For decades, intrepid New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham has been a source of fascination and mystery. His society column Evening Hours features the city's parties. And the street photography in his On the Street column aggregates the peacocks and dandies prowling New York's avenues. Cunningham was the original street photographer, long before the hordes rushed into the blogosphere.
For the documentary Bill Cunningham New York, director Richard Press appears to have been afforded unlimited access to Cunningham's life. Press delves about as deeply as seems comfortable into this wonderful, inspiring man's existence and his fan base of über-socialites, fashion icons and insiders interviewed for the doc, including Annette de la Renta, writer Tom Wolfe, Anna Wintour, Italian Vogue editor Anna Piaggi, style icon Iris Apfel and designer Michael Kors, who runs into Cunningham while incognito in New York's fashion district.
On its own, Cunningham's working method is visual catnip: At 83, he flies through the city on his Schwinn in blizzards and rain storms documenting the vagaries of fashion, from B-boys in low riding jeans to society matrons like his beloved Brooke Astor. An utter anachronism, he still shoots on film and ties his bike to a light pole outside the New York Times offices like a cowboy hitching up his quarter horse. Amid the luxury of New York society and the Times' starched corridors of journalistic power, Cunningham cuts a distinct, absolutely eccentric figure.
He lives in a miniscule one-room kitchen and bathroom-free rent-controlled apartment in Carnegie Hall filled to capacity with file cabinets holding the negatives of his life's work. Space is so tight that he sleeps on a narrow board topped by a makeshift bed. He lives by a motto of no pretense, patching his trusty rain poncho with duct tape when it gets damaged and is ever on the prowl for budget lunches. He is surrounded by swans — dandies and drag queens and socialites — but is himself a robin dressed in functional blue French street sweeper's jacket and newsboy cap. He is, in short, one-of-a-kind and about as perfect a subject for a documentary as you can find.
Bill Cunningham New York is like a nature program documenting the rarest endangered species: the die-hard New Yorker whose living conditions are secondary to an absolute love and absorption in his life's work. How endangered is Cunningham? While he's clearly beloved by his co-workers at the Times, his living quarters are in peril. The artist studios that once filled Carnegie Hall gradually have been taken over by depressing but profitable office space. Only a few stragglers remain in the studios. The landlord is fighting to have these elderly tenants — including Cunningham — evicted, a sad testament to the changed face of Manhattan, which once welcomed such artists in droves.
As much as it is a profile of Cunningham, Bill Cunningham New York is like a dirge for a dying New York and its irreplaceable characters as new money New York stakes its claim on the city's soul. It's no wonder his name and the city's blend into each other in the film's title: He represents all that is compelling and magical about that fabled city and its marvelous people. Bill Cunningham New York is one of those fascinating documentaries you want to go on, and on and on, its subject is that engrossing. Like a cross between Crumb, the 1994 doc about the eccentric family of underground cartoonist R. Crumb and the insider fashion doc The September Issue, Bill Cunningham New York is an absolute delight from any angle.
I can see Rushdie's stuff adapting well. Lots of plot to play with.