Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 16, 2018 12:15 pm 
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More details about the ultimate street recorder of New York fashion

This film is entirely built around an interview Mark Bozek filmed with Bill Cunningham in 1994. It ends when the film ran out. He decided to make a documentary around the interview when Cunningham died in 2016 at the age of eighty-seven. We don't know what became of this valuable film originally, but it was shot when its subject had received a Media Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

This film shows a series of snappy photos purported to be of his millinery productions, and they are marvelous, and astonishingly various and numerous. Let us shed a tear for this vanished art, and wonder at the customers of "William J." (his business name, to hide it from his disapproving family), which included Marilyn Monroe. This came after a tour of duty in Europe in the Army that allowed him frequent side trips to Paris to see the fashion shows. Bozak provides glimpses of this period, too. As filmmaking, The Times of Bill Cunningham is only workmanlike, but it's still invaluable for the wealth of visual and audio information it provides.

The interview film is up close and bright. It's shows its subject's fresh innocence and energy vividly. You can see the spots on Bill's face from his days outside, hear his eager laughter. The shy, ebullient, boyish Bill is so modest he begins by dismissing the whole idea of being interviewed. He thought what he photographed was important, he himself a zero. He is by turns gushy, modest, and emotional. As the interview goes on, Bill provides an extraordinary amount of information about his life, which Bozak has illustrated and supplemented with stock footage, still and in motion, which he got access to through Bill's niece, Trish Simonson - access crucial to the film. Bill's own words are occasionally supplemented by narration by Sarah Jessica Parker. He was so distant, so odd, so focussed and intense, and though intensely friendly, socially limited. Could he have been on the spectrum? Anyway, he lived like a pauper, but he was royalty.

There are shots of his parents and his brothers and sisters. Strait-laced Boston Catholics, they didn't like his first love, designing hats, and were pleased when he discovered street fashion photography and gradually morphed into a cultural photojournalist, the most prolific and dedicated of them. "We all dress for Bill," the longtime Vogue editor famously said about him. Well, if we are interested in the immense range of stuff that happens on the street with clothes, we all care about Bill, his own designer gifts, his austere life, his free-ranging of Manhattan on multiple bikes, one of which seemed to get stolen every year. This and other facts, like the Légion d'Honneur and the Nineties adoption of the blue French workman's jacket, were already covered in Press's film.

To begin with we get another glimpse of where Bill lived on the cheap for so many years, his zen monk-ish room without bath in a since closed residential wing of Carnegie Hall. Richard Press's 2010 Bill Cunningham New York (ND/NF) brought us up to date on this situation, where, on the closing of the residential wing, an apartment was found for Bill overlooking Central Park. Here, we learn some more about that residence, and who lived there. We didn't know Marlon Brando dossed with Bill for a while when escaping from women fans.

The interview goes particularly into Bill's close friendships with Nona Park and Sophie Shonnard of Chez Ninon and how important they were for fashion at the time.

Bozak doesn't pry into the shy Bill's private feelings. In Press's film he enigmatically nods to being gay, but one might wonder if he went through life a virgin. What is clear is that in 1994 he collapses into tears instantly when asked about sad things in his life and he comes to AIDS and talks about the immense loss of creativity that scourge meant particularly in the fashion world, including so many, like Willi Smith, Perry Ellis, Halston, Patrick Kelly, Antonio Lopez, that Bill would have known. As a 2013 NYTimes piece noted, AIDS deaths, especially in the mid-seventies and early nineties, is certain gay-dominated "fields of enormous creativity and change — from art to fashion to literature — were devastated, never to recover completely." Bill Cunningham knew this. He was in the midst of it. To see this happy man suddenly so moved to tears he cannot speak is the most stirring moment of Bozak's film. We learn that Bill photographed many things (and kept the shots in his voluminous files) without publishing them, including images of the Gay Pride parade from its inception, and many years after.

But the message Bill gets to reiterate so often if finally rings out is this: he did not claim to be a photographer, like Cartier Bresson was one, but a recorder of street fashion, and that fashion was to him the true fashion, not what the designers produced but how real people wore the clothes. His life was austere and restrictive, and his shyness, he admits, sometimes made it hard to go out to the streets he seemed to dominate. But he clearly never lost his passion for the new and his gift for finding it. The austerity provided him the freedom, and he emphasizes that he could, and did, go anywhere he wanted to shoot his pictures. Cartier Bresson would not have disapproved.

The Times of Bill Cunningham, 74 mins., had its world premiere at the New York Film Festival 11 and 14 Oct. 2018. It was screened for this review.

US theatrical release finally coming 14 Feb. 2020 (New York) and 21 Feb. (Los Angeles), wider release to follow.

See: "Bill Cunningham Left Behind a Secret Memoir,"


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