The Velvet Café

A room for thoughts about movies

I watch the people I meet in the street differently thanks to this film

with 23 comments

I fell in love with Bill Cunningham at first sight.

Or wait, that might have come out badly. I don’t want to cause any family drama, so let’s just say that I’ve got a little crush on him.

Unless you live in New York or are very interested in fashion, chances are that you’ve never heard of the guy. But let me introduce you to him.

Bill spends his days taking pictures of fashion. He’s a columnist at New York Times and his photos have appeared in a number of glossy magazines. His eye for fashion is famous; the experts say about him that he doesn’t just identify and report the trends – he creates them. Two times a year he heads to Paris to attend the shows of the big fashion houses.

Can you see him in front of you? I bet you imagine a young, elegant man, dressed in a tuxedo, a glass of champagne in one hand and the other wrapped around the waist of a gorgeous model.

But you’re wrong. Completely wrong. And that’s what makes Bill Cunningham such an interesting person and a worthy topic of a full-length documentary, Bill Cunningham New York.

Defying laws of aging
Bill is 82 years old. Yes, 82. But his grasp about contemporary fashion seems to be just as good as the latest young fashion blogger on everyone’s lips and he connects as easily to teenage boys he meets in the street as with senior celebrities at charity events. And he makes me think about how arbitrary the number on our birth certificate is and how little it says about us as persons. Always smiling, never tiring, so passionate about his work, living the dream – probably not everyone’s dream, but his own dream – he’s defying the laws of aging we’ve put up to ourselves.

In some ways you could say that he’s a rebel. He doesn’t only ditch the tuxedo, sticking to a simple blue color jacket, with the argument that the cameras he’s always carrying around will wear it out anyway. He also eats in the cheapest cafés he can find, he refuses to get paid for his job since he think it could come in the way of his freedom, and he lives in what I’d call a storage room.

Like Thoreau in Walden, or a monk (which isn’t too farfetched, since he turns out to be a faithful catholic, attending church every week), he is utterly uninterested in the pursuit of social status and physical belongings. But yet I think he consider himself rich as he spots and devours the beauty of the streets of New York.

Would I want to live his life? Probably not. I prefer to have a traditional family to be married to my job, as he apparently has been. However it appears to me as if he is pretty happy with the life he lives and the choices that have led him there, even if there is a scene that hints that there is a dark stroke in his life too. I guess nobody goes completely free.

A changed view
As I left the theatre and looked at the people outside in the street, I knew something had happened with me. The film had changed me, as the best ones tend to do, and the world would never be the same again.

I’ve never been interested in fashion and rather than paying attention to people I meet, I walk on autopilot. I focus on how to get to my destination as quickly as possible, I listen to podcasts or I brood over stuff that’s on my mind. I don’t usually look at people, even less at what they wear.

And here I was, all of a sudden staring at shoes and bags and dresses, seeing those exotic birds that Bill had talked about. I knew exactly what he meant.

Finally, to my fellow blogger who insisted on that Bill Cunningham suffers from some kind of medical condition, such as Asberger’s syndrom: I still don’t agree with you.

It’s not your fault; Sweden nowadays is obsessed with sorting people into all those diagnose boxes. I understand that a diagnosis can be of great value to some people who have suffered from feeling “different”, but nevertheless I think it’s regrettable. The window for what is considered “normal” gets smaller and smaller and it gets harder to be accepted if you choose a different lifestyle than the majority.

There’s nothing wrong with Bill Cunningham. If anything he’s a genius. Though I suspect he’d object vehemently if he knew I had said it, because that’s the way he is.

Bill Cunningham New York (Richard Press, US, 2010) My rating: 4,5/5


My colleagues in the Swedish network Filmspanarna also watched Bill Cunningham New York.  Here’s what they made of it (in Swedish):

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Written by Jessica

September 12, 2012 at 8:00 am

23 Responses

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  1. It seems like our posts coincides in the same way our discussion did 😀 But is he really a rebel? I would say that that expression suggests something of a more concious decision than the way Bill lived his life.


    September 12, 2012 at 8:30 am

    • Hm. Maybe. But I like the idea of rebels coming in different shapes. Not all are loud and noisy!


      September 12, 2012 at 9:08 am

  2. I watched this a little while a go on netflix… brilliant film, especially for my wife as she is a fashion graduate (albeit a longtime ago)

    • Indeed it’s wonderful. And it works for someone like me, with no knowledge about fashion whatsoever. I’ll probably buy it for my 18 year old daughter, who is crazy about clothes, photography and New York. Should fit her well!


