Friday, July 18, 2014

Bill Cunningham New York

After moving to New York City in 1981, one of the first people I began to recognize with frequency was a slim man on a bicycle, with a camera who would seem to be just about anywhere at any given time, transversing downtown, Midtown, the Upper East Side, etc.

I don't know when I became aware that this fellow, looking boyish and agile, with fine bones & smooth hair, was Bill Cunningham; nor do I remember when I became aware of his photo spreads in the New York Times. In those lean pre-internet days, the hefty Sunday edition would be a weekly weekend ritual: going out to get the paper to go with my morning coffee;  and when I lived in the Lower East Side, picking up a bagel with cream cheese at a place nearby on Essex Street, to eat while looking through it. Bill Cunningham's spreads would be about fashion trends, although identifying them strictly as fashion does not really describe them at all: there's an anthropological delight at work in finding commonalities in the chaos of urban crowds, making structural comparisons. In the numbing din of an urban setting there is great attention and focus, and a sense of life in movement.

Cunningham worked elsewhere too: in the Annie Flanders iteration of Details, for Women's Wear Daily - all of that was off my radar, although I did look at Details in those days, which was like a report from the then edgy East Village.

The photographs themselves are deceivingly artless: done with a telephoto lens, or cropped to emphasize a particular item, there's no apparent photographer directing the images. These are not quite surveillance photographs, what we see are an archive of fragments of life passing on the streets, from an ambiguously neutral position, fashion-reportage from the "field." There is a sense of the street as a living theater of display.

This idea of the street as shared theater came out of the industrialization and urbanization in the nineteenth century, in the revocation of sumptuary laws, and the blurring of social positions in the upheavals of modernity.  The invention of photography offered a scientific mirror of resemblances which could also, in apparent paradox, conceal meaning too. In the Poe story The Man of the Crowd,  the narrator, seeing a stranger, shadowing the stranger as if to unpack his secret (what secret?), leads to no conclusions except exhaustion and an uneasy truce with un-knowing.

Bill Cunningham's photos could be seen as our equivalent of Baudelaire's distinctions about the temporal beauty that comprises the work of Constantin Guys: a delight in the moment which has no shelf life in itself, transposed into the frieze of modern life. In the case of Cunningham and the New York Times, in the modernist layouts of the newspaper, this also touches on scrapbooking, motion studies, and collage.

The idea of being in public also seems in eclipse in the world we live in. Is Bill Cunningham a valiant knight of modernity in this sense? Holding up a collage of dandyism that is for both ourselves and others? Do people feel like they are even outside anymore or is the street simply a movement from one inside to another?

The Richard Press film Bill Cunningham New York is an amazing window into the milieu of Bill Cunningham, his daily work, and the range of his world, from photo lab to diner to New York Times to  rarified social orbits to his studio in Carnegie Hall.

In his ubiquity on the streets, on his bicycle, looking refined yet never imposing, Bill Cunningham is able to render himself more or less invisible. This lack of aggression is the opposite of classic street photography, in which there is a downright macho approach to the idea of being outside, among others, with an individual, alienated, abstracted camera frame at the foreground. Bill Cunningham comes off as a Fred Astaire figure - graceful, charming, humorous, attentive. The gestures and postures of those photographed are rendered with as close a photographic objectivity as possible. What keeps this from being machine-like is Cunningham's sensitivity to fashion, to display, and attraction.

The film is also a great document of the kinds of lives which could be lived in New York City that are now becoming obsolete in the harsh economic shifts of our present day, whether as an artist or "jobber" in the Fashion District. Seeing the studios of both Cunningham and Editta Sherman in Carnegie Hall should remind everyone that we are living in a shrinking, regulated world of less in our daily lives. Cunningham exemplifies thrift in some respects - the uniform-like nature of his clothes, his basic cot surrounded by file cabinets and books, his diner and take-out meals - he also has a measure of freedom which he attributes to living without money, which in so many ways seems impossible now except in terms of being homeless.

In the tapestry of dandyism, high society, and journalism detailed in the film, at the onset Cunningham mentions the work of Japanese designers in the 1980s, in particular Rei Kawakubo, looking at the homeless as inspiration for her work. This is also mentioned in one of the essays in John Waters' Role Models. Cunningham's mention is a weird flash, as it were, in what seems a fairly stable social fabric, even if Cunningham's eviction from Carnegie Hall is part of the narrative, which when mentioned in the film Cunningham responds with stoic indifference. Cunningham is a figure of constant paradox: a shy person who lives entirely in public events; a very sharp observant person who has little to say for himself. The difference may be partially generational, but I think we also live in a culture wherein disclosure of the self can lead to as much as "smokescreen" of concealment as saying little or nothing. The words we use enclose a subject rather than liberate it.

Beyond the interest in Cunningham that drives the film, I want to point out some of the virtues of the film itself, primarily its simplicity and its discretion.

 Near the end Cunningham is asked if he ever had a love in his life. "Do you mean 'Am I gay?'" Cunningham asks back, to which he adds that that is what his family feared - beyond that Cunningham didn't answer the question. I feared the film would lapse into a sort of emotional breakdown, a la the end of Shirley Clarke's Portrait of Jason or any Barbara Walters interview, but it veers away from any resolution beyond that awkward moment. What we see as we saw throughout the film is the oblique independence Cunningham and his devotion to his work. That gives a moral lesson beyond our contemporary world of stage-crafted personalities. The film ends with a birthday party at the New York Times with the crew singing a parody of the song "Kids" from Bye-Bye Birdie, transposed to "Bill" which includes the refrain "and you always get your way!" Enough said there.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Watching The Clock, or Time, The Destroyer

Slouching into my middle-ages I have reverted at times to the position of an oracle of negativity, with time as my ally: When you get to be my age/When the world becomes different from what you thought it was . . .

