Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

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Three men and a camera

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Bill Cunningham

What does it mean to be an uncompromising artist? Over the last two weeks, we’ve lost three very different men whose careers feel like a series of case studies in how to approach that unanswerable question. One was Bill Cunningham, the fashion photographer whom I once described as possibly the sanest man alive, and who maintained his creative and personal freedom for decades by paring his life down to the essentials in the heart of New York City. Another was the director Michael Cimino, who helped establish the Hollywood auteur era of the seventies with The Deer Hunter, and then singlehandedly destroyed it with Heaven’s Gate. The third was Abbas Kiarostami, who managed to do innovative work for more than thirty years in his homeland after the Iranian Revolution, in large part by being so persistently odd and original that his government didn’t know what to do with him. Each man is worth scrutinizing closely, either as a role model or as a cautionary tale, and for all their surface dissimilarities, they all tried, in their own ways, to crack the urgent problem of how an artist is expected to live in the world. (Because of the timing of their obituaries, I’ve been especially struck by the parallels between Cunningham and Cimino, who might otherwise seem to have nothing in common. Both were products of the Ivy League whose backgrounds remain shrouded in mystery, and both guarded their private lives so obsessively that they were asked pointed questions about their sexuality in interviews, which they both dodged, rightly, as irrelevant to the issue at hand.)

And none of them ever quite conformed to the expectations of their admirers. One of the recurring themes in the loving tributes to Cunningham that filled the New York Times over the weekend was that he was a gentle, generous man who could also be a huge pain to work with. Here are a few excerpts from the oral history:

The best thing you could do with Bill Cunningham was to get out of his way…He was a control freak to a large degree, but in a very unusual way. He was just all about the work…The assistants that the art department assigned Bill to do his pages—he went through a long string of people, and it was a love-hate toward Bill. John [Kurdewan] was one of the more long-suffering people in that role. Protecting his pages was very important to him.

Kurdewan himself remembers: “Art directors were dealing with Bill, and because it was so complicated they were complaining. It was ‘Just have John do it.’ I said to the art director, ‘What do I do?’ They said, ‘Whatever he wants.’” This might all seem slightly out of tune with the way we remember and think about Cunningham, but in fact, it’s perfectly consistent. The best reason to simplify your existence, declare your independence from money, and rigorously efface yourself is that it allows you to refuse to compromise when it truly matters. And Bill Cunningham understood this better than anyone.

Abbas Kiarostami

This isn’t an approach, to put it mildly, that would have made sense to Michael Cimino, who seems to have confronted every challenge with one of my favorite lines of dialogue from any movie, which he wrote for The Deer Hunter: “I’m gonna will us out of here.” And his career is less interesting for its ultimate failure than for the fact that he got away with it for as long as he did. The debacle of Heaven’s Gate, which lost $40 million and destroyed the old United Artists studio, has been told elsewhere, most notably in Steven Bach’s classic book Final Cut. Yet it’s worth remembering that it became a paradigmatic example of excess not because it lost money—plenty of films have lost more—but because Cimino was so scandalously willing to place his vision above the concerns of the executives whose careers he ruined. He was punished, not for directing a flop, but for daring to expose the helplessness of the systems that had been designed to prevent such an implosion from occurring. (Which isn’t to say that his critics weren’t right. The Deer Hunter strikes me today as an ethically problematic movie saved only by its sheer technical facility, both from Cimino and from his extraordinary cast, who seem to have spun their characters out of nothing. Heaven’s Gate is every bit the waste of resources that its reputation suggests. And the only movie by Cimino that I’d watch again today is Year of the Dragon, which suffers from the same racial obliviousness as The Deer Hunter, but at least takes the trouble to create an exciting story with a worthy antagonist. Cimino is hard to admire, much less to like, but he was far from a talentless or uninteresting director.)

Yet it’s Kiarostami whom I’ve found myself thinking about the most. I’ve only seen a few of his films, but it seems safe to say that his artistic evolution—from realism to audacious formal experimentation—was a reaction to the political climate in which he was forced to spend most of his career. Of his reception by the Iranian regime, Kiarostami said: “The government has decided not to show any of my films for the past ten years. I think they don’t understand my films and so prevent them from being shown just in case there is a message they don’t want to get out.” It’s a particularly bittersweet kind of success, but he still threaded that needle for longer than anyone could have thought possible. Kiarostami was sometimes criticized as apolitical, but he molded his audience in profoundly radical ways. As he once observed:

In my films, I try to give people as little information as possible, which is still much more than what they get in real life. I feel that they should be grateful for the little bit of information I give them. If they were as inquisitive when they come to watch my films as they are in real life, they’d make my life easier.

