Documentary Diary: Bill Cunningham – Mediating the real

The documentary, ‘Bill Cunningham New York’ makes no apologies for its bias towards its subject. This biographical documentary uses a number of narrative resources, including examples of photographs taken by Bill for his ‘On The Street’ segment in ‘The Daily Star’, some of which date back to 1978. It also makes use of archive film and footage captured by the director as he supposedly ‘stalked’ Bill. These are used to paint a favorable portrait of this enigmatic photographer. All of these elements are pieced together as evidence to further the subjective view the filmmaker aims to present to the audience. They highlight Bill’s dedication to his job and his humble nature. However, to understand the full impact of the documentary one must look at the interviews, the way in which they were conducted and perhaps more importantly who was chosen to feature in the film and why; whilst also observing how these ‘casting’ decisions mediate the ‘real.’

James McEnteer (2006) states that: ‘ Grieson defined [documentary] as ‘the creative treatment of reality.’…every nonfiction film is a form of propaganda, trying to persuade us of something.’ In the case of this film, the filmmaker’s agenda is to promote his point of view of the subject, Bill, and leave audiences with an understanding of the importance of his work and an appreciation of his contribution to the fashion world. Due to information presented in the interviews, the documentary unveils an underlying narrative, Bill’s pending eviction from his home in Carnegie Hall. This was backed up by the evidence of news coverage, so the audience becomes aware of the ‘scandal’ caused by his landlord wanting to place him in a larger apartment with a Central Park view, as opposed to his tiny box apartment. There may have been issues related to the terms in which the director and crew were allowed access to the subject. There may also have been certain topics or potential interviewees that were listed. Other people may have refused to participate. The terms of access given to a crew can affect the reality presented to viewers.

To look at a list of contributors of the film would be like looking at a Who’s Who guide of the fashion world. His colleagues at ‘The Times’ and his neighbour, Editta Sherman feature in the documentary as ‘Insiders’. They are believed to have an in depth knowledge of Bill’s life, but as Bill himself is unforthcoming about his personal life, how much do they really know about him? And what authority do the interviewees have on the subject? The possible unreliability of their contribution is highlighted when they’re asked about Bill’s upbringing and family life. They make assumptions that he is from a wealthy background based on what they know of him. Later in the documentary, these conclusions are proven wrong. Bill states that he is from a working class family who had very little when he was growing up. This example shows that the contributors’ knowledge of Bill may be lacking, thus distorting the truth.

The documentary also features ‘experts’ from the fashion industry. Whilst these well-known names give the film a sense of credibility, it highlights the issue of the contributors’ motivation. Firstly, whilst these people may work in the same industry as Bill, there is no evidence of them having any relationship with him beyond featuring in his photographs. Secondly, it is questionable how neutral their knowledge of the subject is. All of the people interviewed for the film benefit in some way, from the publicity of the production and/or Bill’s photography or other means.

The film is edited in such a way that it puts forwards an entirely one sided perspective in which no one has a bad word to say about Bill, which fits in with the director’s agenda. However, several questions arise regarding the subjectivity of the interviews. A number of contributors describe how Bill’s time at ‘Women’s Wear Daily’ came to an end, over a dispute about an editor changing his copy and humiliating Bill’s muses. Annie Flanders, the creator of ‘Details’ magazine places the blame entirely on the editors of the ‘Women’s Wear Daily’. She tells the story in an evocative way, causing audiences to feel sorry for Bill. This use of emotional content could possibly displace the truth. Comments from the magazine editor on the issue do not feature in the film, nor does Bill’s view on the matter. Everyone commenting is basing their judgment on hearsay. Having not been present themselves, nor having video or photographic evidence, the reliability of the interviews as evidence is debatable.

There was an extremely brief indication, during the footage of Bill on the street, which showed that not everybody appreciates the way in which Bill operates. Two women are shown shouting angrily at Bill because he was taking their photograph and asking him to stop. This is a natural reaction to being followed and then photographed by a man they don’t know. However, this viewpoint of Bill’s work fails to be fully explored in the documentary because it conflicts with the director’s narrative.

Director, Richard Press, has openly admitted to manipulating the interviews he shot with Bill during the edit. The interviews were conducted with three crew members in the room. In order to make the film easier to follow for the audience, the producer would rerecord the questions so it sounded like a single voice interacting with Bill. On the film’s website, in the director’s statement, Press wrote: ‘This also made the need for any clarification or exposition in any part of the movie easy—I simply recorded Philip’s [the producer] voice making a comment or asking a necessary question.’ The nature of this editing is manipulative. Although it may not read as a contrivance, by reconstructing the questions asked to Bill the original meaning of the content could be altered significantly.

