Bill Cunningham New York in New Orleans: A movie review

I’m not a movie critic but I want to tell you about a beautiful film. If you didn’t get a chance to see Bill Cunningham New York in New Orleans on Saturday you still have time to catch it today at the Prytania Theater at 5:30pm as part of the Film-o-rama Festival.

When you think of famous fashion street style photographers the names Scott Schumann of The Sartorialist, Tommy Ton of Jak and Jill, Yvan Rodic of Face Hunter, and Liisa Jokinen of Hel-Looks might come to mind. However before most of these people were even born there was Bill Cunningham.

Mr. Cunningham,  now in his 80s,  got his start by photographing New Yorkers where the real fashion shows take place, the streets of New York. He worked at a handful of publications before landing at the New York Times. He has certainly led an interesting life, having worked as a milliner in the 1950s and leading a humble and elusive existence as one of the last artist residents of Carnegie Hall.

This poignant tale makes the fashion almost a backdrop to Bill Cunningham’s rather reclusive personal life and the secondary cast of characters in the film. The film has a sense of joy but at times feels melancholic as well. While Bill attends high profile society events and photographs runway shows he never allows himself to become completely submerged in the jet set lifestyle. Instead he silently snaps away as a spectator, often patiently waiting in line to get into a fashion show with everyone else. It is amazing how level headed he remains as he gets up close and personal with venerable fashion icons and socialites such as Anna Wintour, Iris Apfel, Brooke Astor, and Anna Piaggi among others.

 One of my favorite parts of the film is Bill getting turned down at Paris Fashion Week by a doorman that doesn’t recognize the plainly dressed older gentleman as a well known photographer. “He is the most important person in the world” corrects an in the know Parisian, which literally brought a tear to my eye. Here is a man who simply wants to take pictures of clothes and is so dedicated to his work that he has eschewed romantic relationships and even modern conveniences such as a kitchen in his apartment in order to perfect his craft. His penchant for photos of the dramatically dressed is a startling contrast to his drab dress and modest means.

My friend Zachary Wilson, who I watched the film with me, said it best:

“Today, our generation worries so much about status, living a “good” life, making money, what we’re worth, but back then it was all about the work. Sometimes I wish we could get back to that basic level, but at the same time, I don’t want to be 88 and living alone in a closet with no bathroom, no family, no “life,” just work. Maybe we’ll be able to find the balance between living life and living our work.”

The biggest thing I took away from this film is just do what you love. Don’t worry about the recognition, chasing the almighty dollar, or rubbing shoulders with the right people. At the end of the day all you have is your integrity to push you through this life and Bill Cunningham is a true testament to that.

Not in the New Orleans area? If you would like to see if the film is coming to your area visit Zeitgeist Films for a complete list of showings around the country. Now get out there and put your best peacock foot forward!

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