I don't know, I just thought it would be another one of these slight, straining-at-feature-length documentaries, with some chuckles and a late attempt at profundity. An easy movie about Bill Cunningham, the fashion photographer whose scratchy, giddy voice you can hear on the Times website. It would be passable for an evening out, I thought.
Yet my hours are haunted still, days later, by Bill Cunningham New York. I kept thinking I had finally determined what the film was really about, what it was trying to do me, and I bracketed these answers several times for myself, only to see it take another turn, expand in its ambition, and bore deeper into its subject, Cunningham, the happy-go-lucky aesthete, the lifer street artist. There is something wonderful and something terrible going on behind his twinkling eyes and disarming giggles. As we find out, Director Richard Press's patient determination to crack these things open is itself both wonderful and terrible.
Only after some percolation did I see the complete design of this film: so many of the subject's remarks and telling facial expressions are inserted along the journey that bear significance you can only appreciate afterward. Even as I write this, more of these details I made too little of at the time are drifting back to me. Press's craft, then, is uncanny, but so is his luck: there are perfect New York moments in this film, one after the other, that seem to drop into his lap. These are no doubt skimmed from hundreds of hours of footage, but so is the best stuff you see in any documentary, and it's rarely as good as the incidental material used here.
I really like Bill. Getting to know someone you like can be an intense experience. As I watched this film, the intensity of spending so much time with Bill, though vicarious, was more than I was prepared for. He is so individual, so seemingly happy in his perfect solitude. I wanted to rejoice in his purity as an exception, but one simply can't do that without feeling sad at the same time. A scene late in the film shows him seated at the runway of a fashion show, marveling, snapping pictures and hurriedly winding and changing rolls, completely immersed in what he loves. Press uses a song for this scene and I don't want to reveal what it is, but a local radio station (here in Boston) once played a parody of this song that was so funny Jamie and I still mention it and laugh, so when the song came up in the film, our first reaction was more chuckling and nudging each other. But by the end of the scene, it had easily been the most moving occasion of hearing that song I could remember. It perfectly captured the bittersweetness of his independence, and his questing after what he loves.
Which brings me to another loner, who I feel like I met last year, around this same time. Here he is:
Daniel Johnston and Bill Cunningham seem to me to have a lot in common, but Daniel's art is actually about loneliness. Daniel sings about the heartbreak of being himself, while Bill just waves it off and laughs. If Bill were a singer, would he sing "True Love Will Find You In the End"? (Perhaps, but only if he played with the meaning. He has found true love, in a way.)
Not long before I started this blog, I saw The Devil and Daniel Johnston. Cunningham is this year's Devil for me, yet although each left me somewhat transformed, Devil was the one that had me so emotionally wrecked after the first hour I needed an intermission.
I don't think it can be explained why Daniel's music is so good, but Kathy McCarty of Glass Eye gives it an excellent go in one of several incredible interviews that drive the film. That's the biggest difference between the two films: whereas Bill Cunningham New York is very much a documentary witnessing a moment in time, The Devil and Daniel Johnston is a history, a lot of digging up painful memories (which brings visible stress to the interview subjects, Daniel's family and friends). The fact that Daniel himself is essentially never interviewed - the middle-aged Daniel of today appears only occasionally, and mostly towards the end- makes the telling even more forlorn and almost funereal.
I think I like these guys so much because they do absolutely nothing but search for beauty. One way or another, they've lived on that and nothing else. And the contradiction is, here I am, the movie watcher, seeking thousands of vicarious experiences, and one of those is to have such a simple life as they do.