This is on my list of all-time favorite films. The trailer captures the naive giddiness and passion that are Cunningham's noticeable traits. But it's the quietly revealed melancholy that makes the work beautiful. It is Bill who drives the story, even when he's invisible. He doesn't have a larger-than-life personality or an immediately recognizable aesthetic. In fact, had I never seen this documentary, I would have remembered Bill Cunningham as the man who shot street fashion for the New York Times. But through restraint, patience and careful observation, the filmmakers bring Bill into sharp relief, and the fashion frippery fades into the background.
Maybe Bill is nothing like his on-screen character. But if that's the case, then I like the film that much more for convincing me otherwise. There are no gratuitous shots or exaggerated contrasts (frugal Bill! lavish fashion!), no distracting technical embellishments or shallow narrative. Though Bill seems the expert at sublimation, even he can't avoid the deep pathos imparted to him by this film. And while the line between compassion and pity can be thin, I think this film falls on the right side of the line. Never once did I sense that it exploited Bill for his romantic, ascetic qualities. He comes across much less as an eccentric than as a human being, simply put. I am thankful for the moment when the filmmakers decided to elevate this over his obvious knowledge of fashion and prolific career.
The slow unfolding of this documentary is pleasurable, and it ends with a quiet bang. I left feeling changed, a rare sign of something good.
Here's a parting thought:
"For a civilian . . . , opening the Sunday paper and finding that the way she looked, on the way to a dental appointment, or to the grocery store, was pleasing to Cunningham can be a thrilling experience, like opening the mailbox to find a love letter from a suitor she didn’t know existed."
[Man on the Street, Lauren Collins for The New Yorker]