Bill Cunningham New York
November 4, 2011 12:37 PM   Subscribe

Bill Cunningham New York is a wonderful documentary about a fascinating man, now available on Hulu.

Bill is the most influential and most unconventional fashion photographer of a generation. He's directly inspired (and been photographed by) a new wave of on-the-street fashion photographers through his long-running institution in The New York Times, appropriately named "On the Street" (also available as a video blog).
posted by gilrain (31 comments total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: Poster's Request -- Brandon Blatcher

There are moments in the documentary when he seems to lose himself, tearing up over the work, tearing up perhaps over the spirit of the work. You see where he lives and it's like he's an ascetic, a fashion monk. Great film about a unique man completely devoted to his craft.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:44 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

One of my favorite documentaries - informational, emotional, funny. What an eye, and what a story. Highly, highly recommended.
posted by TomSophieIvy at 12:46 PM on November 4, 2011

I just saw this recently and absolutely loved it, especially the bit about his religious upbringing and (unless I'm misinterpreting) complete lack of romantic relationships. I have to wonder what kind of conflicts are going on inside his head.

It's really an excellent study on focus; it's hard to imagine what it's like to be so perfectly obsessed with something that it takes up the entirety of your waking hours to the exclusion of almost everything else. I think the world would be far more aesthetically pleasing if everyone cared even a fraction as much as he does about fashion.
posted by Awakened at 12:47 PM on November 4, 2011

I watched this recently and was so impressed by his integrity, by, for example, never eating at any of the events he photographs. I was also struck by his rule never to ridicule someone through a photo. Marvelous, as he would say.
posted by Shebear at 12:50 PM on November 4, 2011

We loved this! So nice to see a documentary about someone in fashion who is so dedicated to his work while remaining free of ego. The new crop of fashion bloggers could learn a thing or two from Bill.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:52 PM on November 4, 2011

This movie is just terrific- and it's not just for people who care about New York or fashion. Great that it's on Hulu!
posted by foxy_hedgehog at 1:07 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

One thing which blew my mind about this documentary was the existence of those Carnegie Hall apartments. Now when I pass by some landmark building like the NYPL or whatever, I can't help but imagine that someone might be living in there.
posted by cazoo at 1:12 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

One of the best documentaries I've seen lately. For a brief moment it made me want to be a better dresser.
posted by yeti at 1:19 PM on November 4, 2011

Really enjoyed this during its theatrical run, went back more than once. I couldn't help feeling like there was a dark undercurrent to the whole thing though, regarding his personal life. While he was obviously passionate with (and consumed by) his work and about fashion world in general, I couldn't help seeing his personal life as crushingly lonely. This combined with being kicked out of Carnegie Hall left me feeling really down by the end of the film (which isn't necessarily inappropriate, I typically feel alienated or depressed by anything to do with high fashion).
posted by trackofalljades at 1:24 PM on November 4, 2011 [3 favorites]

I, too, felt sad by the revelations about BC's personal life, his sexuality, and religious upbringing. It seemed like he was a victim of crushing homophobia in his youth.
posted by feste at 1:46 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

Tremendous movie.
posted by penduluum at 2:59 PM on November 4, 2011

Every moment with him is a joyful discovery.
posted by roger ackroyd at 3:04 PM on November 4, 2011

I was so impressed that he rides that rickety old bike all over NYC without a helmet!
posted by emilycardigan at 3:22 PM on November 4, 2011

I'm with trackofalljades — amazing movie, left me feeling totally depressed. I concede this may have more to do with how I think I'd feel about having his kind of life in my old age, rather than how he feels, but then again, I'm not sure he ever really lets us, or the filmmakers, truly know how he feels about it. That's not a criticism of the filmmakers. I just think there is a total wall there between himself and the world, existing alongside his utter openness in other ways, and the documentary shows that very clearly.

