Saturday, May 7, 2011

Bill Cunningham New York (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway

Bill Cunningham: New York

     Who is that rushing by the Flatiron Building in a single turn? Who is that  blazing by The Natural History Museum in royal blue? No, it's not The Blue Man Group, Spiderman or even Superman himself. It Is Bill Cunningham, fashion photographer and mastermind of The New York Times 
Style page. 
     We get a good look at him in the documentary "Bill Cunningham: New York".
     Like a superhero in Gotham City, Cunningham maintains his privacy. He lives in a small closet apartment in Carnegie Hall. At the time of the film, Cunningham  is one of the last remaining residents. He has no phone booth or Batcave. He works constantly  at his office and falls asleep surrounded by filing cabinets filled with his negatives. And he travels by night via  Schwinn bicycle, a cypher seldom seen.
     Instead of a snappy suit he wears the blue smock of a Paris street sweeper. The kind that can be purchased at any drugstore in the city.
Cunningham's power is his abillity to melt through society's high walls and melt onto any street corner, as deftly as an X-Man. Cunningham  is self deprecating and will do anything to get his photo--he shoots from the hip and "eats with his eyes", engaging his subject in a kind of affectionate combat. A single man with no past history of romantic attachment, Cunningham is by his own admission, in love with Fashion--he will never take an unkind shot.
     Throughout the film, on various days, we see him take his bike and go snapping. He races in between cars with the fluidity of Plasticman. Even under the cloak of night, during rain and hail, Cunningham or simply "Bill" as he is called by friends, races by undaunted. There is a party to go to, there are exciting people to get. 
     But it's all about the clothes. The more striking, the more out of place amongst the current urban sea of khaki and beige, the better.
     When Cunningham  returns to his Carnegie Lair, he invariably checks in with his one remaining neighbor, photographer Editta Sherman, an eccentric known as "The Duchess of Carnegie Hall". Editta was also a muse of Warhol's  in the 70s. Editta in her heavy makeup and topsy turvy black wig is a sight. She is more Minnie Castevet than Roman Polanski could ever dream. She remains a living history book to the triumph of 1960s Pop Art. 
     A sideline to the the film is the location, the legend of Carnegie Hall and the important home it has been to many artists and writers.
During the film, Cunningham and Editta are under immense pressure to move out. The Carnegie studio apartments are about to be turned into offices. Editta for her part,  remains as fixed as plaster, singing in a La-Z-Boy chair.   Cunningham to his credit, nonchalantly accepts the change of the times and prefers not to dwell on it. 
     But indeed, when he is taken to a stark white studio apartment that overlooks Central Park, he blanches and frowns like a blue fish out of water. The new place has no character. Then in a spontaneous wiggle, he unlocks the window to snap a photo.
     Everyone from the Wilde Liza-esque android with the debonair coat and tails, Patrick McDonald, to the sleepy specter of Tom Wolfe, all speculate on the enigma of this man, his avoidance of fame and notoriety and the mystery of his relationships. They all shake their heads. No one, it seems, knows him intimately. It is a touching shock to see this monk-hero of a genius walk away during a high profile party refusing food and  drink, only to be venerated in the next scene as the whole staff dresses like him and wears cardboard cutouts of his impish face during  his birthday party. No one seems to know    Cunningham all that well. But the camera does. As he pedals along the New York streets on his way to a function, you might try to hire him, but he won't accept pay. He is Bill Cunningham, the one and only, as rare to the city as his own smock of  blue.

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