I’ve been reading quite a lot of non-fiction at the moment – I’m in one of those moods where fiction isn’t working as well as it should be – and I decided to extend that to films too.
I haven’t watched a lot of documentaries, but one of my all-time favourite films is a documentary (Life in a Day, which I wrote about here), and I’ve really enjoyed others like Stories We Tell and The September Issue. So I looked through an article on the best documentaries available on Netflix in the UK (this article, since you ask) and settled on a couple: Catfish and Bill Cunningham New York. Both were well-worth watching, but I’m not sure I have all that much to say about Catfish. All of my thoughts about it would hinge on whether or not it’s fake, and the internet jury seems to have remained out on that one. If any of y’all know the answer, lemme know.
But I did want to bring Bill Cunningham New York to your attention, if you don’t know about it, because it turned out to be rather lovely. It came out in 2010, when Bill Cunningham was 81 and still working full-time as the photographer for two pages in the New York Times – ‘On the Street’ (street fashion) and ‘Evening Hours’ (charity social events). With admirable restraint on the part of the director, Richard Press, the film largely skews towards looking at the former – which gives rather less opportunity for gratuitous shots of socialites, but is clearly where Cunningham’s passion lies.
I hadn’t heard of Cunningham before seeing his name in this list, but he is so extraordinary that a novelist would have to event him if he didn’t exist. For decades he has cycled the streets of New York, taking photos of everyday women, men, and dogs, and bringing together pictorial features on a certain trend that he sees a lot of – whether that be a colour, a style, or even people walking gingerly through piles of snow. He doesn’t use a digital camera, and still takes his films into a shop to be developed. His old-fashioned nature extends to manners: he believes all the people he photographs to be beautiful, and is horrified at the idea of using street photography to criticise others – indeed, he has resigned from magazines when they re-wrote his copy to mock.
You might expect Cunningham to be an aesthete himself. No such thing. He wears the same style of blue smock everyday – a cheap workman’s outfit. His apartment, in Carnegie Hall at the time of filming, is filled with ugly filing cabinets, with a bed lying alongside them. Cunningham’s one joy is other people and the clothes they wear.
Press’ documentary is not quite a hagiography, but it is refreshingly willing to allows its subject to be good. Only one prurient moment, asking about Cunningham’s relationships (he has had none) feels out of kilter with the tone of the piece; most of the time, the film looks at Cunningham’s unique work and place in the fashion industry. Interviewees include Anna Wintour (fun fact for fact fans: I lived next door to her son at Magdalen), Iris Apfel (soon to get her own documentary), and lots of people I hadn’t heard of from the fashion industry. Oh, and his neighbour – Editta Sherman, then a 96 year old photographer (who has since died, at the age of 101), who spent most of her time of film putting on hats and pouting at the camera or complaining that the documentary wasn’t about her instead. And she definitely warranted one.
The film is certainly celebratory, and it is rare to see somebody so completely nice and contented on film. At the same time, he remains rather distant from most people, and his past is still something of a mystery that the film didn’t exert much energy into uncovering. We see one or two snapshots of his youth, but hear very little about father or mother, or even how he sustains himself considering he refuses to accept money for jobs: he has a horror of being ‘owned’. A sub-plot (as it were) about Carnegie Hall residents being evicted is intriguing, but not particularly concluded – and certainly isn’t exploited in the sensationalist way it might have been in some hands.
Yet, somehow, a documentary that isn’t invasively curious about its subject works unexpectedly well. Bill Cunningham New York is interested in the man’s legacy and contribution to fashion and photography, and in one moment in time. It is rather joyful to watch, with enough poignancy to avoid being mawkish. I’d heartily recommend it.
And, now I’m on a documentary spree, I’d love some more recommendations. I’m intending to watch Actress, Finding Vivian Maier, Dear Mr Watterson, and Life Itself at some point…