"Please... he's the most important person on Earth" is a great line.
posted by oliverburkeman at 3:24 PM on November 4, 2011 [7 favorites]

This is really great and worth watching.
posted by ColdChef at 4:50 PM on November 4, 2011

In the movie, it's noted that he worked more or less free of charge for the original Details magazine. His lack of romance or much of a personal life is certainly nothing he's open about, and it is sad, but otherwise he's doing clearly what he loves, all day long, in his '80s, which meant to me that he has one up on 99.9 percent of humanity. But he's humble about that. I couldn't find that depressing, sorry.
posted by raysmj at 5:05 PM on November 4, 2011 [2 favorites]

80s. Not the '80s.
posted by raysmj at 5:08 PM on November 4, 2011

Baader-Meinhof! I got this movie as a result of something I read no doubt on the grey or green months ago, forgot all about what it even was, and finally watched it just last night. Fascinating story. (The movie, not mine.)
posted by hypersloth at 5:28 PM on November 4, 2011

That was fantastic, gilrain; thanks for the tip. This movie has been on my Netflix queue for awhile and now I've finally watched it because of this thread.

One sad yet funny part to me was when he photographs the two young women, then gives them a friendly smile and thumbs up; they respond by glaring and cursing him out like he's just another dirty old man they have to deal with during their day.
posted by LuckySeven~ at 7:02 PM on November 4, 2011

can't wait to watch this tonight
posted by operator at 7:14 PM on November 4, 2011

He's also featured in Lost Bohemia, a doc about the Carnegie Hall apartments.

They've been turned into office cubicles. I live nearby and feel terrible that I didn't know the full details about what was going on until it was too late.
posted by brujita at 8:23 PM on November 4, 2011

I had mixed feelings about this documentary; I felt like it spent too much time showing us what he did (which we could gather from about five minutes of footage of Cunningham in the streets in New York) and not enough interview time or probing questions from the director/documentary makers.

For instance, one of the most fascinating scenes, to me, was when Cunningham took a photo of two schoolgirls walking on the sidewalk, and they said, "Don't you take our fucking picture!" That was a *great* opportunity for the director to ask him, "How do you feel about that? How do you handle it when people react negatively? Do you think they have privacy when they're walking on the street? What about when the subjects are young kids?" Etc. It would've opened up a whole conversation about what he's doing, and how he views his role and rights as street fashion "documentarian".

There's another scene where Cunningham impatiently gives direction using only a hand signal to someone at a party, probably someone very wealthy. I felt like he probably does this alot (just based on seeing how casually it was executed), but this side of him wasn't shown. Why not?

Another interesting aspect of Cunningham was what I perceived as his self-denial, disguised as 'being practical' and being humble (my interpretation, obviously). So frustrating that the director didn't dig further into this. I think he probably had issues surrounding money, equating it with corruption, and so policed himself in certain ways.

So I feel it was quite rosy in it's portrayal of it's subject and would've appreciated a bit less, "Here's a lovable fashion institution," and more of a clear-eyed portrayal.

Other questions I was burning to ask: why did he appear to have to reach back in his mind for where his sister was living? Was there a rift there? Why? How did he reconcile his sexuality and the church? Had he sacrificed a sex life, and full expression of it, because of the church?

A good documentary about a fascinating character that never got beneath the surface, but still worth seeing. Some of the bonus material was very interesting and I would've liked to have seen that included in the main feature, getting rid of much of the following him around bits.

(Off-topic, but for anyone looking for great documentaries: Touching the Void and Man on Wire are my all-time favorites.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 8:47 PM on November 4, 2011

Cunningham is one of my favourite photographers--and I am waiting for the day a big book of his details work, for example comes out. His work in New York is about the city, about himself, about the nature of documentary, and so the documentary about his documentary work is of course going to be a bit about process.

