I’ll confess it: I love Bill Cunningham, long-time fashion chronicler for the New York Times. I’m quite late as a devotee, having only recently discovered “On the Street”, Cunningham’s weekly Times column, while the odd octogenarian with the yellow teeth, disarming laugh, and heavy New England accent has been riding his Schwinn around New York with his Nikon 35 mm for about 60 years — enough time to have 28 bikes stolen, Cunningham says with a hearty chuckle in Bill Cunningham New York, a Zeitgeist Films biopic screening at several Miami theaters in April.
As the title suggests, the 84-minute film is as much about New York as it is about Bill Cunningham, and how the one has influenced the other through the decades. The city’s role in Cunningham’s life is that of a fecund urban forest where he, like an obsessive lepidopterist, can seek out, study, and in perfect moments capture (with a camera for a net) the rarest of species. These include anyone from Shail Upadhya, a Nepalese former U.N. diplomat who turned his sofa into a suit, to some nameless no one with the cojones to get on the subway draped in flamingo feathers.
Conversely, Cunningham’s impact on New York — at least its fashion — has been immense. Indeed, the film makes a strong case that the city’s bon vivants see Bill Cunningham in the mirror when they get dressed every morning. For his part, Cunningham doesn’t seem to care who you are (even if you’re Marilyn Monroe) if you’re not wearing something “mahvelous”. What he cares about, perhaps more than anyone alive, is clothes — or as he calls them, “armor”.
Now, I wouldn’t typically waste words on a man who has spent his life photographing fabric, but Cunningham is not a mere fashion photographer (as the film makes crystal clear when it cuts from a swarm of paparazzi armed with telescopic lenses at a Paris fashion show to the wizened eccentric sitting alongside the runway in a blue, street sweeper’s coat, outdated Nikon clicking away). No, he is a historian, someone who has documented the American story through the revealing prism of what Americans wear since before James Dean popped his collar.
He is also quite weird, and therefore quite interesting as the subject of a documentary. Whether it’s the fact that his rent-control studio apartment in Carnegie Hall is a labyrinth of precarious file cabinets stuffed with 60 years’ worth of photo negatives, or that he won’t accept even a glass of water at an event he is photographing, or that he has never had a romantic relationship in his 80-plus years on Earth, Cunningham isn’t your average Bill. Like the people who make their way into his column, he is a rare bird. It doesn’t necessarily show in his outfit — “I don’t like anything fancy,” he says without a hint of irony at one point — but the makers of BCNY nonetheless manage to capture him in all his wonderful idiosyncrasy.
Fun, funny, and at times uncomfortably poignant, this is a film for anyone who ever wondered how far you could go with just a camera and a bicycle. Spoiler alert: Far.