Along with New York City itself, the film reveals Editta Sherman, a fellow photographer and Bill’s neighbour, as one of his greatest muses. Editta’s ‘character’ acts as a foil for Bill. She was clearly chosen because she is comfortable in front of a camera and holds no qualms when talking about Bill and herself. In the instance of this documentary, Editta showing her self-appreciation reveals more about Bill and his unusual modesty and humility. This juxtaposition of the two friends, who have the same level of professional success, shows that they live two completely different lives. Their contrasting apartments, Editta’s being significantly larger than Bill’s overfilled box room without its own bathroom, shows how little Bill cares for material object. These images highlight the positive things about his character. They make him more endearing to audiences which is the essence of what the filmmaker wanted to capture.
The interview with Editta is conducted very differently to the others – which are seated and lit precisely. The interview appears more Ad Hoc and unpredictable, as if the, or a, truth is unfolding in front of the camera. The hand held camera follows Editta as she navigates around her roomy apartment, talking about the importance of the building and the memories she created with Bill.

Editta’s hand held interview creates a very different effect to the other interviews

The film lies somewhere between the boundaries of the observational mode and the interactive mode. This is because the documentary deals with the past as well as the present. The observational mode works well for action unfolding in front of the camera in the present day, but with missing footage this cannot be done with subjects from the past. The interactive mode allows the filmmaker, by means of interrogating the contributors, to unveil stories from the past to paint a full picture of Bill’s life. The filmmaker remains hidden behind the camera at all times. He uses live, synchronous sound and since the camera is rushing to keep up with the action, particularly when Bill is on the street, it is often shaky. This gives it an aesthetic style not dissimilar to that of cinema verité films such as ‘Grey Gardens’. This familiar aesthetic can, as Partricia Aufderheide (2007) states, ‘convince viewers that they are present, watching something unconstructed and uncontrovertibly real.’ As cinema verité has made its way into the default language of documentary, and other forms, audiences have come to associate this visual style with greater reality.

More Stagnent camera and better lit interviews

The filmmakers allow Editta and Bill to interact with each other as the camera just observes. The presence of the camera itself affects the way in which Editta holds herself. There is certainly an element of performance within this observational mode, much like the behavior little Edie in ‘Grey Gardens’ exhibits. Editta thrives on the camera’s gaze and puts on a show, thus exaggerating the ‘real’.

However at times a voice is heard asking questions, prompting discussion. This would fit more into the interactive mode, which welcomes and acknowledges the filmmaker having a direct impact on the event being recorded due to an engagement with the subject. Unlike other participatory filmmakers such as Michael Moore and Louis Theroux,  Richard Press does not show himself on screen. His immediate presence in the film is limited to an off screen questioning voice.

Bill Nichols (2001) argues that all films are, in a way, documentaries. Fiction films are categorised as ‘wish fulfilment’ and non-fiction as ‘social representation’. He groups fiction and non-fiction in such a way to comment on the similarities and crossovers these two forms have. There are many cases of documentaries using techniques commonly associated with fictional texts. Director, Richard Press said of the production of Bill Cunningham New York: ‘ I approached the movie’s structure less like a documentary and more like a narrative with a strong protagonist surrounded by a menagerie of characters…with narrative threads that slowly builds…a portrait.’ The interviewee’s interpretation of the truth is captured by the director, who then manipulates the footage according to their creative wishes. The information presented to audiences in the film is mediated not only by the filmmaker but by all who feature in it, as they, perhaps, self produce their contribution.

Patricia Aufderheide (2007) states that biographical documentaries ‘reveal the same choice making that reveals all historical work to be an interpretation.’ This means Bill Cunningham New York cannot capture the whole truth about this ‘unsuspectingly important’ man. As a biographical documentary, it is ‘character driven by definition but the filmmaker must interpret that character for the viewer.’ Since the director had to make so many choices in the production process, such as its interlocutors and selecting archive footage to use, the nature of the documentary is personal and subjective.

All films, documentary or otherwise, involve making a myriad of ethical decisions. Simply pointing the camera onto something mediates the pre-existing reality. Therefore no film can be classed as purely objective. Documentary filmmakers have a responsibility  towards their subjects to treat them with respect and present an honest representation of the truth as they see it. However, they simultaneously have a need to produce interesting content so that audiences will engage with the ‘truth’ the filmmaker puts forward. ‘Bill Cunningham New York’ shapes the real, forming it into an interesting narrative carried by the interviews, in order to present to audiences the directors admiration and respect for Bill. It features people who are well known in the fashion industry, whether or not they have an in depth knowledge of Bill and his life. Their names will attract audiences and the purpose of using them as contributors is to gain publicity. People will be interested in the opinion of these figures and so will want to watch the film. This ultimately means that the documentary and its subject will reach a wider audience.

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