I wrote this on my blog, when I first saw the movie:
there is a scene in the new bill cunningham doc that is perhaps one of the holiest things ive seen on screen this year.

we spend the year with the extravagant luxury of his subjects, and the monastic life of cunningham--and we see him be fun, garrulous, even at 80, having this charming good grief, just transient unherichal pleasure.

and then he is asked two questions. one about sex, which he bats away (and the follow up about friendship and intimacy, which he assumes to be code, and then is charming when he realised it is not) then, he is asked about his religious practice, and for 30 seconds his body falls into itself, he is not present, and the absence stops the movie.

the intimacy of that moment, and the intensity of it, makes everything else so serious.

i stand by it
posted by PinkMoose at 10:25 PM on November 4, 2011 [4 favorites]

I felt like it spent too much time showing us what he did (which we could gather from about five minutes of footage of Cunningham in the streets in New York) and not enough interview time or probing questions from the director/documentary makers.

From what I gathered after seeing this, Bill Cunningham is the sort of person with such an exacting control over personal privacy and the integrity of his work that a less intrusive documentary is the only kind that could've been made with his cooperation. I think the film even begins with a bit about how the documentary crew had to basically stalk Cunningham for weeks before he grudgingly gave them his approval to go ahead with the film.

It's a tactful portrayal of the man—but one that doesn't shy away from honesty. There are obviously some things that Cunningham is in denial about, I don't think they are too complicated and my feeling is that the film draws out these issues as clearly as is appropriate.

I dont know, my opinion is that it would be somewhat cruel to put a gentle harmless man under the microscope and explicitly interrogate the values he has live so stringently by for 80 years.
posted by quosimosaur at 10:30 PM on November 4, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think the movie is stronger for not going into explicit detail about a lot of that stuff. The answer to the question about the two girls who get sassy with him is written on his face. And all you need to know—and more than you could ever expect to know—about his sexuality and religious life is encapsulated in that 30 seconds of silence.
posted by wemayfreeze at 9:07 AM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Astoundingly good documentary. I guess this is what a great director can do with near-unlimited footage from digital cameras. Every scene is perfect.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 11:31 AM on November 5, 2011

We caught this on NetFlix streaming last month. Some of the scenes brought me and my SO to tears. What a sweet guy Cunningham is.
posted by sundrop at 11:42 AM on November 5, 2011

there is a scene in the new bill cunningham doc that is perhaps one of the holiest things ive seen on screen this year.

I felt that scene was unholy. It's about the agonizing irreconcilability between his natural sexual desires and the medieval attitudes of his Catholic upbringing. That's the tragedy.
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 11:45 AM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

Cunningham is a true New Englander. I doubt I'm the only one who feels a bit like him when in NY.
posted by shushufindi at 12:15 PM on November 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

East Manitoba:

four things
a) how do i properly shorten yr name?
b) the tension between consumption and restraint is central to mystic lives
c) giving up what one desires for the larger good, can be viewed as a kind of hermit religiouslity--one could argue that this work is not art, or that documentation about pleasure has several levels of removal and these levels of removal cannot be fully hermetic, but there is something American and democratic, in that tension but all of that said, i do find it holy.
d) i know what you are saying, and i know that there is homophobia here, and that homophobia is profoundly sad, and yet--there is something in the match of the monk and the wasp.
posted by PinkMoose at 4:39 PM on November 5, 2011 [2 favorites]

My wife wanted to watch this a second time and insisted I look at it too. I couldn't figure out why, since I am one of the least fashionable people alive, and I'm not that fond of NYC... but I ended up enjoying it a great deal. (My wife knows that I — like William J — am wild about file cabinets, and not eating when there's more important stuff to be accomplished.)

It's certainly interesting to discover a) an American who (for decades and decades!) has genuinely loved his work, and b) an optimistic, cheerful New Yorker. I also find it amazing that he hasn't been crushed, or at least seriously damaged, during his many years of biking around Manhattan at all hours.

Bill must have angels watching over him. Although, as a 2009 New Yorker feature on him mentions, he seems less like a monk than "an oblate — a layperson who has dedicated his life to the tribe without becoming a part of it."
posted by LeLiLo at 8:34 PM on November 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

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