Bill Cunningham New York + Michael Clayton


Double feature: “I’m not the enemy,” the eponymous protagonist of “Michael Clayton” tells his unravelling coworker in an attempt to distance himself from the compromising agenda of his profession.  The latter, not skipping a beat, shoots back: “Then who are you?”  It is this exchange – the sharpest in a film of sharp exchanges – that links “Michael Clayton” to the endearing and moving documentary “Bill Cunningham New York.”

Both films examine the complicated relationship between job/career and identity.   Where the documentary profiles someone whose career and identity are inextricably intertwined, the narrative film shows a character struggling to keep the two as separate as possible, and realizing how difficult that can be.

In fact, both of these extremes are problematic.  If who you are entirely overlaps with what you do, what relief do you have from a bad day at the office?  On the other hand, distance yourself too much from your job and you won’t have enough skin in either game.   And if you’re ambitious, you’ll feel guilty and trapped in either of these positions.

Michael Clayton’s triumph is his extrication; Bill Cunningham’s his involvement.  Both have a cost.

For a marathon:  “MIchael Clayton”‘s protagonist and “Bill Cunningham New York”‘s subject are both Manhattanites in cutthroat industries.  The former has the bravado you would expect of his borough and profession, whereas much is made of the latter’s modest temperament and lifestyle.  For another real-life paragon of humbleness, check out “Searching for Sugar Man.”  No doubt you’ll be inspired by both of these characters.  But you may also be tempted to ask: is there such a thing as too much self-effacement?

“The Hurt Locker” presents another character who not only fully inhabits his professional responsibilities, but loses himself in them.

(Creative Commons licensed original images courtesy of “Mitchell Bartlett” and “Food Stories” at Flickr)

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