THE LAST IMPRESARIO (2014, doc)

December 4, 2014

last impresario Greetings again from the darkness. In the biographical documentary genre, a stream of talking heads is ordinarily my least favorite approach. However, director Gracie Otto (sister of actress Miranda) understands that when your subject is “the most famous person you’ve never heard of”, it’s pretty impressive and effective to line-up 50+ celebrities to offer their thoughts and memories of the man.

Michael White. Maybe you know the name, maybe you don’t. Even before the opening credits, we get rapid-fire celebrity descriptions of Mr. White and his impact on theatre, film and the creative society of the 1960’s and 70’s. Director Otto explains how she first noticed Mr. White at the Cannes Film Festival as a slew of celebrities paid their respects. She then began her research into this most interesting man whose 50 year career has left quite a personal stamp.

We hear descriptions such as “he likes people” and he “likes being where the action is”. This about a man who grew up in Scotland, was educated in Switzerland, and worked in New York … before making a real mark in London’s West End Theatre district. His infamous dinner parties allowed paths to cross between the brightest in stage, art, film, and publishing. He had an eye for talent outside the mainstream – experimental and avant garde appealed to him … those who pushed the envelope (or ignored it completely). Because of this, his sphere of influence included such diverse personalities as Pina Bausch, Yoko Ono, John Waters and Kate Moss. His stage production of “Oh! Calcutta” was a major cultural breakthrough and led to others such as the original “Rocky Horror Show”, and the iconic comedy film Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

When Ms. Otto asks him why he has so many friends, Mr. White replies that “you never lose a friend”. This comes after we have learned that powerful music producer Lou Adler took advantage of him during negotiations for the Rocky Horror rights in the U.S. White does acknowledge that he has been “cheated” a few times over the years. Another apt description is that he is “drawn to excitement more than money”. It’s then that we learn of his incredible archive of 30,000 photographs – from a time before the paparazzi ruled the world.

The odd font style makes some of the onscreen graphics difficult to read, but the music reminds us that Michael White’s legacy from the swinging 60’s as a playboy and gambling Producer is quite secure Today Mr. White lives a modest life, and periodically has to auction his collections to raise funds. He has had a couple of strokes, walks with the aid of two canes, and is sometimes difficult to understand. He still has regular dinners with friends … after all, with this attitude in life, one never loses a friend.

watch the trailer:

 

 

 


BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK

April 12, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. Admittedly, my fashion sense is limited to jeans, a t-shirt and tennis shoes. I would not be one’s first choice to discuss the industry of fashion photography. However, that’s not what this documentary is really about. Instead of focusing on the photographs of Bill Cunningham, director Richard Press shoots the man at work and in life … the two being indistinguishable for Mr. Cunningham.

If you aren’t familiar with his name, you are not alone. Bill Cunningham has a long running NY TIMES page where his photographs are displayed. He also has a feature called “On The Street”, where he records commentary on his photographs – this can be heard on the website. Still, none of that tells you much about this man.

 The film opens abruptly with video of Cunningham at work. He is alternatingly riding his bicycle and sprint-walking as he weaves through the sea of taxis and humanity in downtown Manhattan. His trusty camera is always around his neck as he continues his quest for discovering fashion on the street … fashion sense in the working people of the city. His eye is sharp and quick. We never know what he will hone in on. Maybe a never-before-seen winter coat, a flamboyant hat, or even a pair of heels that a woman is sporting. The man is over 80 years old and his eye and mind still quickly process what he deems worthy of notice.

Once again, none of those words do justice to this man or his story. He lives, well did for 50 years, an incredibly humble life in a studio apartment within the confines of Carnegie Hall. Yes, as the film takes place, he is among the last of the remaining residents of the great hall. We learn management has determined that the few residents will be moved out of the building and relocated to other apartments nearby. Office space is needed.  History be damned!  We meet one of the other residents … the fascinating “Duchesss of Carnegie”, Editta Sherman. She has lived there for 60 years and it has been her home and photography studio. She made her living shooting celebrities and we catch a glimpse of her amazing work … including a short video of her dancing in the 60’s – filmed by Andy Warhol! Ms. Sherman’s space is palatial compared to Cunningham’s. His small studio apartment is crammed with metal file cabinets, each loaded with decades worth of photographs and negatives … a priceless history of New York fashion. His bed is a twin mattress held up by books and crates – no kitchen, and a community bathroom. “Humble existence” is an understatement.

 We learn from Mr. Cunningham that his work is divided into three parts: his street work, fashion shows, and charity events. He makes it clear that celebrities bore him and he is much more interested in how the everyday person uses fashion in their real life. Still, early on, we get comments from Vogue editor, Anna Wintour about how Cunningham’s eye impacts the fashion world. She gives him much credit. We also get quickies from Tom Wolfe, Annie Flanders and even Brooke Astor to see how easily Cunningham fits in with the upper crust, despite his connection to the street. There is even a segment in Paris where he is honored by the French Order of Art and Letters … and he “works” his own event!

 But it’s the street where he is most at home. He says he is on his 29th bicycle … the first 28 were stolen. He states this with the same enthusiasm that he shoots his subjects. The man is a constant smile and quick with banter, yet we learn just how alone he really is. When asked about his friends, family, lovers … he momentarily breaks down only to regroup and express his love for what he does – it’s not work, it’s pleasure.

By the end, it’s clear that while so many people respect the man and his work, no one really knows him. He lets his pictures stand as the testament to decades of documenting the colors and patterns and style of New Yorkers.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see someone who loves their work and lives for the moment.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you are looking for any real behind-the-scenes trade secrets in the fashion industry.  This is a story about a man and his work.