Bill Cunningham New York

Paul Mitchell

MADMAN: Through the story of one man’s remarkable passion for creativity, this riveting documentary gets to the heart of fashion’s place in the human story.
Bill Cunningham New York
New York photographer Bill Cunningham invented fashion blogging when the internet was just a twinkle in the eye of the US military. Since 1978, the now 84-year-old Cunningham has been most renowned for working the streets on his bicycle. He takes shots of both the famous and unknown, and publishes them in his weekly New York Times column that’s now extended to the web.

Most of fashion’s icons – and even author Tom Wolfe – take turns to bow to Cunningham in Richard Press’s documentary, Bill Cunningham New York. The film candidly reveals the man behind the lens, a humbly dressed iconoclast who is unaffected by the sway he holds in the fashion world. Cunningham might work amongst the fashionista, but there’s nothing elaborate about his lifestyle: for most of the documentary he’s living above Carnegie Hall in a tiny kitchenless apartment, with room for just a stretcher bed and several filing cabinets of negatives.

Cunningham is a fascinating subject, one about whom it would be difficult to make a poor documentary. He’s resolutely single (he says he never had time for a relationship once he began photography) and a churchgoer; he works at one of the world’s most prestigious media institutions, but refuses free food and wine when he works at gala openings; and he’s a former milliner, advertising writer and journalist with a past about which little is known. Awarded the French Ministry of Culture’s Officier de l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres in 2008, he eats only at the cheapest diners.

Although Press could hardly go wrong with this intrigue to work with, he has still made an outstanding film. The key to its success is the fact that, as Cunningham is shown to be with his subjects, Press is unobtrusive, but manages to capture the secrets below Cunningham’s surface. We encounter his roguish charm, his ability to, without changing his spots, make true friends amongst high society and the rank and file; his capacity to drive his editor insane with his attention to detail and, with great emotional resonance, the strength he draws from God in his quest to capture truth in photography.

The film is a moving journey – and it becomes literally that for Cunningham about halfway through. He’s lived in Carnegie Hall since the late ‘70s, but, along with numerous other artists, the landlord’s about to move him on. We see Bill wandering the new apartment with which he has been, it seems, provided by some financial scheme or another, and chatting about what life will be like there. But his living arrangements, never of much interest to him, don’t interest him now, and so hold little interest for the viewer.

That said, the documentary is more than a character study; it offers a surefooted narrative arc, which comes to a powerful conclusion when Press, ahem, presses Cunningham on the nexus of his singleness, single-minded passion, and his spirituality. The celebration of his life that follows provides a necessary denouement after the emotional weight of Press’s insight into Cunningham’s depths.

Bill Cunningham New York is a riveting documentary. Through the story of one man’s remarkable passion for creativity, it gets to the heart of fashion’s place in the human story. The extras feature deleted scenes and the theatrical trailer.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Bill Cunningham New York
Directed by Richard Press
With Bill Cunningham, Tom Wolfe, Anna Wintour, Kim Hastreiter and others
USA, 2010, 81 minutes (extras 20 minutes)

Out now on DVD
Distributor: Madman Entertainment
Rated PG

What the stars mean?
  • Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
  • Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
  • Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
  • Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
  • Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
  • Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
  • Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
  • One star: Awful, to be avoided
  • Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level

About the author

Paul Mitchell is a Melbourne-based writer. His short fiction collection, Dodging the Bull (Wakefield Press) was part of the 2008 The Age State Library Summer Read. He has published two collections of poetry, Minorphysics (IP) and Awake Despite the Hour (Five Islands Press). Paul's essays and journalism have appeared in Griffith Review, The Age, Eureka Street, Meanjin and The Big Issue.