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MCN Columnists

By Andrea Gronvall andreagronvall@aol.com

The Gronvall Files: Richard Press and Philip Gefter: Partners Behind Documentary Bill Cunningham New York

By Andrea Gronvall

As a breed, film critics are generally sartorially challenged, but I’ll freely admit to enjoying Vogue, Vanity Fair, and the style coverage in The New York Times–particularly the “On the Street” column that’s photographed, written, and composed by the paper’s long-time fashion chronicler Bill Cunningham.

A colorful collage revealing trends Cunningham spots while bicycling around the city, the page nearly throbs as the reader’s eye is drawn by one well-placed shot to the next. Now the man who charts the tastes of Manhattan’s best–or most daringly–dressed is the subject of a new documentary from indie distributor Zeitgeist Films (another arbiter of taste), called—what else?–Bill Cunningham New York.

The movie is the latest in a flow of documentaries about the fashion world, including Lagerfeld Confidential, Valentino: The Last Emperor, Unzipped (about Isaac Mizrahi), and two by David Teboul and another by Pierre Thorentton about Yves Saint Laurent. Anna Wintour, profiled in The September Issue, has often been photographed by Cunningham and pops up in this new film.

During a recent phone interview with director Richard Press and producer Philip Gefter, I wondered that if fashion is dead, as many–from the New York Post’s Andrea Peyser to former French Marie Claire editor and chief Catherine Lardeur–have declared, why are so many still interested in tracking it?

“I guess I would have to say that fashion isn’t dead,” Press countered, and Gefter pointed out, “Look at the front page of The New York Times during Fashion Week. Look at the difference from five years ago in how fashion is covered; now it’s up front, whereas it used to be consigned to the back pages of the paper.” Press then jumped in (the two, who in addition to being professional partners are married, tend to complete each other’s sentences): “We’re living in an age where it’s about self-expression. It’s very much about how you present yourself, and fashion is about how you present yourself, like on your iPhone or Facebook page.”

It took eight years for the filmmakers, who both knew Cunningham from working with him at the Times, just to convince the famously private journalist to agree to the project. Their admiration and affection for their subject is evident throughout: eccentric he may be, but although at 82 years young he’s long past retirement age, his passion and work ethic don’t flag.

Nor does his insistence on precisely conveying his particular visions, which comes across in increasingly funny scenes with John Kurdewan, the computer wiz who helps Bill assemble his column for print–and who might be able to tell Job a thing or two about patience. As Cunningham jokes, wheedles, and needles, pushing for the exact thing he wants and settling for nothing less (sometimes even past deadline), Kurdewan takes it in stride with quips like “Where’s the love today, Bill?”

Press recalls, “When I freelanced at the Times as an art director, I actually helped Bill do his page. But my creative satisfaction came from making movies. Most of the other art directors wanted to take his photos and make it into what they wanted to do.” Gefter, who was a staffer for 15 years at the paper, in positions ranging from Page One Picture Editor to Senior Picture Editor for Culture, elaborates, “It took years for the Times to realize that Bill should be working with technicians, not art directors. Bill is the author of his page; no one assigns him to go out and write whatever.”

Cunningham has other long-ingrained habits, most of which have served him well. He travels everywhere on his Schwinn bike, his 27th; his previous 26 bikes were all stolen. For “On the Street,” he prefers to snap his subjects unaware and not posing (Press and his only other crew member, cameraman Tony Cenicola, did likewise, trying to be as unobtrusive as possible as they followed Bill). From among the piles of invitations Cunningham receives for the society events he covers for his other Times column, “Evening Hours,” he selects only those events staged in the name of causes he deems worthy. And he’s not fazed by celebrity journalism; the film shows him declining to photograph Catherine Deneuve because he finds her dress unremarkable; clothes, not their wearers, are what intrigue him. Press points out that for Cunningham’s first Times column, published in 1978, Bill had three photos of Greta Garbo, “but he didn’t even know it was Garbo; he just really liked her coat!”

