Madman recently released two fashion focused documentaries, both set in New York and both about the coveted world of high fashion, but both coming from completely different places.
Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) gangbuster was the eponymous Bill Cunningham New York, unpretentiously exploring the inner and outer layers of a complicated man and his role in the turbulent scene. Direct to DVD is the shorter and rambling The Tents, a polar opposite documentary that roughly uncovers the beginnings of the tents in the park - a now yearly event as part of New York's fashion week. Both pretty essential for fasionistas, read on for more details.
Bill Cunningham New York begins with director Richard Press asking an interviewee to say something about Bill. 'What do you want me to say?' is her reply and this truly encapsulates who Bill Cunningham is - words are not sufficient enough to understand him and so the documentary mainly observes him, humbly listening to his bite sized nuggets and watching the bike riding, camera wielding artisan at work. The upbeat vibes and energy of the documentary match the images of the streets of New York and the offbeat nature of Bill. Vignettes of style clash with personal opinion and his philosophy of fashion epitomizes the scene when he started in the 1960's to today (he still shoots for The New York Times).
His methodical approach, the way he deals with his co-workers, the utmost respect he has for his subjects and the clothes they wear are all beautifully and effortlessly captured by Press. Annie Wintour of Vogue states 'we all get dressed for Bill' not that he would want that; Bill photographs beautiful people in beautiful fashion. Status, celebrity, brand and wealth do not concern him; his unbiased focus is only on beauty. The talking heads of his close friends and photo'd subjects have nothing but nice things to say about him, they recognize his unbridled passion and unrelenting obsession. He is old school himself, sporting the same jacket and old style camera he lives his life on the fringe, barely getting by or so it would seem, and he is beyond content with that. He is a trendsetter and it is what he sees that defines this, his trained eye predicts and criticizes unconsciously.
His conceptual notions of fashion go beyond any fashionista's standard view - to him it is armor for everyday life, but what about his own life? Press tries multiple times to get Bill to discuss it candidly but he does not bite, in one scene he half breaks-down when discussing relationships, he has apparently never had one. As a handsome young man, brought up in a strict Christian family he joins the army, upon his return he set up a hat shop that the celebrities at the time adored. He has had a long life but the humble way he lives it is on par with the Dalai Lama, casting aside all worldly possessions except what people wear; fashion is his religion, his air.
Later he attends balls and events, some in his honor and he is still working, still capturing the beauty with quick snaps of stunning dresses and heels, of course to him it is not work. Fashion week educates the eye, and every year it needs re-educating he states. He attends an awards ceremony in France where he is honored. He barely accepts the award shouting high praise for everyone else.
Bill Cunningham is an amazing man, a true maverick and this stunning documentary captures enough of his life and the beauty in fashion that even passing fans or the fashion-unaware can wholly enjoy it.
Next is The Tents, James Belzar's attempt to uncover the history of the New York Fashion Week to mixed results. It a location-specific topic that is proliferated with various talking heads, apparently big fashion icons that talk up the drama in initializing the tents in the park of New York.
Although it is a trade event the iconic nature of it has thousands simply stand outside its doors awaiting a glimpse of the latest and greatest fashion. The Tents is an industry-centric and in-depth but bias definition of the history of New York fashion.
Using snappy editing and a decent soundtrack the documentary alternates between models striking a pose and some rich individuals lounge room and their elongated two cents on what fashion means to them. At 76 minutes it is an exhaustive affair when it shouldn't be. For quick snippets of beautiful people in beautiful clothes the fashion channel on cable would be a better bet.
The Tents is self-indulgent, vapid and shallow. It really does not have much to say and it takes its time regardless. There is an almost four minute scene of people reacting to Annie Wintour just turning up to the event and it's quite ludicrous comparable to the honest and enlightening Bill Cunningham. The Tents is recommended only for serious fans of fashion or for someone intimately familiar with the New York fashion scene.