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"The Times of Bill Cunningham" opened to rave reviews in early 2020, as reviewed (abridged) by Ann Hornaday in the Washington Post:
Does the world need another Bill Cunningham documentary?
Yes, it turns out. More than ever.
Cunningham, the New York Times fashion photographer who died in 2016, has appeared in two previous films, including 2010’s thoroughly engaging “Bill Cunningham New York” and “Lost Bohemia,” which chronicled the artists and eccentrics who occupied the legendary Carnegie Hall Studios. In “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” filmmaker Mark Bozek uses a 1994 interview he conducted with his subject as the scaffolding around which to drape another appreciation of a man whose keen eye, indefatigable work ethic and discerning taste informed a decades-long career documenting contemporary street life. What could be more perfect at a time when the streets are so pointedly and purposefully devoid of life?
Fans of those earlier films already know what an endearing, engaging character Cunningham was. Over the course of a Q&A session that was supposed to last several minutes and ran until the videotape gave out, he’s just as sprightly and candid as we might expect, recounting his childhood in a conservative Catholic Boston household, his move to New York at 19, becoming a sought-after milliner known for chic, whimsical creations, and finally his introduction to photography in the 1960s, when the gift of an Olympus camera completely changed his life. “It was a revelation,” he says delightedly. “You can’t imagine.”
“The Times of Bill Cunningham” revisits well-trod territory, including Cunningham’s famous neighbors at the Carnegie Hall Studios, where he befriended everyone from Marlon Brando and Norman Mailer; no matter. This well-researched dive into mid-century social history treats viewers to a cornucopia of delicious photographs to accompany Cunningham’s narration, plunging us into a world that feels both immediate and heartbreakingly gone forever.
Familiar, too, are Cunningham’s trademark blue workman’s jacket and trusty bicycle, of which he owned several, because they kept getting stolen. The gems in this film are his offhand memories, such as when he recalls never buying clothes in season, because he was getting high-end hand-me-downs from his wealthy clients, or Jacqueline Kennedy asking him to dye a red Balenciaga dress black for her husband’s funeral.
There’s a brief but touching pictorial tribute to Mrs. Kennedy midway through “The Times of Bill Cunningham,” which is punctuated by moments of wordless grief. (Cunningham breaks down in tears when he recalls how many talented friends and colleagues he was losing amid the AIDS epidemic.) Bozek approaches the most sensitive material gingerly: There are no questions about Cunningham’s personal or romantic life, and the fascinating contradiction of his leaving most of his money to AIDS causes and the Catholic church goes unplumbed.
Still, “The Times of Bill Cunningham” brims with pleasures, most notably of Cunningham’s own guarded but modest and friendly company. Although he’s self-effacing to a fault, he has real wisdom to share regarding the postwar decline of glamour, which once could be found in Hollywood but transferred to the fashion world. (Hearing him complain about Elizabeth Taylor’s lack of innate style prompts one to wonder what he would make of the stars-are-just-like-us board shorts and Uggs of today’s celebrities.) Most valuably, “The Times of Bill Cunningham” reminds us of a time when public life was a glorious, life-giving jumble of high-low creativity and self-expression, and rubbing elbows wasn’t just a matter of self-distancing. “Wasn’t it grand?” the film seems to exclaim. And what would we give to get back out and mix it up again?