by Mary Wienke
When I tell people that I lived and worked in New York for seven years, most assume that I mean New York City. If I say, no, not The City but the capital, there is often confusion which is not confined to foreigners. If I continue by describing hiking the Catskill Mountains, white water rafting and canoeing on the Hudson River, some people stare in disbelief. There is indeed a different New York outside The City (NYC), but what most people think of when they imagine NYC can be found in two films that involve the New York Times. Two documentary films take slices of the Big Apple’s most famous newspaper from different angles: one from the streets and one from the hallowed halls of a New York institution that served as the basis for naming the famous Times Square in 1904. Bill Cunningham New York follows fashion photographer Bill Cunningham cycling around NYC while Page One: Inside the New York Times looks into the business of printing a paper. Both are unique and interesting perspectives.
Octogenarian Bill Cunningham is quite a character. So much so that all you need to do is follow him around with a camera to create a totally engaging film as director Richard Press did in Bill Cunningham New York. Cunningham has been the fashion photographer for the New York Times for decades. Up until recently being forced to move, he lived in a tiny studio apartment at Carnegie Hall sleeping on a single bed wedged among filing cabinets stuffed with photographs. No kitchen, no living room, no clothes closet and a public bathroom down the hall. He hangs his few articles of clothing on filing cabinets. His usual dress includes a blue jacket worn by street sweepers in Paris and khaki pants. If it rains, he uses a plastic poncho, frugally taping up tears.
Although my fashion sense is similar to Cunningham’s personal style, a film centered on the latest fashions in NYC and Paris is nevertheless fascinating entertainment. Cunningham jumps on his bicycle equipped with a 35mm camera and takes photos of outfits that catch his eye, often weaving in between Manhattan traffic and pedestrians with the ease of a courier, while hunting his next subject. Most people are thrilled to be shot by him. After all, why dress so flamboyantly if no one notices? There are exceptions however, such as two young girls who threaten Cunningham with obscenities. He is, after all, a gray-haired skinny, elderly man on a bike wearing a rather tasteless blue jacket wielding an old-fashioned camera. There are regular objets d’art as well, such as photographer Editta Sherman, a 99-year-old known as the Duchess of Carnegie Hall, fashion icon Iris Apfel, and editor of Vogue Anna Wintour. From elegant to outrageous, Cunningham captures fashion off the streets of NYC, at social and charity events of the rich and famous and during Fashion Week in Paris. His photos appear in the New York Times newspaper and online with his own commentary in his weekly “On the Street” column. Appearances can indeed be deceiving, but don’t let the Mr. Rogers look of Cunningham stop you from exploring the beauty and creativity of fashion through the eyes of a true artist.
Back at the office of the New York Times, reporters are working on developing stories and contemplating the demise of newsprint as we more middle-aged folks know it. Directed by Andrew Rossi, Page One: Inside the New York Times is not so much an insider’s view of the sophisticated processes behind publishing a serious newspaper, but more a collage of anecdotes, opinions, musings and comments gleaned by an enthusiastic intern flitting from office to office trying in vain to gain valuable insights. Unfortunately, there are no insights and no breaking news but lots of hot topics are touched upon such as Wikileaks, Comcast’s purchase of NBC Universal, the role of Twitter, layoffs at ABC, former reporter Judith Miller on weapons of mass destruction, former plagiarist Jayson Blair, the iPad and Steve Jobs, Iraq, Watergate, David Carr showcasing David Carr and much hand wringing over whether the newspaper can survive at all. It’s messy, it’s disorganized; it’s just another day at the office. Bring your own coffee!