Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reverend's Reviews: Picture Perfect

Every now and then, a documentary comes along that -- to its credit -- raises as many questions as it answers about the subject. While this may be frustrating for those viewers weaned on reality shows and tabloid exposes that leave nothing to the imagination, it can also make for intellectually satisfying filmmaking.

So it is with Bill Cunningham New York, being released today on DVD and digital download by Zeitgeist Films following a successful theatrical release (and, it should be said, coinciding with New York Fashion Week). The 82-year-old Cunningham is a famed street photographer for the New York Times and other publications. For over 50 years, he has obsessively catalogued fashion and high society, and in the process has often been the first to identify trends and future celebrities. Cunningham's regular photo collages in the Times and habit of riding his bicycle all over NYC have made him a beloved if undeniably eccentric figure.

As Cunningham says in the documentary while giving an award acceptance speech in Paris, "He who seeks beauty finds it." He has persistently found beauty through the decades -- although some will no doubt question his taste -- in women's shoes, hats, handbags, dandified menswear, excessive jewelry, miniskirts, silk screened art on T-shirts, young adult males exposing their underwear waistbands (Cunningham cheekily titles his resultant montage, "How low will they go?") and the occasional dog wearing a raincoat. Cunningham is consistently cheerful, whether he is hanging out on street corners waiting for something to catch his ever-vigilant eye, waiting to be granted access to an invitation-only fashion show, or fighting eviction from the Carnegie Hall studio he has lived in since the 1960's. The powerful likes of Anna Wintour, Annette de la Renta and Brooke Astor all sing Cunningham's praises in the film. Wintour matter-of-factly states, "We all get dressed for Bill."


Director Richard Press, making an impressive debut, is naturally concerned about what makes his subject tick but is respectful and ethical (not unlike Cunningham himself) when it comes to digging into Cunningham's personal life. Cunningham only reveals himself in bits and pieces, and he becomes disarmingly emotional when questioned directly about his relationship history and habit of regular Mass attendance. Based on this response, one could read a potential history of tension or outright denial between Cunningham's sexuality and lifelong Catholic faith. If this is the case, at least the sublimation of his desires has been to the benefit and not the detriment of our culture. And while some may prefer Press "go for the kill" and be more aggressive in his tactics, I deeply appreciate the fact that he leaves Cunningham his dignity.

As the film's title -- lacking a comma or colon -- fittingly reflects, Cunningham and the city that has long served as his home and primary source of inspiration are inseparable. Out of a year full of great documentaries, Bill Cunningham New York is one of the very best both for what it reveals and, ironically but admiringly, what it doesn't.

Reverend's Rating: A

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and the Blade California.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This is really a lovely and skillfully written review. Thank you. Yes there was a respectfully treated tension between his sexuality and faith. That I found very sad I must say.
A beautiful impressive film.
Jules

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