There are numerous reasons to lament the way cinema is heading — inflated ticket prices, needless 3D, the death of film projection, all leading to all sorts of problems that affect the quality of Hollywood’s output.
But let’s put that aside for now and focus on the positive changes. One of the great advantages of the advent of streaming video is that it makes small, little-seen movies as readily available as blockbusters. There are many films I would likely never have gotten around to if doing so weren’t so simple as clicking a button — The Arbor and Poetry are prime examples. These are the movies that benefit from being available when you’re “in the mood” for a rambling Korean film about an old woman taking poetry classes, or a pseudo-documentary about a foul-mouthed playwright. (Which, admittedly, is not always.) It’s less of an investment to begin a film with the option of turning it off and selecting another if it doesn’t captivate you. (Though I dislike this practice as a rule; many great films aren’t so obviously great within the first five minutes.)
The latest is Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary I vaguely knew was about a fashion photographer in New York. That subject alone didn’t cause me to immediately rush to Netflix; it went on the backburner. It was only when I heard a more detailed description that I felt compelled to watch it (instantly).
I’m on the fence about documentaries; I enjoy them when I watch them and appreciate them as a medium, but I don’t often seek them out, particularly in theaters, because (with few exceptions) there is little about a documentary’s production value that warrants watching it on the big screen. Generally, they’re better suited for home viewing. And too often, they still feel “good for you,” like medicine and not entertainment; fine to catch for free or a nominal amount, but not something I want to shell out for the way I do to see Black Swan or The Hunger Games or Shame. Only a few truly outstanding docs have transcended the usual limitations to affect me the way a narrative film does. That’s what makes Netflix Watch Instantly the perfect showcase for documentaries and other small films that don’t give you quite the same bang for your buck as The Avengers, but should be seen anyway.
Bill Cunningham New York isn’t even one of those, though; it’s thoroughly entertaining. I don’t remember it being particularly funny, but I walked away from it feeling like I’d just seen a light-hearted comedy. Cunningham, though a real person, proves himself to be a movie star as well. Which is to say, unlike many documentary subjects, he’s capable of carrying an entire film and then some. I would happily watch an ongoing weekly series following Bill Cunningham in his daily life. He’s that fascinating.
Who is Bill Cunningham? He is a street photographer, not so much by trade as by nature. In Bill Cunningham New York, we sense that pretty much all Bill does is take pictures, day and night, then arrange them for the Sunday edition of the New York Times. (His keen eye to detail is essential not just in the photography, but also in the layout of his weekly contribution.) He has no personal life to speak of; no close friends (though he is admired by many); he says he never had a romantic relationship, or even considered that a possibility. Some find that sad, but it’s hard to imagine a happier, more good-natured guy than Bill as presented here. He lives frugally, even though he’s quite famous in the fashion scene. He eats at hole-in-the-wall delis and refuses paychecks for his work. He’s one of a handful of artists in a rent-controlled space in Carnegie Hall; his quarters have only a makeshift bed and no bathroom. The space is instead filled by rows of filing cabinets that contain his photos and negatives, dating back decades. And he’s content this way. More content than just about any other person you’ll ever meet.
Bill Cunningham New York could easily have been a sob story about the bittersweet life of a lonely old man. At one point, we learn that Bill might be kicked out of Carnegie Hall to make room for a telemarketing office. The filmmakers might have made a big deal of that, or even structured the film entirely around it, but Bill just shrugs it off. If he has to move, he will, and it’ll be a mere inconvenience. That’s pretty much how Bill deals with everything that doesn’t involve his pictures — he cares about one thing and one thing only: fashion. Not high fashion; not couture, but fashion the way it’s actually worn, by people on the street. Bill Cunningham will take a picture of absolutely anyone, as long as he finds what they’re wearing beautiful or daring or unique. On the other hand, if Rihanna struts past wearing something unflattering or uninspired, he’ll ignore her. He’s got taste that transcends what anyone at Vogue can tell you. He’s a natural.
But Bill Cunningham isn’t an elitist. He doesn’t look down upon those who aren’t gussied up and camera-ready. His work is never mean-spirited. He’s the polar opposite of the Anna Wintour types we associate with the New York fashion world (though Wintour does appear to sing his praises). Bill himself doesn’t dress like a fashion icon; always in blue, he’s about the least stylish man you can imagine, buying shirts that come in plastic packaging at convenience stores. He’s well aware of this irony. Bill admires beauty and style on strangers, cares nothing for flaunting it on his own person. He looks like your grandfather, a hapless tourist snapping photos in the street; not the kind of guy who gets front row seats at Paris Fashion Week. But he does.
Bill Cunningham New York is only kind of an exploration of the man himself. Aside from a scene or two, it takes after its subject and doesn’t get personal. It’s Cunningham’s indomitable spirit that carries the movie, a celebration of all the things Bill loves — the diversity of fashion, the way it allows individuals to express themselves, how anyone of any means can make a statement with what they’re wearing. As such, we glimpse into the lives (and closets) of some of Manhattan’s best-dressed personalities, few of whom are svelte supermodels or pampered power players. The subjects in this movie are from all walks of life, with only one thing in common — they have nothing but respect for Bill Cunningham.
