Bill Cunningham New York

Photo: esquire.com

Starring: Bill Cunningham, Anna Wintour. Directed by Richard Press. 84 minutes.

There's a sweet, gentle man pushing 80, cruising around Manhattan on his bike and whom Anna Wintour gets dressed for in the morning. The Vogue EIC freely admits to this during an interview for Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary of the self-same fashion photographer who's sartorially savvy shots fill the NYT's "On the Street" page.

The original sartorialist--welcome to the 40s Scott Schuman!-- Bill Cunningham began photographing people during WWII and has flourished to the top of the fashion world, becoming the most influential street photographer of our century. Since publishing a collection of photos in the NYT in December 1978, Bill has amassed a cultural archive of New York that traces fashion trends worn by the original make-love-not-war hippies of the 60s to today's Williamsburg-inhabiting hipsters. Yeah, he's seen it all.

For his feature film debut, filmmaker Richard Press renders a poignant, whimsical portrait of the young-hearted man as artist, uninhibitedly drawn to capturing all things beautiful. He presents Bill, with his Jimmy Stewart New Yorker accent ("oh you kids!"), as a gentle trendspotter so acutely immersed in his craft that he happily lives alone in his shoebox loft above Carnegie Hall, among his life's work that's stowed away in filing cabinets with an orderly madness.

The camera follows Bill as he meanders along the city on his bicycle, snapping away at the downtown eccentrics and couture-sporting socialites that traverse the streets. With his Peter Pan-like innocence, he's beloved by celebrities and designers alike, on a first-name basis with regal New York families (Rockefellers, Astors) and various fashion editors, many of whom appear in the film gushing about ol' Bill.

Press and his producer, Philip Gefter, a former NYT staffer himself, capture the various, and fascinating, facets that form the life of the rare photographer by day, photographer by night kind of artist. They delicately mine the life story of a man who lives alone and who honestly yearns for no other life than a round-the-clock commitment to his work since he dropped out of Harvard in 1948 and forrayed into fashion as hat designer "William J" soon after.

Despite the heaps of love and admiration poured a top Bill--at times the film feels like a celebratory post-mortem curation of his life's work--there's an inherent, unspoken sadness looming behind his boyish smile. When Press attempts to unravel the mystery behind his childhood and Catholic upbringing, tears well up in Bill's tired eyes.

The documentary moves quickly and offers a chronological rendering of Bill's success, as well as the trials he faced during filming, including his impending eviction from his rent-controlled Carnegie Hall studio to allow for high-paying commercial tenants to move in.

In both the film and fashion world, Bill emerges as an innocent, Quixotic figure sallying-forth into SoHo with his manual SLR camera (yes, he still uses film!) and search to photograph beauty as interpreted by the key players, the trendsetters. Only the quest to learn about the man behind the lens can create an equally beautiful, fascinating picture. A-

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