Remember when documentaries presented both sides without bias? When they were humble? When they didn’t have to be narrated by Matt Damon to seem interesting? This observational documentary is that joyful slice of humility that is so often lacking in the genre.
Bill Cunningham New York is the story of an 80-year-old fashion photographer for the New York Times. His occupation is to wander around the streets of New York City on his little Schwinn (his 29th, as the other 28 were stolen) and photograph everybody in their normal clothes, whether they be bike messengers or up-and-coming socialites. He’s been doing his job for decades, chronicling fashion trends for so long that the evolution of our culture itself is acutely documented through his photos.
Yet nobody knows who he is. He has rubbed elbows with icons and movie stars for ages and frequents upscale New York City galas in the evening. Yet he eats in trashy diners, picking at his sandwiches with delight. He lives in an apartment that resembles a closet filled with filing cabinets and newspapers (picture Mel Gibson’s place in Conspiracy Theory) and asks, “Who the hell wants a kitchen and a bathroom? Just more rooms to clean.” He has photographed the most beautiful clothes in the world and yet he patches his own jacket with duct tape and wears a trash bag around rainy Paris.
When the film begins, it seems like Bill is just an adorably humble man who never stops smiling and never has a mean thing to say. But the tone changes when you learn that, through the course of production, Bill is in the middle of an eviction battle over
his apartment. At that point, the movie successfully presents this sweet old man as a bridge between the lower class and upper class of America. While you watch Cunningham get chummy with Brooke Astor, you remember that he rode his bike to the party and needs to look for a place to live when he wakes up in the morning.
The film is pieced together as modestly as Bill lives his life. It’s shot primarily through hand-held cameras, and even the interviews take place in the filthy homes and offices of the people speaking. Nothing is manufactured or staged. The only manipulative editing in the show is the juxtaposition of lifestyles — rich people in limousines, followed by Bill running into taxis on his bicycle.
The film and its subject are refreshingly genuine, and sure to inspire audiences who are fortunate enough to watch it.