Movies can alter us. Okay, maybe it doesn’t happen often, and usually it’s only for a few hours, but that potential for mental transformation is one reason we enter theaters in the first place. Emerging into the light with eyes opened wider, readier to appreciate everyday vistas—these are the residual effects of being kicked awake by a film.
Perhaps it seems unlikely, but that’s precisely how the world feels after watching Richard Press’s thoroughly fascinating documentary Bill Cunningham New York. Best known as the roving New York Times fashion photographer responsible for the weekly “On the Street” photo column, Cunningham has been snapping stylish folk from the uptown lairs of the Astors to the downtown demimonde of transgender bohemian chic for four decades. Though the spirit of Warhol is frequently invoked, it was actually the hippie moment that gave this former milliner and Women’s Wear Daily correspondent his kick. Jammed into his studio and apartment inside Carnegie Hall (itself a topic of the film), Cunningham recalls the day his Times editor called him to cover a Central Park Be-In. Unsure what such an event even meant much less entailed, he arrived and instantly fell in love with the profusion of colorful costuming and free expression. Thenceforth, Cunningham stalked the whole island recording the kaleidoscopic world of couture as it jumped off the runway and into the streets he loves.
Other lovers of New York will find themselves cooing through the film, too. We visit Bill’s fans like Anna Wintour, Tom Wolfe, and Editta Sherman in their homes, but mostly we follow him on his three-speed bike (it’s his 29th—the rest were all stolen) heading toward the locations he still chronicles with the patience of a seasoned angler, almost more interested in the process of fishing than the catch.
Cunningham emerges as a true New York eccentric—if that’s not redundant. In the course of the film, we’re swept into his mad enthusiasms, listening, as he puts it, “to what the streets are telling me.” Walk down State Street afterward, and no doubt you’ll hear it talking, too.