MOVIECUBE — SEPTEMBER 2013 — DOCUMENTARY
Bill Cunningham exits his crammed apartment, located on the upper floors of Carnegie Hall, locks the door, and retrieves his beloved bicycle—his 28th, with the previous 27 having been stolen—from a small store room just beside the elevators. He then goes out to the streets of Manhattan and does what he does best—photographing people. If their outfits interest him, that is. But don’t get him wrong, he’s no paparazzi. On one occasion, Catherine Denueve is walking to her car after some event and the reporters all flash their cameras on her, yet Bill doesn’t lift a finger. “Well, she wasn’t wearing anything interesting,” he says matter-of-factly. He’s out there every day, spotting trends before they become trends—he was even the first journalist in the US to write about Jean Paul Gaultier. He doesn’t think he decides anything, but rather let the street speak to him.
What you probably first notice is what a contradiction this man is. He laments about how some people are not daring to be creative, to stand out, and when he’s out on the street, he is always looking for “some marvelous, exotic bird of paradise, someone wearing something terrific.” Yet this lively octogenarian dresses himself in the same uniform every day—a $20 blue smock the street sweepers in Paris wear. Its many pockets make it perfect for Bill to shove enough rolls of film in, and when it gets torn up, he just plasters patches of black tape over the tears, until he decides to retire it and replace it with a brand new, identical jacket.
Being in the fashion scene for decades, Bill has reached a certain status that only a few people have. Everyone who’s anyone in the industry knows and respects him, and doesn’t hesitate to sing praises about him. Well, what’s not to like? Bill seems to be constantly in a cheery mood, smiling from ear to ear so earnestly, calling everybody ‘kid’ so affectionately. Anna Wintour mentions in the film that “we all get dressed for Bill.” Yet with all the shower of accolades, nobody seems to really know the man.
Well, it’s not like he curls up into a ball every time someone asks about his personal life. He casually tells the filmmakers that his parents are normal, working-class people. He tells them how his personality resembles both his father’s and mother’s, and how they are not exactly thrilled by Bill’s work in fashion. The conversation then somehow leads to religion, with Bill saying earlier about how he attends masses every Sunday. When the filmmakers begin to ask about it more, he turns his head sideways, his shoulders shaking, holding a tear in. He looks down and stays silent for a few seconds, before eventually saying, “Yeah, I think it’s a good guidance in your life.”
There might be a lot of things Bill doesn’t want to talk about, and there are certainly many things the audience wonder about him. What we can see is a man a hundred percent in love with his work, a hundred percent devoted to his job. What we can see is a man with an ideal, mostly forgotten, almost non-existent dignity about his work. When he was working in the original Details magazine back in 1982, he never cashed his checks. “You see, if you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid. Don’t touch money. It’s the worst thing you can do.” He says. The magazine was later bought by Condé Nast and then Newhouse, and still, he never touched the money. When he is assigned to photograph the celebrities and socialites at some events for the Times’ regular Evening Hours column, never mind the food, he doesn’t even drink a glass of water. He eats beforehand, and when he’s at the event, he does his work—report for the Times. “That’s the important thing—never to be owned. Money’s the cheapest thing. Liberty and freedom is the most expensive.”
Even with all his eccentricities that can feel foreign to you, it’s hard not to fall in love with him and personally for me, incredibly hard not to admire him. How many of us can say that we have found our vocation and are living every moment of our lives dedicated to it? How many of us can say that we have found something we are utterly passionate about, something to pour our undivided attention in? Except for monks, there must be very few of us who can, and Bill is among that very few.