Early on in the film, there is a dawning that Bill Cunningham is the perfect documentary subject. He’s an old man in a cramped apartment in Carnegie Hall. He rides his bike to work, which is essentially the streets of New York. Armed with a camera he searches for people walking by he finds visually interesting. It isn’t the attractiveness of their body, but how they choose to display it with the clothes they wear.
They don’t pose for photos and they often aren’t fashion celebrities. Cunningham finds the trends and styles by seeing the creative way ordinary people display themselves. Then he goes to The New York Times and battles technology as he tries to get his page together. He’s a man who has done this for many years which has made him very insightful about the world.
Yet he doesn’t partake in it. He wears a silly blue jacket most of the time. He mends his clothes with duct tape and doesn’t seem to have a good time at the fashion galas and runways. He’s not interested in money. He believes that once you start accepting the money, then you’ll lose control over your vision. Then you have to abide by what they want.
He’s a man who’s adored by the fashion community because of his real love of clothes. It’s not about the overly expensive dress that is only seen in Paris. It’s about what people are wearing to convey whom they are when they think nobody is watching.
The film shows Cunningham’s methods, his evolving living situation, and an exploration of who he is. He speaks with fascinating articulation about trends and people. He’s the observer who is so sweet and kind. He keeps to himself and never causes trouble except when he tests the patience with those helping him design his page. He never speaks his mind unless asked. He’s comfortable.
Near the end of the film, personal questions are finally asked and he is at a loss for the first time. It’s heartbreaking but it reveals how much the movie has worked. Bill Cunningham is a fascinating specimen even to someone who isn’t interested in fashion. The best characters are the ones when the audience is rooting for them to be happy, not groaning that their happiness was predictable.
Bill Cunningham is making fashion a more accessible form of art. He knows the history of the subject so well that he can call out the designers who are mimicking something from months or decades ago. So he returns it to the masses by praising the people of New York. He is not a glorified paparazzi; he’s a loving critic.