Director Richard Press gets amazing access to New York Times legend Bill Cunningham, whose on-the-street fashion photography captures style as it’s actually worn, yet Press’ documentary is too tentative to make that access pay off. Cunningham’s work is illuminated, but the man – 80 at the time of filming – remains a bit of a cipher.
The movie positions Cunningham as an anthropologist of sorts, excitedly documenting the fashions that people are embracing and revealing what they might say about us. When he sees something that excites him, he nearly squeals in delight. “A lot of people have taste, but they don’t have the daring to be creative,” he says.
Cunningham himself falls in that category. Sleeping on a mattress in a cramped apartment, eating only out of necessity and barely changing out of a blue work jacket, Cunningham is a curious creature of extreme self-denial. Bill Cunningham New York captures this, but never really explores it or considers why he lives in a manner that is directly opposed to what he otherwise appreciates about others.
Near the end, two major questions are left dangling. Press directly asks Cunningham about his sexuality, then about his Catholic faith (previously he’s mentioned that he attends church once a week). Cunningham evades the first question and has a brief, whimpering breakdown after being asked the second one. Silent seconds pass until he finally offers, “I think it’s a good guidance in your life. …It’s something I need.”
Press backs off, understandably so. The relationship between a documentary filmmaker and their subject is a delicate thing. You can admire Press for putting Cunningham before his film. The irony, though, is that means admiring the film itself a bit less.