Sunday, November 27, 2011

Just watched...

Over this Thanksgiving break, in an effort to try to stay afloat on the ever-rising tide of the Netflix queue, I saw a double feature of documentaries.

First up: "Bill Cunningham New York."

I have seen Bill Cunningham’s entertaining column, "On The Street," in the New York Times for years now, but I had never really stopped to wonder about the person who creates it. Thankfully, filmmakers Richard Press and Philip Gefter followed the indefatigable, mercurial Cunningham as he pedaled around Manhattan snapping photos of street fashion, and came up with the charming documentary “Bill Cunningham New York.”

After a successful career as a milliner and a stint in the Army during World War II, Cunningham became a photographer somewhat by accident. He started his “On The Street” column by accident as well, after a chance run-in with, and then unobtrusively photographing the paranoid and reclusive Greta Garbo in 1978. And Cunningham has been chronicling what people wear—what people choose to clothe themselves in—on the streets of New York ever since.

We get to see the passion for fashion (sorry for the rhyme) that fuels his column. He is not dedicated to designers simply because they are famous, or to what the monied jet-setters (is that word even applicable anymore, in this age of such massive wealth inequality?) are seen in. He is not dedicated to fashion in the abstract. He is interested in the life of the clothing after it leaves the runway. How are people wearing these pieces in real life and what are they choosing to wear them with? He is interested in not what fashion magazines tell people to wear, but instead what people choose to wear despite the fashion industry, which includes vintage pieces and self-made clothing. Cunningham seems to respond the best to people who have a strong sense of individual style, like the New York style and fashion icon Iris Apfel, modern–day “Dandy” and fashion world figure Patrick McDonald, or club kid Kenny Kenny—he does not discriminate based on age, financial status, or social “standing.” He is genuinely fascinated with original style and often scorns things that come off the runways.

We get to probe a little deeper into the life of Cunningham, who lives alone in a small studio in the Carnegie Hall building. His tiny space is stuffed with file cabinets, with barely room for a small cot. We get to see Cunningham the ascetic… he is obsessed with saving money, with the concept of “waste” and with frugality, all qualities that most New Englanders tiresomely boast of and wear with pride. His New England roots are apparent in how he wears the same blue canvas street cleaner smock day after day, or how he repairs his rain poncho with black gaffe tape. But beyond that, he displays an almost fanatical aversion to food, particularly accepting food at events he covers. He adamantly maintains that by not taking even a glass of water from a charity event, a party, a caterer, a host, a designer, that by refusing this gift--or more accurately: symbol--he cannot be owned by them, cannot be bought. In this way, he feels free to live, speak, and do as he pleases. There might be something to this in a kind of "energtic" karmic sense, however extreme the execution.

We also get to see a gentle exchange between Bill and the filmmakers about Cunningham’s sexuality and love life. When asked about the topic, Bill laughs and rightly assumes that the real question is, “Are you gay?” He does not answer the question but says that he has never had a relationship in his life—all eighty-two years of it. This is immediately followed up with a question about his Catholic faith. A regular church-goer, Cunningham is visibly shaken by the proximity of these two topics. It takes him a while to compose himself and we are left with the indelible idea that the Catholic belief system has altered Bill’s personal life to a degree that even he cannot fathom.

With appearances by fashion luminaries like Vogue editor Anna Wintour (or Miranda Priestley) who confesses, “We all get dressed for Bill,” and designer Michael Kors, the film is fun, interesting, and satisfying.

Take a look at the New York Times video page here that features a slideshow version of Bill's recurring column, narrated by Bill himself.

Recommend? Yes. Especially if you have seen Bill’s column…

Next was "Waiting For Superman" by Davis Guggenheim.

“Waiting For Superman” is an indictment not only of the current educational system in the United States, but of the forces that are keeping it at a sub-standard level. The United States is consistently at the lower end of rankings when compared to school systems and student performance of other countries. The film does attack teacher’s unions as part of the problem, if not the major problem. Of course this view polarizes many who are part of the world of academia. Also touched upon is the funding inequality for inner-city schools vs. suburban schools—or put in a more understandable context, black vs. white schools. Without boring you with the details, I have seen this problem fist hand. I have lived it and I can tell you it is absolutely true.

Whatever the problem or solution may actually turn out to be, it is undeniable that US schools are suffering, students are suffering, and the future of the country is already suffering because of it. The film is actually quite gentle it its examination of the issues, and I like to think that it is the starting point of trying to understand the problem in order to fix it. But the issues of course are, disappointingly, tied to politics, “convention,” and a willingness to play with the education of children.

Recommend? Yes.

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