Biopics, like anything else, can be hit or miss. Having an interesting subject is no guarantee either. Interesting people can be victimized by bad direction, hack writing, and poor editing just like anything else. When it comes to The Times of Bill Cunningham it’s all hit and no miss. The documentary about the late, institutional, New York-based fashion historian and photographer is not only fascinating but a joy to behold, much like its subject.
The Times of Bill Cunningham
Director: Mark Bozek
Release Date: February 14, 2020
Director Mark Bozek accomplished much of his legwork over two decades ago. While the film is technically narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker, the backbone of the narration is Cunningham from an interview that Bozek filmed in 1994. Apparently, Cunningham, having agreed to a ten-minute interview, got chatty, and result is that the interview continued until they rant out of tape and the topics covered spanned the gamut of much of Cunningham’s life.
If only all of life’s influential figures were to conduct expansive, on camera interviews to leave as the narrative framework for films to document their lives after their passing (or before even). Cunningham, already 65 at the time of the recording, is as vibrant a person as you can imagine. His zeal not only for his work, for which he was known, but for life, is self-evident and ensnares the viewer from the first frames. Nothing’s held back, nothing is duplicitous or filtered through a PR mouthpiece, you get real, honest responses from a genuine human being. It just so happens that this human being carved out a simple, yet engaging world for himself, one which intertwined with the worlds of the rich and the famous, but never felt the corrosive kiss that world delivers to so many.
While the heart of the film is Cunningham on camera, just talking, just being himself, responding to the occasional voice prompt from 1994 Bozek, a heart needs a body and a brain to function, and 2016 Bozek plays brain to Bill’s heart with masterful skill, sculpting a stirring photographic body. The film’s construction is simple, elegant. It taps unrivaled source material, over three million previously unpublished photographs from Cunningham’s archives, and yields the perfect accompaniment to the man himself. It’s a story straight from hardworking horse’s mouth, with the fields the horse has plowed, and the crops they’ve yielded backing it his words. When Edison’s story is told, it’s told through the collective experience of all the things we use in our daily lives to make our lives better. We know Edison’s works. Much of what Cunningham made was never seen by the public and much of what made up his experience was equally unknown beyond his constant bicycle-accompanied appearances on the street, or his spreads in the New York Times
Simple, powerful storytelling. Or is it? Let’s not be shy, nor pretend that sifting through three million photographs to visually display the emotional meaning behind Cunningham’s words was anything like simple at all. Sifting through three million anything is a daunting, momentous, herculean task that likely deserves more credit than it will ever get. It also belies the thought that Bozek has put into this project ever since he completed the original interview over two decades before the film was first released. This was a massive undertaking that yielded modest, powerful results. An iceberg of an effort in filmmaking: 90% below the surface, behind the scenes, 10% to wonder at.
The film’s only mystery? Its penchant for Moby tracks which seeming to comprise the entire score. Being a product of the times that I am, I can’t say it didn’t work, but as each progressive dip into Moby’s late-nineties, early 2000s catalog accumulated, I did have to stop and wonder why. Why Mr. Bozek?