“Bill Cunningham New York” has been advanced by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science as a possible candidate for the 84th Academy Awards in the Documentary Feature category. In advance of the voting, I offer my thoughts on this documentary.
Bill Cunningham, octogenarian, is the bicycle-riding columnist and photographer living in New York who writes for the New York Times covering the fashion and social scenes. An unusual topic for a documentary, Cunningham has solved none of life’s mysteries, has not stood against any social injustice, nor has he unbeaten sports records. So why make a documentary of him?
Cunningham has excelled as a photographer of fashion and life. Stalking the streets of New York, the unassuming, bike-riding, hobbit-like Cunningham stands on street corners photographing men and women who stand out in their fashion from the drab and ordinary we are forced to endure. Ever watchful for his “bird of paradise,” his term for men and women who stand out in their fashion sense, Cunningham chases his quarry like a big game hunter chases his.
Afforded the optimum hunting grounds in the Western world, Cunningham has the opportunity to attend the finest social gatherings and fashion events in New York. In an industry starved for attention, the fashion industry needs Cunningham far more than Cunningham needs them. Meeting with and rubbing shoulders with the fashion elite, Cunningham is considered by some “the most important person in the world.” And yet, he does not portray this or abuse this title of honor.
Cunningham is the quintessential paparazzo. Polite, non-threatening, people want Cunningham to photograph them. At least, those who know who Cunningham is and who he represents.
On the streets, Cunningham is simply an old man with a camera. To the people of the street, Cunningham could be a stalker, an old man with a camera fetish, or who knows what. Enduring foul weather, threats, and ever-vigilant for the notorious bicycle thieves of New York City, Cunningham has had 29 bicycles stolen while out on assignments all while in his pursuit of a photograph of someone who is a standout in fashion.
Will this movie be awarded the coveted Oscar? I do not think so. While an interesting documentary, the subject matter is not moving, it is not emotional, it will force no social change within our society. It is simply an enjoyable movie about an interesting subject.
Cunningham is 80 years young at the time of filming. At a time of life when many have settled into nursing homes, to be cared for by others, Cunningham has refused to surrender to the aging process. Working from early morning to late at night, he demonstrates that when you do something you love, you are not working your life away; you’re living your life to its fullest.
The true value of this documentary is that it can serve as an inspiration to living one’s life to the fullest. In these difficult days, it is advice well given.
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