Mar 16, 2012
This has been a somewhat heavy week topic-wise here at MPB, I recognize.
Rather than plan, I just take my inspiration from whatever I happen to be doing or thinking at the moment and then, in roughly an hour or so, turn it into a blog post. If my thoughts are sometimes scrambled or unclear, I look to you, my readers -- many of whom have thought about these issues in far greater depth than I -- to contribute your wisdom in a comment, for which I am always grateful (and always read even if I don't often respond). Anyway, I hope those who prefer lighter fare will bear with me for one more day.
Having placed a hold on a library copy of the 2010 documentary (directed by Richard Press) about New York Times fashion/society photographer Bill Cunningham, I was able to pick it up and watch it yesterday evening. So that's what's on my mind today.
Friends, one of the great privileges of writing a blog is the opportunity to feel known. Whatever a blog's theme or focus, inevitably you're writing about yourself. I consider feeling known and (hopefully) understood, to be one of life's great satisfactions. (Since it is through our connections with others that we develop a healthy relationship with ourselves.) You don't have to look far to realize that many of the people our culture idolizes for their outward success and social status are, paradoxically, lonely and lost.
I've always been leery of people who seem unknowable or emotionally inaccessible because, in my experience, they are often deeply wounded, and as a result, are highly likely to wound others, however unconsciously. Their inaccessibility mirrors their own alienation from themselves.
One of the wonderful things about the times I grew up in -- I'm speaking specifically about the Sixties and Seventies -- was that it was a period that supported personal growth and consciousness-raising. Whatever excesses occurred that make that period easy to parody, it truly was a time when many people who had never been encouraged to explore themselves were able to do so, especially -- though certainly not limited to -- those involved in the feminist and gay liberation movements. It was an era when Gestalt therapy (which I've been deeply involved with both as a peer counselor and client), EST, and all kinds of self-help and support groups flourished. However incomplete or imperfect the results, it was a time of healing.
Back then, many were reacting to institutions of authority, aka "The Establishment," which they felt had betrayed them, through events like the war in Vietnam, institutionalized racism and sexism, etc. Many gay people were reacting to the church -- the Catholic church in particular -- which preached that homosexuality was a sin and that "practicing homosexuals" would burn for an eternity in hell. This had a profoundly wounding effect on gay people who were raised Catholic, and it was an act of courage to reject the church's teachings and stand up for oneself. I was not raised in a religious household, but the gay Catholics (and many Protestants) I know have suffered tremendously at the hand of the church. We may live in more progressive times today, but when it comes to homosexuality (and so many other issues), the Catholic Church at least, hasn't budged.
I bring this up because religion and sexual identity come up in Bill Cunningham: New York. Although the topics are treated gingerly (and fleetingly), they weighed heavily for me while I was watching the film. Again and again we see how Cunningham takes pride -- one might call it excessive ego-investment -- in his outward simplicity/self-effacement/self-denial. He rejects or dismisses offers of food, paychecks, awards, recognition, again and again and again. And he talks about this endlessly, which raises red flags of the lady doth protest too much sort. It feels gratuitous.
Toward the end of the documentary the filmmakers (very tentatively) ask the octogenarian photographer about his personal life. None of the "talking head" contributors presented as Cunningham's friends know anything about how he lives or where, his background, his personal life, etc. (At the time the film was made, Cunningham was living in one of the fabled rent-controlled studios atop Carnegie Hall, home to many artists over the decades, and were about to get evicted (though relocated locally). Cunningham's studio had no kitchen, the bathroom was down the hall, but he was fine with it -- in fact, it's a point of pride.)
Anyway, the filmmakers ask him about his personal life and it turns out that, yes, the deeply private former milliner and Harvard University drop-out is gay, and that his early interest in fashion was a concern to his family. (We don't hear much about his family background.)
When asked about his religious practices, we learn that he goes to church every Sunday; this has always been profoundly important to him, he needs it. He is then asked point blank if he has ever had a romantic relationship and he answers, rather defensively, no -- it simply had never occurred to him you see, it wasn't something that was ever discussed in his family, and anyway, there would never have been the time, he was so busy with his work, his work, his work! Ten seconds after which he begins to cry. And then he perks up, the jolly mask returns, and it's like the previous moment had never happened. (How interesting that at a birthday party given in his honor at the Times, all attendees are wearing Bill Cunningham masks, in tribute.)
I've known two men roughly Cunningham's age -- both devout Catholics -- both gay or bisexual, both accomplished and renowned (one a poet, another a musician), both charming and beloved, both born into privilege. But they both are/were (one has since died) haunted by guilt, shame and on some level, regret. Both missed the opportunity to live fully authentic lives, in part due to church doctrine they were unwilling to challenge. Surely they were aware that many others of the same generation had found the strength and courage to resist the ignorance and reject the lies. But not they.
I strongly recommend Bill Cunningham New York to those interested in fashion or simply the life of a highly creative person. As a strongly anti-establishment type, however, I had a hard time ignoring the fact that this talented photographer and long-time fixture on the fashion scene is a big believer in the authority and prestige of the Catholic Church, old-money New York Society, and the Gray Lady herself, the New York Times.
You may see it differently, but this was my take, and what I found most interesting -- and sad -- about this film.
You can read more about Bill Cunningham here and download the film on Amazon here. Tomorrow we will return to our regular programming.
Have a great day, everybody!