His movies are training grounds for empathy and the imagination, even when he deliberately frustrates any attempt at interpretation, as he does in Certified Copy, which is one of my ten favorite films of the decade. The problem of survival in the world also lacks a single definitive answer, as the lives of these three men suggest. But the first step, it seems, is to do whatever it takes to ensure that nothing comes between you and the camera.

Saint Bill of Manhattan

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Bill Cunningham

A few weeks ago, I wrote that while I’ve always been drawn to the idea of a life of simplicity, I just don’t know what I’d do with all my books. And although I didn’t mention it at the time, I have a feeling that I’d also have problems with many other forms of renunciation. I don’t think I’d be happy living very far from a major city, for instance: I need to be around movies, music, museums, and the kind of random interactions that a city imposes, all of which are so important for the sanity of a writer who spends most of his time in relative solitude. (Sometimes I can feel the two impulses duking it out: this weekend, at the Printers Row Lit Fest, I found my love of books warring constantly with my dislike of crowded spaces.) But while we don’t often think of the simple life as being lived in big cities, or in rooms packed with books and pictures, it does exist, and in some ways it requires a more diligent commitment to that elusive ideal than it would in a cottage far from the outside world. The real trick isn’t pursuing the life of art and voluntary poverty at Walden Pond; it’s figuring it out in Manhattan.

Which brings me to Bill Cunningham. Recently, my wife and I have started reading the print edition of the Sunday New York Times over breakfast, after more than a year of subscribing—mostly because the price was the same as that of a digital-only subscription—and recycling it without a glance. It’s a good habit, and whenever we take the time to peruse the physical paper, I inevitably find my eye drawn to Bill Cunningham’s “On the Street,” with its remarkably witty and inventive collages of the outfits, styles, and nascent trends that its author finds on the sidewalks of his city. The other day, I was intrigued enough to finally watch the wonderful recent documentary Bill Cunningham New York, and what I found, to my joy, was a portrait of the artist of my dreams. Until a few years ago, Cunningham lived in a tiny rent-controlled apartment over Carnegie Hall crammed with books, papers, and filing cabinets filled with the negatives of his work, sleeping on a thin mattress laid across a pallet of more files. He’s since had to give up the apartment, but he still bikes everywhere in his trademark blue workman’s jacket, noting gleefully that it has plenty of pockets and only costs twenty dollars.

Bill Cunningham

And he displays an almost inhumanly principled indifference toward money. When he covers society events for his “Evening Hours” column, he refuses to accept so much as a glass of water, and he ceremoniously tore up the checks he received as one of the founding contributors to Details magazine. (A number of people interviewed in the film speculate that Cunningham may have come from money, but he says that this isn’t the case.) If you don’t take money, he observes, nobody can tell you what to do, and he clearly relishes his freedom: the half page that “On the Street” occupies every week belongs to him alone, and he exercises complete control over its layout and content. His life has also been radically simplified in other ways: he’s had many close friendships, but never a romantic one, and he seems cheerfully unconcerned with the question when asked on camera about his sexuality. And like many of the great documentaries about creative artists, from Crumb to Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Bill Cunningham New York departs from its subject with many of his mysteries still intact.

But the more I think about Cunningham’s life, the more I see it as one of intense practicality. He’s simply a man who loves what he does to the exclusion of all else, and he’s structured his existence to pursue it with complete artistic devotion and self-sufficiency, while working in the heart of a city that isn’t particularly known for either. Despite the fact that he’s a fixture of the fashion world, he displays a striking lack of interest toward wealth and celebrity, not so much out of principle as because his true obsessions lie elsewhere: he’s driven by an anthropological curiosity about what people wear and why, and he approaches his subjects—especially the women—with an almost ornithological fascination. And although he says that he isn’t a saint, he comes as close as anyone I’ve ever seen to living the ideal of the life in art, immensely rich in its inner qualities while organically joined to a life of pragmatic simplicity. Bill Cunningham may not be “the most important man in the world,” as a bystander in the movie affectionately calls him, but I strongly suspect that he may be the sanest.

Written by nevalalee

June 10, 2013 at 8:49 am

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