Bill Cunningham New York (2011)

Why the hell didn’t I watch this before Senior Prom?!?!?

Bill Cunningham is a guy that most of you probably don’t know, but should. The reason being: he has single-handedly, taken the fashion world by storm and made it his own play land of pleasures and desires. The guy’s been taking pictures of New York life from fashion, celebrities, parties, and social-happenings for over 5 decades now, and shows no signs of slowing down. Once again, you don’t know him, but you should and if you want to know him more, then here is his story.

I think I speak for most of the majority of young, adult males out there that don’t really care for fashion, and have never really bothered even glancing at the Fashion section of The New York Times. It’s not that I don’t have an open-mind to the world of fashion, because if my look of pajama bottoms and a alternative rock band T-shirt is any indication of my view, then you would most likely think that I have no sense of style at all. However, even though I may not give a single lick about whether or not I look desirable when I go out, cruising for some poontang at the clubs; I still care about what movies I watch and having an open-mind to whatever the hell comes my way. Being that this is a documentary about a guy that takes pictures for a living, and mostly all of them revolve around fashion, then you can automatically assume that I was not really caring whatsoever. Much like the clothes I actually present myself in.

However, about 10-minutes in, something weird started happening to me and my mood. I started getting happier, started finding myself more interest in this man’s life, and even weirder: I found myself caring about how these people looked in each and every single one of their get-ups. Mind you, I don’t care about fashion, but somehow, some way, this movie made me and also made me care for it’s subject like crazy. In fact, if there is a smart move that these filmmakers decided to make, it was very early on when they found out the subject for this documentary, and decided to hang-out with him for over 10 years. It may sound like one hell of a misery trip, especially if you’ve hung-out with your grand-mom and grand-pop for way too long, but that’s what makes this subject so damn compelling to watch. Here’s the thing about Bill Cunningham, he may take pictures, he may work for the Times, he may care too much about fashion, and he may surround himself around a bunch of artsy-fartsy people that bore me to death with their pretentiousness, but he isn’t what you’d expect.

Quentin Tarantino would be proud.
Quentin Tarantino would be proud.

The guy loves to take pictures because it’s his pleasure, and is more about quenching his thirst for photography, than taking any money he receives for doing them. The guy works for the Times, but like I said before, only works for them to have his fun, each and every single day just running-around town, taking pictures, fueling his desires, and just having a ball while doing so, without ever really collecting any sort of paycheck or rewards-balance. The guy does care about fashion, a little too much in some eyes, but he cares so much because he knows what looks good to him, may not always look good in other’s peoples minds and never, ever critiques people on what they look like, how they look it, and whether or not it is “in” or “out” (something I should probably take notice to). And lastly, the people that he surrounds himself with, may be the people he takes pictures of and occasionally hangs-out with, but to be honest: he doesn’t really have a close and meaningful relationship with them and always stays true to himself.

What separates Bill Cunningham from every other public-eye of the fashion world is that the guy knows what he likes, what he doesn’t like, and knows whats cool, but he keeps it to himself and never pushes his beliefs onto other people that don’t see it his way. He goes about his life just by himself, doing his own thing, and doing it all with a smile and nary an idea of ever slowing down. He’s the exact epitome of everything I would love to be in life, but the difference between me and him is that he was born right when the Great Depression started, and I was born roughly around the same time that grunge was really kicking-off (see the difference?). The guy is roughly around 83 by now, whereas I’m 19 and just sucking up life. The fact that I’m a movie critic and he’s a photographer that excels in fashion, and his story found a way to inspire me to go about life with more of a clearer and happier-view of life and work, is what makes this movie so damn marvelous.

You’re automatically in a good-mood when you’re around Bill, but he never ever seems to be faking all of the sunshine and rainbow-like days. He’s actually a very happy person and never seems to make an apology for the life that he’s lived. Yeah, so what if he doesn’t have any real close friends and yeah, so what if he doesn’t have his own bathroom and is surrounded by a bunch of files from every picture he’s ever taken? At least the guy is happy, satisfied with life, and ready for more that’s to come to him. Bill Cunningham was, and is probably one of the best subjects you could have for a documentary and if anything, that’s what makes this movie work like gangbusters. You love him and his never-changing view on life, and it automatically is thrown right onto you, the viewer. That’s what makes or breaks a documentary: whether or not the person watching can actually care about the subject by the time the movie is over. That aspect of a documentary is what makes this movie so special and definitely makes it the piece of work that’s meant to be seen, regardless of whether or not you care much about the fashion-world, or the fancy-schmanzty people that inhabit it.

Who's filming who?
Who’s filming who?

I know I’ve been going on a constant-rant about the subject, more than the movie but that’s all there really is to praise when it comes to this movie. The filmmakers aren’t really doing anything flashy, new, or original with their subject of it’s presentation, they’re just letting the story tell itself out. Some aspects of the movie like where Bill Cunningham came from, what his personal life is like, and how he fell in love with the world of fashion are touched, but never attacked fully to have an effect on you, but that didn’t bother me as much because Bill is such a lovable guy to watch. If anything, Bill Cunningham is what makes this movie, and without him, there probably wouldn’t have been a movie. That may seem like a pretty obvious, if dumb statement, but it’s the truth and it’s what makes me want to pay more attention to what people wear, how they look, and if they’re hot or not, when I’m walking down the street. Just makes me smile thinking about it now.

Consensus: Bill Cunningham New York is not all that much about fashion as you may suspect. Yeah, they do talk a lot about what people wear, how it presents them as human-beings, and why we should give a fuck at all, but it’s more about the man, Bill Cunningham, and that’s what makes this movie work. We see him for everything that he is and forever will be, and that’s just a happy, and pleased man that never seems to get bored of his job or life for that matter.

9 / 10 = Full Price!!



  1. I saw this back in early 2011 and I still remember how much it touched my heart. What a wonderful film. Not sure why it didn’t get nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Documentary, but it should have been.

  2. You hit the nail on the head when you said it’s all about the man. I can’t imagine how someone could watch this and not care about him. There was a line that I felt summed up Bill quite well. He was going to be receiving an award. The man giving it to him said, “I know Bill very deeply believes that he does not deserve this award…and that’s exactly why he does deserve it.”

    Like other commenters this was one of my Top 10 films of 2011.

  3. Good commentary. I felt happy after watching it as well. I loved that he removed the Kitchen in his new apartment to make room for his files when he finally moved out of Carnegie Hall.

    Based on your essay you probably won’t like it as much, but “Lost Bohemia” goes into the lives of the other residence of the Hall.

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