The Velvet Café

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

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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