It's tiresome & I embarrass myself much too much with this posturing. As Jed Leland says in Citizen Kane: "What a disagreeable old man I have become." But if I could chart something that seems inconsequential, but related to my bad spirits: the measuring of time in the everyday.

As someone who grew up with clocks, watches, and what now seems simple technologies that also act as timepieces such as radio and television, there was certainly consciousness about the passing of time, but it was not until the insertion of digital technologies into life: computers, cameras, and phones which give us notations down to the second, with easy access. One could potentially walk away from a clock, once upon a time,  although in our contemporary logic that was a skewed illusion. But how deadly dull is it to be faced with the horrifying precision of these passing numbers, these dark spirits of rationality in the corners of our screens.

The one possibility of sublime in this technological logic is more precision. The rapturous moment in Errol Morris's Standard Operating Procedure is of all the cell phone cameras used in Abu Ghraib Prison being synced together, as they were not all synced together previously (a hapless margin of error to be corrected, that also becomes forensic evidence): this allowed for the scenes enacted by the phones to have an outrageously precise timeline of what happened to whom, like frames from a film. An impressive bit of technology but for an oldster such as myself, whose early role model of a sentient machine is HAL in 2001, this is also terrifying.

There was a long prelude to this in cassette and VHS recordings, in what now seems like a primitive appropriation of the gray areas of technology: people adapting recorders for their own purposes, their own urges to collecting and retaining sounds & images. Whereas now it's as if each one of us can be the Head Scientist of our homes, with such sleek precision. Our phones, our computers - they tell us what we need to know and what we can do in a downright professional mode.

The strange monument to this sense of perfect appropriation is Christian Marclay's The Clock, which I have been watching repeatedly at the Walker Art Center.

The logic of the technique has been seen before, in other projects by Marclay, and others, such as the thematic films (Lip, Love, Other) culled from movie fragments by Tracey Moffatt, or the psychodramas  wrought out of Hollywood films (Mother+Father) by Candice Breitz, among many others. These are all montages wrought out of existent films, which act as a lingua franca, or, if not an actual language, then at least a stand-in for our shared unconscious narrative drives.

What is ambiguous and terrifying about Marclay's The Clock is its monumental scale, time-wise - that it lasts 24 hours, like Warhol's Empire, and that when it plays it is synced with the actual time zone of where it is shown. The logic of The Clock is that each vignette leads to the telling of time, which is the time in which we are also spectators.

The Walker in an admirable readjustment of its own timetable will facilitate a few screenings which will be open 24/7, as otherwise viewing The Clock can be seen only in the real time of museum hours. This touches on what is perhaps a hidden Wagnerian strain to this project, that it traffics in the monumentality of time and space conflated, in special circumstances. This leads me to the aspects of The Clock, so seemingly perfect, which surprised me and I find this troubling too: how well done it is. It's downright seamless. The research into finding the clips and relating them into a meta-narrative is as daunting to consider as the precise passage of minutes and hours. There's a thematic thread among the clips which crosses decades of filmmaking and languages into a severe totality of telling time. This could be thought of as a dystopic Family of Man in which everything everywhere leads to the same inexorable thing: 24 hours to a day.

Whereas the montages of Tracey Moffatt, for example, exist by not connecting too well, the clips veer in tone or quality in a way that emphasizes a clash, a staccato sense of disruption; what I found eerie about The Clock is how good it looks and sounds. There's a complex aural landscape supporting this too, along with the visual effort to seam together what is otherwise disparate material. Everything becomes one big movie, which is a complaint I recall from an earlier Godard project (Histoires du Cinema?). In The Clock this position (do we need a position? good? bad? right? wrong?) is truly opaque given the scale of the piece.

& in a great synchronicity given the Walker's riches, in the adjacent gallery, as part of the exhibit Art Expanded, there is a set up of a John Cage piece from 1969, 33 1/3, in which multiple turntables are set up along with milk crates of albums, in which the audience can choose whichever music to play. The selection is now tatty & old, but not particular to the piece - 33 1/3 can be set up with any number of turntables & any albums available. The clash of the sounds is predicated on what is done by those in the gallery. There's an attendant from the museum (in my multiple visits I've noticed that it seems a little more regulated as time goes by - not as irregular or slovenly as it was on my first encounters). On line there's a recording of its first performance at U-C/Davis which sounds a lot more circumspect than our own media-drenched present time. There was no vogue for music spinning at faster speeds as a kind of hipster irony which I've witnessed at parties (I recommend a speeded up version of Diana Ross's Ain't No Mountain High Enough), or as what seems as deep an acceptance of din as the norm.

The juxtaposition of the Marclay & the Cage pieces also calls into question the ostensible tabula rasa of the Cage piece: is there really a kind of directionless potential in the Cage piece, given the elaborate time-coding we now experience the world through, as seen in The Clock? Can our motions be truly random, or are we in some sort of giant Skinner Box of culture, being trained without knowing it? These are wonderful pieces too: why does it feel so ominous?