See It: Bill Cunningham New York

This year’s most moving documentary happens to be a fashion film, and it opens on Friday at the Harvard Exit.

April 26, 2011

Remember how in the September Issue, Grace Coddington emerges as the unlikely hero? She’s initially set up to be Anna Wintour’s whiny, ugly duckling kicked-around sidekick, and yet it’s increasingly obvious as the movie unfolds that it’s Grace who manufactures the ideas and coaxes the glamor and truly understands style. And it’s Grace, actually—not the sheath-dressed, shade-spotted Wintour—who’s beautiful.

Well, if there was anything of the underdog-gets-its-day thing that got to you in that, the last great fashion world doc, just wait til you see Bill Cunningham New York.

First-time filmmakers Richard Press and Philip Gefter take the bike-riding 80-year-old Cunningham and his ultra-simple (understatement) lifestyle, legion of bold-face media name friends and supporters, and huge body of work as a street style and fashion documentarian for the New York Times and other important titles, and, with elegance and grace befitting their subject, allow us to see that without Cunningham, there would be no Sartorialist, no society pages, no American style.

If that sounds like hyperbole, just wait until you sit for 84 minutes with this guy.

But BCNY is about far more than fashion. In many ways it has nothing to do with fashion.

Cunningham’s perfectly contemplated and serenely natural work ethic, his measured, distanced insider/outsider status, his stoic, monk-like existence (just wait, I don’t want to spoil anything), and his octogenarian art-world old school New York friends have a story to tell no matter your interest or disinterest in front row celebrities, Celine, and how to wear what you saw on the runway to your favorite bar in Ballard.

Cunningham is destined to become the most loved character of the year. If you follow anyone in the New York or LA fashion scenes (where the movie has been out for several weeks, and where it broke records at the Film Forum) on Twitter, you’ve already heard the raves, the tearjerked tales, the passionate flag waving. But until you’ve met Cunningham for yourself, you really can’t fathom his impact, his influence, or his quiet, beautiful dignity. Or how fortunate we are to glimpse it.

The film makes its Seattle premiere at the Harvard Exit on Friday, April 29. I doubt there will be a dry eye in the house.

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