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NYFF: Mark Bozek’s “The Times of Bill Cunningham”

Like a Japanese rock garden, Mark Bozak’s “The Times of Bill Cunningham” wisely and beautifully condenses itself to the bare essentials.
I was skeptical about another Bill Cunningham documentary. I mean, Richard Press’s Bill Cunningham: New York (2010) was so good, why would you even bother? Cunningham’s pretty charming, but he is, after all, a fairly insignificant figure—he was just a staff photographer for the Times, right? And indeed, the film does cover mostly the same ground as its predecessor. As an aesthetic object, admittedly, it’s not particularly imaginative. Director Mark Bozek presents us mostly with Cunningham’s voice and Cunningham’s images. And yet, surprisingly, I enjoyed and was moved by this movie more than by almost any of the other films I saw at the festival because it gave us the portrait of a vibrant human intelligence. And what should art be, other than that?
The movie’s structure is simple: Bozek had interviewed Cunningham on video once back in 1994. Originally planned as just a simple ten-minute talk, Cunningham began with some wisecracks about how even that was too much time to spend on someone as trivial as him, but then he started to talk. And talk. And talk. Bozek wisely chose to organize the project almost exclusively around Cunningham’s voice, with hundreds of accompanying images. But, while such a simple premise makes the film fairly uncinematic—as we’ve come to understand that term—it also condenses the movie to its bare essentials. Like a Japanese rock garden, it focuses our attention on the only thing that matters: Cunningham’s personality.
And as with Press’s film, Cunningham’s persona vibrates with an exuberant, magnetic energy. Bozek, as Press did, highlights Cunningham’s infamously austere life—how he was raised in a devoutly conservative, working-class Catholic family; how his intense fascination with women’s fashion from an early age strained his relationship with his parents; how he lived for fifty years in a small studio apartment, sleeping on a skinny mattress he laid out on top of a row of boxes, surrounded by towering filing cabinets; how he worked seven days a week; how he never fell in love. And yet at the same time, he comes across as one of the most joyous people you’ve ever met: he has an infectious, enthralling laugh. When he speaks, his eyes light up; in fact, they gleam. He has expressive eyebrows. His cheeks seem wrinkled from smiling too often and too broadly. He has great big teeth like a goofy chipmunk. But then, when Bozek poses a seemingly innocuous question, Cunningham has to bend over so that the camera won’t catch the tears that have gushed forward suddenly from some unseen depths. I was entranced by—and jealous of—Cunningham’s ability to live with emotion so brazenly on the surface.
But though fans of the earlier film talked a lot about Cunningham’s intensity, they haven’t talked enough, it seems to me, about his intelligence, about his stridency and conviction. Despite his avowed shyness, he speaks with clarity and absolute self-assurance. He refers to himself repeatedly not as a photographer, but as a fashion historian. He knows the work of important designers intimately, tosses off assessments of his favorite fashion shows, and speaks eloquently about the work of lesser-known figures like Stephen Burrows. And he has a clear vision—not just of fashion’s aesthetics but of its politics as well. He doesn’t care for the business side of the industry and he’s ultimately not that interested in the work of designers: no, he’s interested in women, how women use clothes to express themselves in the world, how they mix and match and reassemble the work of others, how they become the artists of their own identities, how they fashion themselves in the public sphere.
I say that he’s political because his is a democratic vision. On the one hand, he values artistry that bubbles up from vernacular culture rather than trickling down from the mind of an oracular aesthete, and on the other hand, he sees fashion as a force that, surprisingly, helps shape and define communities. In his own mind, this democratic vision is an essentially—and proudly—American stance. As he points out, movingly, about his experiences documenting decades of gay pride parades—where else on Earth could this phenomenon have emerged? Certainly not in Europe, the avowed Francophile says disdainfully, and accurately.
It’s entirely appropriate, then, that Cunningham did his best work as a street photographer, since the street is the most democratic staging ground for the public’s vision of itself. Dressing up, he maintains, is what you do to make yourself feel good before you go out—so fashion is a means of self-expression, but also a way of presenting yourself to a larger community, a way of legitimizing your membership in that community. It’s no coincidence, then, that Bill organized his famous photo spreads in the Sunday edition of the New York Times around themes—three dozen people wearing ice blue, two dozen women sporting poofy coats emblazoned with flowered prints—so that it was never just a collection of colorful eccentrics, but always the portrait of the city at large flaunting the same style, always arranged in symmetrical patterns, rhyming and echoing with each other, always emphasizing that ostentatious idiosyncrasy is, surprisingly, just a way of being a part of the crowd. Cunningham never sees just one image, but always a profusion of images, always a riot of similarity—a bevy of chrome-colored skirts; a gaggle of fluorescent-lime pocket squares;  a pattern of wispy, translucent, windblown skirts; an agglomeration of timpani-sized, seashell-shaped black leather handbags—as if the street was bursting with shared passion, as if the city itself—through some form of osmosis—had been secretly and continuously evolving a communal set of values, but that no one was aware of it until Cunningham himself made our collective passion for expressive daring and verve visible to us. His is a utopian, democratic creed.
As a talking-head, voice-over type documentary, I don’t think this movie is going to win any awards. But it resonated with me. So many of my other smart friends whose tastes I admire and respect were raving about Bi Gan’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, but I just couldn’t get into it. That film is this movie’s antithesis. Where this movie is small, discreet, and uncinematic, Bi Gan’s movie boldly manifests film’s specific aesthetic techniques: he quite obviously set himself the goal of creating the single most complicated tracking shot in the history of cinema, as if he envisioned himself battling Aleksandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark in some sort of mixed martial arts bout. To my mind, it was one of the single most calculated movies I’ve ever seen, as if he’d meticulously organized a formula to make a name for himself on the international film festival circuit. By doing so, he seems to have impressed a lot of people; but he’s also made a work of art devoid of human feeling, which is, as far as I’m concerned, not a work of art at all.
But The Times of Bill Cunningham—exactly like its predecessor Bill Cunningham: New York—reminded me of the values of being unoriginal, of being aesthetically self-effacing. Being unoriginal is a way of joining a larger community, of embracing the democratic spirit. Sometimes the most beautiful movies are those that forgo cinematic qualities all together. Sometimes the best films embrace the most minimalist vision of the cinema, that of transparency: they are merely windows through which we can witness a subject—in this case, an animated human being, an artist, a historian, a philosopher, a weathervane of our noblest aspirations.

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