As discreet and modest as he is on the streets or mingling at charity bashes, Cunningham is not to be underestimated when he’s sitting front row at the couturiers’ runways; more than once he’s recognized a dress as one copied from another designer’s collection of years ago. “He can trace the history of women’s clothes from the 1600s, and speak in full paragraphs off the top of his head,” Press says. “Anna Wintour understands why it’s important.”

Cunningham’s talent, persistence, stamina, encyclopedic knowledge, and spartan lifestyle all impress, but what’s also manifest in Bill Cunningham New York is his enthusiasm and sense of joy. I asked the filmmakers if they felt joy while making the movie.

Gefter: “I think we aimed for that joy and we reached it. Following Bill meant we had to adopt a more organic approach. Also, navigating Bill, and I mean that in the best sense, was not always wonderful, and we had to sort it out, and learn how to read him. Although after making this film, I don’t think marriage counselors would necessarily advise their clients to work together on a movie.”

Press: “We built a house together, but working together is a very different dynamic than being a couple. The first six months of production was a learning curve. When it was frustrating, it was frustrating, but when Bill was in the mood, it was wonderful. It’s like photographing a rare species, and in a way it’s mirroring his process. And the thing about joy: Bill is so joyful, that I wanted to capture that. For me, what is so special about him is his joy, and how he lives his life. It could have been a very different movie, much more laden with facts, but that’s not what he’s about.”

Bill Cunningham New York is currently playing at at the Nuart in Los Angeles this weekend, before it begins a platform rollout across the country. For a calendar of cities and play dates, go to: http://www.zeitgeistfilms.com/theatrical.php

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CATHERINE LACEY: Do you think that your writer DNA was sort of shaped by how your family was displaced by the Nazi regime before you were born?
RENATA ADLER: It’s funny that you should mention that because I think it affects a lot else, specifically being a refugee. I wasn’t born there. I didn’t experience any of it. But they were refugees. So then I was thinking of this business of being a refugee, no matter in what sense.

Prenatal refugee.
Prenatal refugee and actually postnatal refugee. And I thought there are probably things in common between being a child and being a refugee and being an anthropologist.

It gives you a sense of curiosity.
But also a complete displacement. You’ve got to read the situation. You’re the new kid in school all the time. But I wasn’t aware of it then. I’m aware of it now because language affects you differently, or not. But I used to talk to Mike Nichols about it because he was a refugee. Do you envision an audience when you write? Do you envision a particular person? 

No.
Every once in a while I think: Now, what would Mike say to that?

There’s that idea that when you’re blocked, you can always just write as if it was a letter to one specific person.
Oh, that’s good. That’s a wonderful idea. Mine is more in terms of criticism. If someone was to say, “I know what that is. Do you really want to do that?” But anyway, about Mike and his attitude toward language, I remember him saying—it was a question of whether something written was fresh or not—and he would ask, “Why not smell it?” Which, from an English speaker’s point of view, is hysterical.

~ Renata Adler and Catherine Lacey In Conversation 

“Oh it was just hellish. This is the worst thing that ever happened to me. It would be stupid for me to say that I didn’t know what I was getting into. It has taken me five years to decide on a first film and I always held out for something like this. The lesson to be learned is that you can’t take on an enterprise of this size and scope if you don’t have a movie like The Terminator or Jaws behind you. Because when everybody’s wringing their handkerchiefs and sweating and puking blood over the money, it’s very nice to be able to say, ‘This is the guy who directed the biggest grossing movie of all time, sit down, shut up and feel lucky that you’ve got him.’ It’s another thing when you are there and you’re going ‘Trust me, this is really what I believe in,’ and they turn round and say ‘Well, who the hell is this guy?’ If I make ten shitty movies, I’ll deserve the flak and if I go on to make 10 great ones, this’ll probably be looked upon as my first bungled masterpiece.”
~ David Fincher, 1992

 

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