      September 12, 2012 at 11:24 am

  3. Great review. I feel the same about Bill and the film. Only difference is that it really didn’t change the way I look at people on the street. At least I didn’t think about it when we left the cinema. And as usual for me there is something with docus that always makes me like but not love them.


    September 12, 2012 at 12:27 pm

    • Thanks Jojjenito. Perhaps you didn’t change so much since you already notice people in the street. You like to take pictures, don’t you? So you already pay attention.
      Unlike you I tend to love documentaries a lot. Actually lately I seem to love them more than feature films. There’s something so refreshening about them. They don’t follow the usual formula I think.


      September 12, 2012 at 5:21 pm

  4. Loved your piece. I also fell in love with Bill Cunningham after seeing this movie. I have no interest in fashion, but that guy is so charming. I hope I’m that active when I’m his age.

    Dave Enkosky

    September 12, 2012 at 12:34 pm

    • Thanks Dave! Yes, that would be quite something! Hey, at age 44 I can’t claim that I’m anywhere near being as active as he is.


      September 12, 2012 at 5:23 pm

  5. There is a phrase I have read, and now sometimes use myself about my mental health, and one certainly used in relation to people with Asperger’s: a different kind of normal.

    That said I know what you mean about being placed in boxes: I have seen the bad side of that too since my diagnosis (when we told the health visitor of my diagnosis just before Melian’s birth, she immediately seem to think I was prone to violence solely because I have a mental health condition). Putting people into these boxes doesn’t actually increase tolerance. Nor does it increase understanding on the whole – it has a tendency to think to inhibit it since people falsely assume they know what is going on.

    He sounds a like a wonderful man.


    September 12, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    • Very wise words from someone who knows what he’s talking about. Thank you for sharing!
      And yes, he’s a wonderful, wonderful man, and if he’s a “different kind of normal”, it’s a part of the beauty of humanity (the same beauty that he captures): variety.


      September 12, 2012 at 8:47 pm

  6. I’ve been hearing about this documentary! Oh now I want to see it even more. I love fashion and sometimes I like people watching just to see what they’re wearing. Good thing I don’t like in NYC as I’d be doing that a lot, ahah.


    September 12, 2012 at 9:44 pm

    • Then you really HAVE to see it. I love NY, but I don’t care particularly for fashion and yet I was absolutely absorbed. I hope you can get access through some vod-service if it won’t come up at a cinema where you live. I had to go to the capitol to see it, so it’s not exactly the kind of film that gets a wide release.


      September 12, 2012 at 9:47 pm

      • I hope it’ll be available on iTunes as that’s where I get most of my movies from.


        September 12, 2012 at 9:49 pm

  7. Great post, Jessica. Bill is a very interesting character. Loved getting to know him throught the movie. A feel-good documentary.


    September 13, 2012 at 2:21 am

    • Thanks Fernando! Yes, it’s totally inspiring. Makes me want to free my mind and embrace the creativity I imagine is hidden somewhere inside me (one of those beautiful white lies we keep telling ourselves).


      September 13, 2012 at 7:31 am

  8. I also really liked this documentary. Bill is an interesting character which is fun to follow for an hour and a half. Still, I’m still not interested in fashion yet!


    September 13, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    • I don’t know how quickly my new interest for observing street fashion will fade away. But I loved to learn to see the world in a different way.


      September 14, 2012 at 11:33 pm

  9. I watched this like two times in a row.. I just loved it for so many reasons. It made me cry and smile and all that. With a man who has so much history, it’s definitely a great documentary that reflects it in a sophisticated and heartwarming way.


    September 14, 2012 at 7:10 pm

    • Two times in a row! That’s wonderful. I really can’t blame you. I plan to buy it to my daughter and I might very well end up joining her as she watches it so I can enjoy it once again.


      September 14, 2012 at 11:34 pm

      • Such things are just delightful to watch more than once, they have so much detail and.. yeah. I loved it!


        September 15, 2012 at 12:28 am

  10. I’m another person who has never cared about fashion (still don’t, actually). I loved this film, though. I had it as one of my Top 10 of 2011. My favorite description of Bill was when he was going to be given some prestigious award. The person giving it said that he knew Bill deeply felt that he didn’t deserve it…and that that was exactly why he did deserve it.


    September 26, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    • I also loved how he spent the night where he was supposed to be the one to be celebrated. He put up his camera and started to take pictures at the party! Such a passionate and yet completely humble man. I was really charmed.


      September 26, 2012 at 10:55 pm

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