No passion for fashion is required to enjoy Bill Cunningham New York, an absorbing portrait of legendary New York Times "On the Street" photographer Bill Cunningham, but a sense of history and tragedy might help. Director Richard Press doggedly shadows the chipper octogenarian, foregrounding the modest lifestyle and quietly radical work ethic that have made him as much a hero as an anomaly. Several big-name fans offer enthusiastic tributes, including a positively bubbly Anna Wintour, but the film is no more a document of high style than Cunningham is a spendthrift. Instead, Press has crafted a near-Buddhist reflection on what it takes to fully engage Gotham, as well as an astute snapshot of its evermore avaricious soul: Cunningham's cheerful asceticism is so out of step with what we currently expect (and don't expect) from this city that tagging along with him is a bracing reminder of what's been lost to the bottom line. Perhaps inevitably, Press also slyly raises the question of whether Cunningham's self-deprivation and single-minded focus on surface aesthetics ("If it isn't something a woman can wear, I'm not interested") have taken an unacknowledged toll. Decide for yourself whether the climactic Oprah moment is earned or contrived; it's heartbreaking either way.
April 8-14; April 19-28, 2011