Wednesday, February 29, 2012

What's new again: Frederick Wiseman's Model

Posted By on 02.29.12 at 12:46 PM

The Music Box’s current run of Crazy Horse offers a good excuse to delve into director Frederick Wiseman’s body of work. All of his 37 documentaries are worth seeing, though the size of his catalog makes it difficult to know where to start. I’d recommend High School (1968) or Welfare (1975) as a point of entry—though I’d add his filmography is more varied than these bitter social portraits suggest. Starting with his compassionate tetrology about Alabama’s schools for the handicapped—Adjustment and Work, Blind, Deaf, and Multi-Handicapped (1986-87)—Wiseman’s documentaries became more plaintive, at times even serene. Some of them deepen upon comparison with similar films in the Wiseman canon, as they reveal his maturation as a thinker over the past five decades: for instance, the charter school of High School II (1994) poses a healthy alternative to the authoritarian zone of High School; and the life-affirming depiction of social work in Domestic Violence (2001) counterbalances the nightmarish portrait of Welfare.

The Wiseman film that Crazy Horse most recalls is Model (1980). Both consider careers that are based on looks (burlesque dancing and fashion modeling respectively) and the little industries that sprout up around them. Crazy Horse shows Wiseman bemused by his subjects and warmly indulgent of them: witness the long, funny scene in which the burlesque show composer pours himself into the mixing of a vapid Europop song. Model is a far more critical film. Ted Shen wrote in the Reader that it doesn’t encourage empathy with its subjects, but this seems a deliberate part of the movie's design. As Wiseman presents it, the models’ craft comes down to assuming positions (both physical and emotional) on command, becoming human clay for advertisers and fashion designers. While the film acknowledges the hard work such craft demands, its most enduring scenes, pace Shen, are of "tedium, narcissism, and insularity." These qualities achieve full expression in the climactic sequence, a bitter punchline in the classic Wiseman style. Shot at a high-profile fashion show, the subjects here are the most successful models in New York City (earlier in the film, an agent estimates that only two or three percent of them land gigs this good). The spectators appear to be interested only in the clothes: the women on the catwalk are so good at their jobs that one doesn't notice them at all.

Frederick Wiseman
  • Frederick Wiseman
Modeling comes to seem a rather lonely profession: as we’re often reminded, every model is only in business for him or herself. Compared with the solitary careerists of Model, the collaborative team documented by Crazy Horse seems like a welcome corrective. That’s not to say Model lacks those moments of discovery that are the gems of Wiseman’s work. The scenes depicting photographers are particularly fascinating (as Wiseman tries to get out of them what they try to get out of the models), and some of the industry veterans prove surprisingly philosophical in their musings. The movie’s also a neat document of late-70s New York, where even high fashion seems to have been inspired in comparable proportion by disco and punk rock.

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