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Movie review: 'Bill Cunningham New York' (3.5 stars)

Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham

Bill Cunningham New York
3.5 stars
Documentary by Richard Press

The life of legendary New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham, depicted in the terrific documentary “Bill Cunningham New York,” is rife with fascinating contradictions.

The 82-year-old has devoted more than 50 years to chronicling fashion trends in New York City, but he dresses simply in cheap blue workman’s jackets and plain khakis or jeans. He is an elite figure in his profession, but until recently, he lived a barebones existence in a tiny apartment at the old Carnegie Hall studios.

A ubiquitous presence at galas with an extraordinary network of acquaintances, Cunningham has nonetheless succeeded at keeping his personal life almost completely under wraps.

Put simply, there couldn’t have been a richer documentary subject for filmmaker Richard Press, who spent years following Cunningham while he frenetically snapped photos on the streets and at events and assembled his weekly work for the Times.

The film offers a portrait that’s revealing and mysterious, as the folksy subject achieves the tricky feat of welcoming Press’ camera into his routine while keeping a tight-lipped distance from it.

Talking heads as varied as Tom Wolfe and Anna Wintour offer perspective on Cunningham’s influence, and the film adeptly contextualizes him as the city’s premiere cultural anthropologist of the past half-century.

In the end, though, nothing resonates quite like the film’s portrait of a man who loves his job, a feeling embodied in the film’s defining visual motif — its subject on his Schwinn bike, camera in hand, cycling to the next event with a big, warm smile on his face.  

Playing at Film Forum

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