Wednesday, November 16, 2011


Bill Cunningham lives in a closet stacked from floor to ceiling with filing cabinets filled with film negatives, albeit a closet at Carnegie Hall, but he would be the last person in world to wear that title like a badge of honor. Bill, a man who has spent his life lurking invisibly (at least he says) in the background of the fashion world for the last fifty years, has made a life out of documentation. Bill writes the "On The Street" column in The New York Times. He has made a career out of belts, hats, scarves, patterns, shoes, shows, and women. He was given his first camera by photographer David Montgomery and was told to use his lens like a pencil to paper, to say something with it's images. Bill is the most jovial man I have ever had the pleasure of watching onscreen and his laughter and love for his job is infectious. He has had a very long and intriguing career spanning several heavy weight publications, including WWD, The New York Times, and The original Details magazine.

Richard Press's documentary Bill Cunningham New York follows Bill, now over 80 years old, through his day to day life. We follow Bill on his bike, in his blue painter's smock, a camera slung over his neck, riding up and down Manhattan, in search of the moment when fashion presents itself. Bill never sets out to find the perfect picture but instead prides himself on letting the street speak to him, "The best fashion show is on the street, always has been, always will be". Through the snow, sleet, sun, rain, and whatever else mother nature has to offer, the street is always there and so is Bill.

Bill spends a lot of energy conveying the importance of the clothes, he insists that his point of view is not  of any importance, claiming "it's not what i think, it's what i see." Bill lets the street tell him the story it wants to tell. Bill is just the messenger, but he is also a man who has given up his life to capture culture in New York for decades and because of Bill we have an unprecedented record of the ebbs and flows of fashion's epicenter.

Bill has remained a figure set permanently in the fashion industry while striving and insisting on standing in its fringes. His photos are meant to be fleeting moments that catch his subjects in all their unposed glory. His steadfast belief that money is the root of all evil has allowed him to dictate his career and life's journey any way that he so chooses. Bill says, quite eloquently, "If you don't take money, they can't tell you what to do kid, that's the key to the whole thing." He has never sold out and refuses to let anyone twist his work into anything other than pure observation.

In a interview from 1989, Bill beautifully expresses the need for fashion in a world fraught with wars, homelessness, sadness, and loneliness. He addresses those who believe that fashion is a frivolity that shouldn't be taken seriously in a world full of so much else but Bill insists, "Fashion is the armor that helps us to survive everyday life! I don't think you can do away with it, it would be like doing away with civilization". He insists that the mere existence of beauty allows for the world to find it.

This film must be seen by anyone who has ever craved to find their passion and once discovers it realizes that nothing else needs to exist as long as the path to that passion can be taken.

Bill's Column in The New York Times

Another signature Bill. 

At war on the streets of NYC, capturing fashion as it happens. 

On the front lines of the Parisian fashion shows

Whatever it takes to get the shot

Bill and his camera, in signature blue smock, which he wears purely for functionality

Bill's studio apartment, filled from floor to ceiling with filing cabinets of negatives 

On the street

Monday, November 7, 2011

Down the rabbit hole and into oblivion: MELANCHOLIA

Lars von Triers' cinematic feast of tortured souls continues in his newest film Melancholia. 

Melancholia had its Los Angeles premiere at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood last night, as part of this years AFI Film Festival. People stood in line for hours in hopes to experience a unique cinematic spectacle that would foray outside their comfort zones. A hush came over the room as a gushing Kirsten Dunst took the stage to introduce the film with her co-star, Udo Kier. Mrs. Dunst beamed proudly as she waved to friends and family in the audience and the lights slowly dimmed to blackness. Her smiling face only seconds before sharply contrasts to the film's opening montage, a sequence of slow moving shots of her face, absentmindedly unaware of the destruction taking place behind her. Dead birds are falling gracefully in slow motion as Kirsten tries to open her eyes. This is a stark image to initiate the viewer in von Trier's film but, as we will later discover, we will spend the next two hours as Kirsten spends the first two minutes, alone, trying to open our eyes to the world around us.

The film begins with an overture of images combined with Wagners' compositions from Tristan and Isolde. The epic scale of the images complements the grand operatic score. These opening images allow us to step outside the realm of a created reality and into a dreamlike space where the events of the film are foreshadowed in slow motion, encouraging the viewer to cement these destructive moments in their mind before the film thrusts forward into it's spiraling narrative. These moments are gorgeous interludes that allow the viewer, at the onset of the film, to mediate on the end of the world and the moments that encapsulate it.

The film is broken into two additional parts: Justine (Kirsten Dunst, who hasn't stolen the screen since her indelible performance in Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides) and her sister Claire (played with perfect insecurity by Charlotte Gainsbourg). Justine's section takes place at her wedding reception; a dream world where all the guests are found inside a remote castle to celebrate an occasion that doesn't seem to be happy for anyone. This is the place where we are taken inside Justine's character and shown the darkness that is bubbling underneath. Dunst plays this role with perfectly nuanced moments of despair and longing fused with a slighted air of ineffectual happiness. We see her world crumbling around her elusive nature and this normally wonderful occasion is tainted with distain from beginning to the bitter end. This is the segment where we see Justine's happiness fade in a mere matter of moments into a fragmented series of moments that shred her character into pieces.

The second part of the narrative, follows Claire and the imminent disaster that awaits the planet. A newly discovered planet called Melancholia is on a crash course with Earth and the family is forced to, each in their own way, come to terms with the loss of everything. This part of the film is the most interesting to the viewer as it sets the stage for the disaster that the film's introduction already alluded to. The world is going to be disintegrated but how will these four people choose to deal with that reality is what interests von Trier.

The film's final moment in a field on a hilltop near the house allow us unique access to the mind of each of von Trier's characters. Hiding in plain sight from the looming planet, Justine tells her sister and her son to take her hand and close their eyes. As the camera moves to and from each of the three characters only the son, Leo (played brilliantly by Cameron Spurr) keeps his eyes closed, a image of placid childlike wonder on his face until the very end. Justine, intent on losing her grip on reality from the beginning, opens her eyes but her back remains toward the planet on the horizon. Justine, fearful of the world around her, fearful of all she has to lose, recoils from her son and sister and stares horrified into her fate.

This only being my second Lars Von Trier viewing, the other being his Dancer in the Dark (2000),  I was expecting the violence that explodes at the end but the quiet surrender and total alienation of that destruction left me feeling hungry for the world outside the dark theater walls.

 Justine in her moment of seclusion away from everyone else at her wedding
 A dream that Justine alludes to later in the film, this image is from the beginning montage
 Justine and her new husband, desperately clinging to a false reality. 
 One of the first hints of impending doom, a snow shower. 
 The first image of Justine on screen, trying to open her eyes. 
 The three main characters in the film's beginning montage with Melancholia behind them
An image from the film's final moment, hiding in plain sight from imminent destruction