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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 22, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 16
When filmmaking meets fashion: Sitting down with the director of Bill Cunningham New York
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When filmmaking meets fashion: Sitting down with the director of Bill Cunningham New York

by Gary M. Kramer - SGN Contributing Writer

Bill Cunningham New York
Opening April 28


Anyone who reads The New York Times' Style section knows Bill Cunningham's work. This sly, shy photographer follows the trends - baggy trousers or polka-dot dresses - for his 'On the Street' collages and he documents who's who of high society for his 'Evening Hours' photo spreads.

Famously reserved, Cunningham allowed himself to be filmed by director Richard Press and his partner, producer Philip Gefter, for the irresistible documentary, Bill Cunningham New York.

'We wore him down,' Press said with a laugh in a recent phone interview. 'I met Bill and knew him for a few months, and wanted to make a film about him. He laughed. Thought it was a ridiculous idea. Couldn't entertain it. 'Why me?' he asked. 'There's no subject here.' He kept putting us off.'

The filmmaker pressed on, though, thinking that maybe the man behind the camera needed to get used to being in front of the camera.

'After a while, he said, 'Come back to the Times if you want to film me at work,' Press remembered. 'At the end of that day, he said, 'Now you have your movie. You're done.'

But the film was just getting started. 'My impetus was to show who Bill is as a person - his religious, obsessive relationship with his work. Once he agreed to be filmed, it was always a bit of a negotiation,' Press recalled. 'He thought it would take a week, but it took almost a year.'

Bill Cunningham New York captures the infectious spirit of its subject, a man who is incorruptibly honest as well as extremely modest. It may be these qualities that allow him to move freely between high society, downtown hipsters, and the fashionistas that he photographs. The film captures the essence and flow of Cunningham's life as he bikes around the city in his blue windbreaker, snapping candid shots on the street, or attending black-tie galas.

'He doesn't want people to know who he is,' Press explained about his film's enigmatic subject, adding, 'for someone who is so shy, and doesn't want to be filmed, or talk about/glorify himself. Once you get him to talk, he is so interesting and charismatic. At first he was horrified about us following him, but I think he was glad we were there.'

Press explained that he wanted to shoot Cunningham 'as invisibly as possible' - the same surreptitious approach the photographer uses when he stalks and shoots his subjects.

One telling scene shows the photographer not identifying himself when he calls a camera store to arrange getting film developed. At the beginning of the documentary, interviews with Anna Wintour and others who know Cunningham admit that they don't really 'know' anything about him.

Press deliberately constructed the film to reveal bits about Cunningham, just as Cunningham revealed bits of himself to Press and Gefter during the course of shooting. Bill Cunningham New York eschews the traditional 'biopic' format of its subject's childhood, education, and experiences. This is part of what makes the film so engaging. Viewers are initially captivated by the character of Cunningham, and become more interested as the film unspools, especially when details emerge about his fight against eviction, or when he is the only media personality invited to attend Brooke Astor's 100th birthday party.

One early scene that Press especially appreciates involves Cunningham repairing his poncho. 'I wanted to get him with his poncho. I sat waiting, and almost gave up. The next thing I know, he's patching it and talking about it. This moment captures his sense of humor, his eccentricity, and his life force was in his smile. To me, it showed so much about him. It's really a delicious moment where the audience bonds with him as a character.'

Bill Cunningham New York frequently follows the photographer on his bike as he darts around the city - at one point, amusingly, he runs into the back of a taxi while the camera keeps moving. Press admitted it was exhausting to keep up with the 82-year-old. 'It was fun, but I was literally begging him to stop so I could take a break.'

For Cunningham, however, his life is his work, and there are no breaks. 'Every day, all day, it is all about the work,' Press insisted. 'He doesn't go out to dinner or a movie or a play. He would be at the Times at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning. He never published a book or had a show because it requires too much time and keeps him away from what he loves.'

The filmmaker recollects that getting the few personal photos of Bill from his past was 'like pulling teeth,' but when he wanted an image of Carmen [Dell'Orefice] jumping a puddle, Cunningham knew when he shot the photo, and what cabinet it was in.

'I gave him a list of the photos I wanted and he came through,' Press said, 'But going into his archive was frustrating for him, because he only wants to spend his time taking photos.'

The filmmaker described Cunningham as almost monastic in his dedication to his work. 'He's taken a vow of fashion,' he joked. This comes across beautifully in the film, which is why it's almost a shame when an off-camera Gefter asks Cunningham about sex and religion. The scene reveals the gentleman in Cunningham - he gets at the subtext, asking, 'You want to know if I'm Gay?!' - then shrewdly dodges the question. Cunningham, a regular churchgoer, takes an almost uncomfortably long time to respond to the query about religion. But this moment reveals his thoughtfulness.

Press defended this scene, that seems to pry where the rest of the film simply observed. He indicated, 'We asked him about relationships - it's what you would ask anybody. We wouldn't have been doing due diligence if we'd not.'

This exchange is a minor flaw in an otherwise wonderful, celebratory portrait of the photographer who, the filmmaker revealed, will never see the film. 'He has no intention of seeing it. He gave us his blessing. He knows what's in it, and he hopes we're successful with it.'

© 2011 Gary M. Kramer

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