Category: movie

Film Review: Bill Cunningham New York

Bill Cunningham New York – Directed by Richard Press
As photographers Bill Cunningham and I could not be any more opposite each other. Where he takes pictures of people in New York City from the streets to high fashion shows in order to capture trends and patterns in the world of clothing I focus on nature and the way the world works with itself. Where Cunningham is widely respected and works for the Gray Lady I wallow in obscurity and have never sold a photograph. Cunningham seemingly has no care for composition, his NYT spreads often seem like a cluttered mishmash of people with little to no context outside of a couple of words and the detail that he is focusing on in any given collection. I would dare to say that most of Cunningham’s collections would not be found on the walls of anybody’s homes. They work quite well in the context of his weekly spreads highlighting certain trends on the streets of NYC or the fashion of charitable galas or the wearability of fashion show clothes but few of them are “great” photos of their own accord. Bill’s photos might not be “art” but he is certainly an artist.
It’s telling that there is a documentary about Bill Cunningham. What he does is, as one of the talking heads points out, practically war journalism. Instead of taking pictures of the ravages of war Bill focuses his camera on the ordinary (low hanging jeans and knee length skirts) and the extraordinary (strange high heels and even stranger patterns) in the urban jungle. He just looks at things, all things, and finds what people are wearing in any given week. It’s a talent and a skill and an essential part of his voice as an artist. Everybody in the fashion scene, from designers to magazine moguls, knows and loves Bill because he notices what’s working almost instantly. In a telling segment of the film he sits on the side of a fashion runway in Paris and we see him begin to lift his camera only to put it down again when he recognizes that nobody would possibly wear a piece on a real street. If real people aren’t wearing the clothes he’s not interested. It is this singular focus that makes Bill a true artist. It matters little if the photos are singularly meritorious, it’s what he does with his entire oeuvre that’s the key.
Now that we’ve established why Bill works as a documentary subject and an artist let’s talk about the film itself. It mimics, in its way, Bill’s own approach. We see all the kinds of things that Bill does from walking/riding through the streets of NYC to attending galas (his method of choosing which of the myriad galas to shoot comes down to which charity he deems best) to deciding which pictures to use and pestering his art director/assistant as they work on the layout of the spreads. Each aspect shows us a bit more about Bill and confirming what we’ve learned before. At the beginning we see a nice older man who grew up in the 60s and 70s New York art scene and has found himself as a kind of establishment still. Then we learn about his steadfast policy of not taking payment or even free food while he’s working in order to keep absolutely unencumbered. We then find that he is one of the last few remaining tenants of the Carnegie Hall studios which at one time housed people like Marlon Brando and Leonard Bernstein and now gives roof to a few old eccentrics (Editta Sherman has been living there for 58 years and is one of the more interesting interview subjects in the film) who are reluctant to leave. Each new segment shows a bit more of Bill and the life he has built, but all is not happiness and sunshine. 

In bits and pieces we see that Cunningham is, perhaps, not exactly happy with his religion and at the end of the film the director asks him two questions point blank: how have sex and religion shaped your life? Bill answers the first part deftly, asking whether the real question is if he is gay or straight and manages to not really give an answer until he is asked the second part. There he pauses and looks down at his lap. There is real humanity in this moment and I give great credit to Richard Press (the director) for asking the question and letting it play out in a medium shot. A lesser director might cut to a close up or a different angle but Press keeps the entire interview in an off centered medium shot that allows Cunningham the space to be himself. The little coda after this moment in the film just returns to Bill’s exploration of the streets. We see him from a distance and as he observes the world we observe him, knowing more and yet still not everything about the man. What was just a guy taking pictures at the beginning of the film has transformed into an artist creating and defining the world through his own lens. In that way he can serve as an inspiration to any artist. Even if we don’t share subjects or techniques or values there is still so much to learn from Bill Cunningham. He’s a man who takes pictures of clothes and the people who wear them yet has no pretense of being fashionable himself. His blue workman jacket is more function than form and that dichotomy between subject and artist is the defining element of the film. Bill’s modesty only serves to highlight the extravagance of the fashion world and the “exotic birds of paradise” whom he captures on film reveal the true nature of the man behind the camera.

Movie Review: 127 Hours by Danny Boyle

127 Hours by Danny Boyle

I can see why this film draws comparisons to 2010’s Buried. Each tells the tale of a man trapped in a very confined space and follows them as they deal with their situations and their own mortality. Where Buried focuses more on the plight of the man in the moment (Ryan Reynolds in that film) 127 Hours examines how the man got there and what it will take for him to get out (James Franco in an astounding performance that would likely have won all of the awards this season if it weren’t for that pesky Colin Firth). It is this fundamental difference that makes 127 Hours a compelling and intriguing story told in a fascinating manner.

Most know the story of Aron Ralston. He was a weekend warrior who, while on a climbing/hiking/biking expedition, got trapped between a rock and another, larger rock. He’s stuck there for, well, 127 hours until he realizes that the only way he will live is if he cuts off his own arm. This true story precedes everybody’s moviegoing experience and it looms large over the film. Much like Titanic and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, we know how this film ends. Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire, Sunshine) knows this and decides to focus instead on everything but that. There’s a point early in the film where Aron tries to cut into his arm with a dull knife. It hardly makes a scratch. Now we know that it will take a heck of a lot of doing to fully de-limb himself and while Ralston tries everything under the sun to escape we know that every second ticks closer to the inevitable unpleasantness. That’s good tension building. That’s good filmmaking.

Of course, that’s not the only good thing that Boyle does. His films have always had a kind of crazy kineticism that ensures the audience won’t get bored or tune out. His films demand your attention and this one is no different. Strangely, though I wished that Buried stuck closer to the coffin which imprisoned its protagonist, I was glad that we got plenty of flashbacks and hallucinations while Ralston was stuck in his gorge. In addition to allowing Boyle to work his movie magic we also got to know Aron a lot better than we might have had we stuck with him through the entirety of the film. We see his family and we see how he keeps them – along with the rest of the world – at arms length. His predicament allows for a lot of self reflection and in a touching and fresh and real scene he apologizes for being a huge jerk. It’s not often that a movie has enough guts to condemn its own hero. Once Ralston realizes that he is the only person that got him into the situation he knows that he’s the only one to get him out of it. And then comes the arm amputation.

The big scene comes at the very end of the film, as you would expect. It’s an intense scene to be sure and, much like Tarantino’s deft use of sound and camera trickery in Reservoir Dogs‘ ear cutting scene, Boyle shows a lot with a little. That’s not to say that there isn’t blood and gore. It’s all there, but Boyle’s energy carries us through and saves us some grossness by cutting or moving away just as the worst bits happen. It’s the Jaws rule, we always imagine worse than they can show us. After Aron sets himself free there is a moment to breathe then the movie rushes back into top gear, this time with the greatest joy and zest for life that only one who has been trapped for more than five days and then escapes truly knows. The final ten or fifteen minutes of this movie are practically perfect in the ride they take the audience on. It’s a true examination of the human spirit, one that understands the ups and downs, the good and the bad, the self-centered and codependent nature of man. It’s a film that, by showing the truly horrible things we must sometimes do, encourages us to be the best we can be.