I love the Wisconsin Film Festival.
This year I saw seven films: Five documentaries, one mockumentary and one fictional story about a messed-up road trip. I saw one film in Norwegian, one in German and one in Russian. I attended films in four different theaters and collected three buttons. Two movies made me cry, six had me laughing out loud, and only one made me fall asleep (but it wasn’t the movie’s fault- it was near midnight and had been a long day.)
Over the course of the weekend I learned that during times of political turmoil in the former USSR they used to broadcast “Swan Lake” on all of the television stations, that there was an all-Black punk rock band emerging out of L.A. at the same time as the Red Hot Chili Peppers and that there are people in a small coastal village in Ireland right now fighting to save their way of life against a Shell Oil project to build a pipeline through their community.
Although the seven films that I saw this past weekend covered a vast part of the world and a variety of topics, I started to sense an underlying theme: In a world that seems to be dominated by money and greed, you have to follow your dreams and figure out what makes you happy. It’s all you’ve got.
And it’s something that I have been wondering about more since all of these protests started happening in Wisconsin… When you have more money than you know what to do with, what really makes you tick? What inspires you? When all you think about is how to get more money, does anything small ever make you happy? Like seeing a corgi riding around in a bike basket? Or opening a fresh bag of coffee beans? I guess what I’m really wondering is, have either of the Koch brothers ever squealed at the sight of a dog in a bright yellow rain slicker and chased after it to take its photo? And with that, I present to you my review of the documentary, Bill Cunningham New York.
Bill Cunningham New York
There is a 10-second clip in Bill Cunningham New York that probably would have gone unnoticed at the Wisconsin Film Festival a few months ago: Photographing an event for The New York Times‘ Style section, Bill Cunningham is seen snapping a photo of one of the now infamous Koch brothers. The audience at the Wisconsin Union Theatre Thursday evening let out a collective groan. It was the perfect juxtaposition: The billionaire Koch brother versus Cunningham, a photographer in his 80s who at one point in the film playfully curses New Yorkers for being so “extravagant and wasteful” while he fixes his rain poncho with tape.
Full of moments that make you grin ear-to-ear, laugh out loud or try to hold back the tears; Bill Cunningham New York is a delightful and moving documentary chronicling the life of the notoriously private, bike-riding New York Times fashion photographer, Bill Cunningham, who lived in Carnegie Hall in a tiny studio apartment for over 50 years (until he was kicked out and unwillingly moved into an apartment with a view of Central Park). Some of the best scenes in the film are the ones of Cunningham taking photos for the ‘On the Street’ feature in the Sunday Times. Standing on a street corner, or biking down a busy New York boulevard, Cunningham looks unassuming until he deftly whips up his camera strung around his neck and furiously snaps one or two photos when he sees something that catches his eye. His subject could be a bright red purse or a woman in a multi-colored rain slicker; a young man with his pants hung low or a group of women wearing black high heels. According to Cunningham, he takes to the streets to discover new trends because, “The street is the best fashion show… You stay on the street and let the street tell you.”
Don’t doubt that the Wisconsin Film Festival can change your life. A few months after seeing Food, Inc. at the festival two years ago, I became a vegetarian. Finding myself in a bit of a clothes rut, I was hoping for the same sort of results from seeing this film. I even had a headline for this review going in to the film: ‘Bill Cunningham New York or Why I Will Never Wear Dansko Clogs Again.’ And while the film is about fashion, it is more about following your obsession and finding what makes you truly happy. During one especially poignant part of the film we learn that Cunningham used to ceremoniously rip up his paychecks in the office of the magazine where he worked. Cunningham explains his actions: “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do. Don’t touch the stuff. Money is the cheapest thing; freedom… liberty, is the most expensive.” And that is the real message in Bill Cunningham New York: We should not envy people with money; we should aspire to be lucky enough to be passionate about what we do and seek beauty in our everyday lives.
Here’s to something small making you smile today. Cheers.