Saturday, September 17, 2011

An Angel

The film Bill Cunningham New York was shown in DC last spring, but did not make a splash. The only place where the film was a hit is NYC. No surprise. The film is about the permanent fixture of Sunday New York Times and the city itself- incredible, saint Bill Cunningham.

His 2-3 minutes “On the Street” photo essay is one of my favorite treats in the Sunday online edition of the New York Times. This is a sample: I was always curious about the old man on a bicycle who takes pictures and narrates the essay. He has an innocent charm and is just a bit of enigma to keep you wondering. His comments are incredibly intelligent, have slight irony and zero arrogance. I even paid a little homage to him in this entry:

For those who didn’t have chance to see the film, here is a short synopsis: Bill is in his 80s. He goes to church every Sunday. He lives alone in a tiny apartment in Manhattan. The apartment doesn’t have a kitchen. The space which used to be a kitchen is taken by file cabinets with his photo archive. He has never been married or even in a relationship. Most days Bill spends his time riding a cheap bike around the city and taking pictures of people who dress smartly and know how to walk the city like a runway. He loves New York, the crowds, the variety. Union Square market on Saturday morning is one of his favorite spots. He himself dresses in the most boring and conventional way. The film shows him on the streets and salons of New York and Paris, at home with his lifelong friends and neighbors and in interviews about his life and work. It is so incredibly odd that such unassuming and seemingly plain fellow made it BIG in the world of fashion, probably the most self involve and pretentious of all.

I keep thinking about Bill for months and came back to my notes while writing and re-writing this entry many times. There is something in Bill’s character which the film manages to reveal. I have a difficult time putting it in words. It is probably not just one quality but a combination of kindness, creativity, spirituality and a very special kind of freedom. I’m trying to understand and see if I can find it in myself. I want to call this internal freedom.

Among eleven definitions of the word FREEDOM in the dictionary this one seems the most common when people talk about personnel freedom: the right or privilege of unrestricted use or access. This meaning of freedom is easily understood and closely related to being wealthy. Even more trivial this immediately translates to an ability to buy whatever you want. But there is also a different kind of freedom: a person can free self from wanting the stuff and experience life not through possessions, but through observations, learning, reflection, friendship and most importantly through creative process. I know it is difficult to imagine especially in a society where everything relies on the buying and selling. It seems that life itself is impossible without that. This film is an important reminder that life and happiness are absolutely possible without it. If one made a choice to experience life in this alternative way, it almost automatically leads to losing an incentive to earn money beyond the ability to buy only very basic things. If you follow this line of thoughts, you realize that money becomes so much less important and therefore your choices of how you want to live are so much wider because you are less dependent on money. That makes the person free! Free to create, to pursue a passion, free to spend time with people one enjoys spending time with.

But it is not that easy. There are certain desires which limit our freedom severally. Some of them are considered to be a social good, like having family and children and are necessary for continuing human kind. But let’s face it: the decision to have family and kids in many cases stops people from pursuing their dreams. So if your freedom is something you are cognizant about, the impact of family responsibilities should be carefully analyzed. The lifelong commitment to have kids could be a blessing, where freedom is exchanged for experience of raising a child.

Going back to Bill. He is one of very few people who freed himself not only from desires for material possessions, but also from family ties and built his life around what he really loves to do. His sacrifice was probably not a conscious one initially. He is gay and Catholic, so for him to pursue his sexual desires created a major internal impasse. What followed is a complete freedom from relationships, family commitments, possessions, and ambitions. Creative process provided an outlet for passion. With that he is full of joy, free of pretence and almost like an angel, blissful and completely really free.

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