a wooden plank resting over crates, and owns about five items of clothing. He and his neighbor, 98-year-old photographer Editta Sherman (who is the only person in the film who steals scenes from Bill), are the only two people left living in what was once a bustling artist residence. A subplot shows how they’re both being needled out by the landlords, who want to take over their apartments and use them for office space, and how this represents the end of the era of the artistic bohemian life in New York. (Or, at least, in Manhattan.) There are dozens of anecdotes of how Bill has routinely refused to be paid for his work, and ceremoniously ripped up his checks when Condé Nast bought Details, which he moonlighted for in its infancy. (One question that I did find unsatisfactorily unresolved is how exactly he does afford to live his life, monastic as it is. I guess The Times insist on paying him something.) Bill is unfailingly good-natured and kind, although he still sticks up for what he believes in and won’t compromise his art for the sake of other’s opinions at the paper. He is also incredibly funny, both intentionally and not. It was like spending an hour and a half with your favorite grandpa.

But, regardless of the film’s title, Bill was only part of what the documentary was about. It was also a moving tribute to the world of fashion (as opposed to the fashion world) in New York, and the city itself. The movie had a rare and refreshing perspective on style. Usually, when fashion is the subject at hand, it tends to either be taken very seriously and put up on a pedestal or mocked and brushed off as frivolous, evil, or both. This time, it almost solely focused on fashion as a outlet for enjoying life. In the inevitable fashion documentary scene where the subject is asked to defend his decision to dedicate his life to fashion, Bill talked about how fashion is the armor to protect yourself from the depressing aspects of life, how it’s a way of bringing beauty back into a world that can be so incredibly negative, and if one were to deny the importance of fashion then one would be denying the importance of culture as a whole. I loved the film’s celebratory feel. The minor characters perfectly filled out the film as well as lending further insight to the world of fashion and journalism. Just like how Bill transformed New York Society into an all-inclusive affair, highlighting everyone from the old-money socialites to the club kids to the It Girls, the talking heads and cameos came from all walks of life. (I don’t want to give too much away, but to further compare this to Toy Story 3, there is a scene quite similar to when Ken was trying on his outfits for Barbie, only this time it involved a diplomat from Nepal.) They just continued to give so much life to the movie. And then, of course, there were the photographs. Be still my beating heart! There is a reason this guy has been working for the most respected paper in the country for decades. He is brilliant at what he does. It was especially fun to get glimpses of his work from his earlier years. It was a perfectly tantalizing retrospective of New York (and American) street style in recent history.

I’m afraid that people will see that this is a movie about fashion, think it’s not for them, and then will miss out on the opportunity to see this incredible film. Yes, it is primarily about fashion, but I also find it difficult to imagine someone not enjoying it, as long as they have a heartbeat slash soul. I can’t recommend Bill Cunningham: New York enough. It has a pretty damn limited run, though, so be sure to check out its site to see where and when it’s playing near you.

Nobutseriously, why are you still reading this? Go and see it. Now.

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