The extraordinary devotion Bill Cunningham has for his work means that any film about him is worth a look, but it’s a shame this one is not a more illuminating portrait. Amiable though he may be, Cunningham has made a career out of being an observer rather than a participant, and his years behind the lens have trained him well in the art of evasion. No one interviewed in this documentary seems to know anything about him beyond his boundless enthusiasm for his unique brand of fashion photography, and Cunningham himself doesn’t do much to fill in the gaps. We learn about the various career experiences in fashion and journalism that led him to the niche he now occupies, but director Richard Press is remarkably timid about getting to the heart of what really makes Cunningham an interesting character: not so much his impressive body of work, but his singular, obsessive focus. Bill Cunningham is ostensibly interested in only one thing in the entire world: clothes. This film insists that there is nobility in his focus, and it’s hard to argue with Cunningham’s results, but it offers no real indication of how he got there. Here is a guy whose achievement has for a lifetime completely forsaken romance, friendship, and pretty much all aspects of culture apart from fashion, but the film barely scratches the surface of any of that, which seems like a real missed opportunity.
Disappointments notwithstanding, seeing Cunningham at work is a real treat, and the integrity of his approach to it is admirable to say the least, which makes Bill Cunningham New York a worthwhile experience.