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MOVIE REVIEW

Bill Cunningham New York

Always on the go in New York City: Film chases photojournalist

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By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / April 8, 2011

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Like a dog with cats, or cats with birds, or water on a slope: Running is in Bill Cunningham’s nature. Uptown and down, East Side and West, hill, square, and Village: It doesn’t appear to matter where in Manhattan you are, if you look good, his camera will take a good look at you.

Richard Press’s “Bill Cunningham New York’’ takes a fascinating look at the New York Times photo essayist — his process, his subjects, his life, his apartment, his neighbors. It’s as much a portrait of a kind of artist as it is a document of a city’s evolving sense of style. What you see every week in Cunningham’s column is an urban edge that retains its power to cut. What the movie reveals is the work that goes into capturing that power. Looking at the collages of images in the paper or as a gallery online, you know his two Sunday columns require some hustle.

The filmmakers — Press co-shot the film with Tony Cenicola, a New York Times photographer — capture how much. Cunningham climbs over lingerers and moves pedestrians out of the way. One of his admirers likens him to a war photographer; the comparison seems apt, watching Cunningham, who’s 82, cut off taxis on his Schwinn. His chronicles of style — on the streets and runways and at the city’s high-society events — double as rich sartorial and social histories that stretch almost 50 years, from the original Details magazine and Women’s Wear Daily to the Times.

This is a smart, playful movie. Only loosely does it feel like a romantic promotion for the Times brand (The Boston Globe is owned by The New York Times Co.) — in the use of the paper’s font for the film’s captions, say. Often with a project like this the temptation is to sit the subject down and wring a story from him. I imagine part of the appeal of filming Cunningham is that you have almost no choice but to make an action movie. Most of the smitten New York fixtures who sit for interviews — Anna Wintour, Annette De La Renta, Tom Wolfe, Patrick McDonald, Iris Apfel, Kim Hastreiter — admit to finding Cunningham a bit of a mystery. Does he have friends? What does he do in his downtime? Is he lonely? Hastreiter, the longtime editor of Paper magazine, seems to know him well but, by her estimation, she doesn’t really know him at all. Cunningham’s extroversion belies a private nature. This is a man whose casual wear, for years, has been a blue smock and khakis. He looks like a preppie lab technician. (As Cunningham walks down a Paris street, the cameras see a worker at a van in a complementary blue and film Cunningham bopping by unaware of the serendipity.)

Shooting this man must have been a challenge. Press manages to gain access to Cunningham’s cramped studio apartment in Carnegie Hall, which, at the time, is threatening to evict him and his marvelous neighbor, the photographer Editta Sherman, who’s old enough to have lived through an era when people were named Editta. At some point, you wonder whether Press will remain content with just observing Cunningham at his Times desk, which holds a discontinued Tamron Fotovix processor; chasing after him on the streets and to Paris; at fund-raisers and galas.

In most senses, the wait-and-watch approach is almost as revealing as direct inquiry. But, sheepishly, Press does ask personal questions, about Cunningham’s family and sexuality. They come mostly at the end and yield at least two moving answers that seem to say everything about his vocation. He doesn’t want money or things or fame, just to be in the presence of other people’s fabulousness. But using photography to document style — its primacy and decadence — isn’t the crutch it would seem. Cunningham isn’t hiding behind his camera so much as living through it.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com.

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK

Directed by: Richard Press

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 88 minutes

Unrated

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