And after watching it, so do we. At one point, a character refers to him as “the most important man in the world,” and he means it seriously. Bill Cunningham is a treasure, a man who sees what no on else does, and we sense that something will be lost when his keen eye is no longer trained on the streets of New York. Have I convinced you to watch it yet? Not one second of Bill Cunningham New York is dour or didactic or a chore to sit through. It’s a more successful doc than The September Issue or Page One: Inside The New York Times, which touch on similar subjects with heavier hands. It’s hard for me to imagine why anyone wouldn’t enjoy it.
“Average” and “New York” come together again in Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture, which celebrates the same qualities Bill Cunningham scours Manhattan searching for, in its own tiny way. Tiny Furniture was like the trial run for the wild praise and backlash Dunham faced with the recent launch of HBO’s Girls, which is odd, considering just how unambitious it is. I haven’t yet seen Girls, unfortunately, but I’m already weary from the buzz. That isn’t Lena Dunham’s fault, but it certainly muddies the water.
I’ve been meaning to check out Tiny Furniture since it hit theaters in New York, despite the decidedly mixed response from critics and friends of mine. The Girls phenom since lowered my expectations for Tiny Furniture further; I approached it hesitantly, somewhat expecting to agree with its detractors, bracing for trite, self-indulgent tripe. What I got instead was smart, understated, and thoroughly enjoyable.
I didn’t find much to criticize in Tiny Furniture. Is Aura, the lead character, a role model for all post-graduate twentysomethings? Hardly… but that’s the point. She’s self-absorbed, myopic, directionless, and lazy, but her behavior isn’t far off from how real recent college grads behave, particularly at this point in history. I don’t want to read too much into Aura and use her to represent an entire generation, because I don’t sense that’s what Dunham was trying to do with Tiny Furniture. But her situation is something I imagine most of her generation can identify with.
As a storyteller, Dunham should be praised for not giving a damn whether or not the audience likes her protagonist; Aura doesn’t have any endearing “save the cat” moments shoehorned in. She’s not particularly smart or funny or self-aware or ambitious or nice; her averageness in and of itself is refreshing. (And she’s the rare heroine who actually looks as frumpy and awkward as she’s meant to be; Dunham seems to lack vanity entirely.) As a filmmaker, Dunham can be admired for assembling the elements of her own life into a coherent and consistently entertaining film — her own home in New York, her real sister and mother playing thinly-veiled versions of themselves, and her own experiences as the prototype for Aura — although, tempting as it is to draw parallels, we know Dunham is a great deal more resourceful than Aura, or she wouldn’t have been able to write, direct, and star in this movie.
The success of Girls proves that Tiny Furniture is no fluke, and Lena Dunham is craftier than the characters she creates. Dunham doesn’t make the rookie mistakes many other first-time filmmakers would, hewing so close to home. (In a welcome twist, her mother and sister are competent actresses.) As its title suggests, Tiny Furniture is a small movie, one that doesn’t strive to say much (but in its own way, says plenty). For those who have soured on Lena Dunham based on hype alone, I say watch Tiny Furniture anyway, with modest expectations. Many will identify with Aura’s minor-key frustrations, the way she regresses to childhood friendships and the safe, convenient prospect of living at home in the face of post-graduate life’s hardships. While her college friends are ready to take on the world and make the next big steps in their lives, Aura’s not ready to be an adult yet. She’d rather get high and have spontaneous sex with a co-worker in a pipe, then curl up in bed with her mother. Can we blame her?
Family drama plays out in more melodramatic fashion, not surprisingly, in the 1958 adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, starring Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor, also currently streaming on Netflix. I imagine it’s a rather faithful adaptation of the play, since it feels stagey in a way movies could get away with back then. The story concerns a Southern family contending with the impending loss of their patriarch “Big Daddy,” and all the hostility that bubbles up over the unsavory detail of his estate. (Big Daddy is played by Burl Ives, of all people.) In the foreground are Brick and Maggie (Newman and Taylor) — he an ex-football star, now an alcoholic, with demons in his past, and she his devoted but unsatisfied wife. Brick and Maggie haven’t “made love” in some time, prompting criticism from the family about her child-bearing abilities. The reason turns out to be more complicated than you might think (but given what we know about Williams, we can read into it even further).
By today’s standards, the dialogue in Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is pretty on the nose, its themes hammered home with an iron fist — and while Brick and Maggie feel reasonably modern as characters, some of the other family members come off as dated (particularly Big Mama and a brood of obnoxious brats that put even Kevin McAllister to shame). Primarily, Cat On A Hot Tin Roof is a chance to see two cinematic legends act the shit out of some juicy characters. We meet Maggie while she’s shoving ice cream into some poor child’s face; Brick spends nearly the entire film in his pajamas with a broken leg, and at one point, attempts to beat Maggie using his crutch. (Like that titular kitty, everyone gets a chance to bring their claws out before the movie’s done.)
Prior to this, I’d seen only a couple of films from Paul Newman’s heyday, even fewer from Elizabeth Taylor’s pre-”Glaaaaadiator!” years. (I, like many of my generation, first saw her in The Flintstones, which is hardly a suitable introduction.) So it was fun to play catch up with two of the biggest stars of all time. I’m not sure Cat On A Hot Tin Roof holds up as an essential classic, thanks to its lack of subtlety, but it’s compelling and cathartic and satisfying overall, with a pretty wonderful (and somewhat kinky) conclusion and well-drawn, well-staged scenes of heated dialogue. Also, it looks fantastic (or maybe that’s just Newman and Taylor again).
Cat On A Hot Tin Roof: Rowr!
Tiny Furniture: Slight but slick and entertaining.