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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘Bill Cunningham’ doc is a love letter to NYC

Dan Webster

Movie fans seek out their passion wherever they find them. And, since the COVID-19 quarantine forced the closure of the nation's theaters, we've been seeking our movies in various places.

Some of us have tapped into our DVD libraries. Others of us have explored the range of streaming services. And a few of us have done both.

One movie that we watched at my house this past week was streamed courtesy of the Magic Lantern. It was titled "The Times of Bill Cunningham," and I reviewed it for Spokane Public Radio: 

People usually think about New York City in one of three different ways. They either love it, they hate it or they have no opinion at all.

Those of the latter-most group have likely never visited any of the city’s five boroughs, including the one portrayed most in movies and television – Manhattan. And they probably just don’t give it any thought beyond what they see on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

Speaking of “Law & Order,” those who hate New York likely have endured some sort of bad experience there, which – when you think about it – could occur in any city and which is bound to twist a person’s perception. I imagine you can find people who hate Paris if you look hard enough.

And then there are those of us who love the place, who were lucky enough to be introduced to New York as I was, by people who lived there and who were generous with their city-guide manners. I recall standing on the balcony of an 18th-floor corner apartment overlooking a fog-shrouded W. 57th Street, holding a glass of white wine in my hand, and thinking, “Now, this … this is New York City.”

I thought back to what I was feeling that evening as I watched the documentary film “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” a first feature directed by Mark Bozek that I saw courtesy of the Vimeo-powered streaming service associated with the Magic Lantern Theater. For a mere $9.99 I was able to watch the film in the comfort of my own home.

It was while watching Bozek’s film that my first visit to New York came back to me for a couple of reasons.

One, because the subject of the film – the noted fashion photographer, dead since 2016, whose work graced the pages of the New York Times for almost four decades – lived just around the corner from where I had been sipping that glass of sauvignon blanc.

And, two, as big a fan as I am of New York, Cunningham could have been elected president of the city’s most fervent fan club. That’s certainly how he came across in Richard Press’ 2011 documentary profile “Bill Cunningham: New York,” which is far more a comprehensive look at Cunningham’s life and career than what Bozek gives us.

Then again, Bozek has built his entire film around a single interview he did with Cunningham in 1994. What was supposed to have been a 10-minute chat ended up being a career retrospective that lasted until Bozek ran out of videotape.

And what a retrospective. Bozek, who worked as a QVC executive for 20-some years, is no journalist. Yet under his tentative, amateuristic questioning, Cunningham comes across as gracious, humble and totally guileless when recounting how at age 19 he came to New York from Boston, had a short career as a milliner, worked in and around the fashion industry, learned even more about the craft while serving in Paris with the U.S. Army and, eventually, was handed a camera.

Which began his real career, documenting the fashion of New York. Not just the shows, and only on occasion the stars of stage and screen, but mostly people on the street. As Cunningham proclaims, with Bozek’s camera capturing the excitement underscoring his every word, he was interested in authentic "style", which he saw on the New York streets every single day.

He also loved the freedom that his career provided him, allowing him to ride his bicycle, wearing his familiar blue jacket – the same jacket worn by Parisian street workers – and trying to be inconspicuous as he snapped his photos.

And that is the other great attraction of Bozek’s film: those very photos, which the filmmaker dispenses freely, sometimes using them to underscore the stories that Cunningham tells, sometimes – as in the film’s closing sequence – splashing them across the screen in machine-gun procession. Either way, they demonstrate Cunningham’s talent for seeing New York style as the floor show it often is.

A style that some of us love as much as we love the city itself.