Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Sydney Film Festival 2010: Bill Cunningham New York

Clothes are like people’s armour to the reality of the world”

Bill Cunningham captures fashion photographs for the New York Times and is well-known for his street and social pictures. “We all get dressed for Bill” Anna Wintour says. We see her briefly stop for Bill while ignoring the other photographers. “When he puts his camera down, it’s death”.

Bill is a man of contradictions. Even though he adores people who wear the most fabulous clothes and those who have the most eccentric personal styles, he himself is the antithesis of his photographic subjects. He wears a blue worker’s coat on a daily basis. Practical? Yes. Fashionable? Not really. He also uses tape to patch up a raincoat because “they’re going to be ruined anyway”. There is a refreshing nature in his character, he’s not the kind of person one would expect to be successful in an industry that functions by portraying a certain, and an idealised image.

Halfway through the film I was struck with a question. Why on earth did Bill pursue a lifelong career in fashion photography? I mean, why fashion? Why not architectural, commercial or maybe even travel photography? Why not portraits?
Then I hear him talk about his photographs. He literally loses his breath from excitement when he talks about the tiniest of details. Tiny fragments of beauty that many miss and only few can notice. He photographs fashion because it’s what makes him get out of bed in the morning. It’s pure passion.

Bill doesn’t just capture pictures of clothes but the mentality, the mood, the personality of the people he photographs. Isn’t fashion just an extension of our inner self? A visual representation of who we are or, in most cases, who we want to be. He doesn’t just capture the trends he, as one person in the film puts is: “captures life”.

There was a particular scene that made me cry, the interview when he was asked why he goes to church. There’s a moment of silence then he puts his head down and weeps.
Although it was highly emotional and allowed us to see another side of Bill, I felt that the interviewer was being too pushy. Instead of letting us see it come out naturally in a less impetuous setting, we see the reaction forced out of Bill. Yes, he did warn him first that they were going to be very personal questions. But something about that scene made me very uneasy.

Maybe this is just me becoming protective over Bill. In less than an hour, I fell immediately in love with him. Bill to me became like the role model grandfather. The one that always gave you the most insightful advice about life and how to live it, the one whose random thoughts said out loud can easily become a life motto, or a quote to live by for the younger generation.

This may sound very cliché but this film was truly inspirational and, well, changed my perception of the world.

I’ve always wanted to move to New York and I’ve always thought that to survive in such a harsh city brimming with the most competitive people in the world, one needs a heavy dose of narcissism, superficiality and vanity. This film made me re-think that attitude.
It’s very easy to dismiss the fashion world as being materialistic, superficial and shallow. But people like Bill show us that even in an industry where appearances and images are paramount, scratch the surface and you’ll always find a deeper purpose.

Next Sydney Film Festival review: Last Train Home. Sorry for taking so long with these.

Photo Credits: 1, 2,3,4

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