Model, Frederick Wiseman’s 1981 look at the inner workings of New York City’s Zoli model agency, isn’t one of the legendary documentarian’s best-known works. But it’s recently made a comeback on the repertory circuit, with screenings in series like Metrograph’s NYC ’81 and Quad Cinema’s The New York Woman. Nearly 40 years removed from the milieu the film captures so precisely, Model now makes for more fascinating viewing than ever, particularly for those of us interested in the nuances of the fashion scene in a pre-influencer, pre-digital age. Back then, magazines were both abundant and typically featured models (not celebrities!) on their covers.
Like all of Wiseman’s work, Model is observational and rooted in the specificities of social codes. Unlike most of his other films, it’s about people who go in front of cameras for a living. Many scenes are metatextual in this regard. We watch the photographers watch models, going through roll after roll of film and directing them to appear spontaneous and playful. Through pictures depicting the creation of pictures meant to convey effortless glamour, we understand the fundamentally boring side of this coveted job.
The pièce de résistance is an extended sequence on the filming of a commercial for Evan-Picone stockings. During a shoot on a city street, a model is directed to walk down a building’s front stairs what feels like a thousand times. The director’s growing frustration is amusing. Later he instructs a male and female model with little chemistry on how to make running into each other look casual. Another model poses in a studio, moving her long, stocking-clad leg inch by inch as the crew draws her movements on a monitor, an eye-opening bit of analog graphic design. Wiseman make us feel how much work goes into something that lasts less than a minute, simultaneously dissecting the contradiction in faking spontaneity for consumerist ends.
While he exhibits a dry sense of humor about it, Wiseman doesn’t look down on this world. All the many different places and institutions he’s filmed have their idiosyncrasies, and this is no exception. Passive-aggression is a constant; it doesn’t take long to comprehend that “5’6 is too short” and “Your look is more commercial” are polite ways of telling potential models to never come back, while the “darlings” and “sweethearts” uttered by men working on set are just campy lingo. At one point, a higher-up at the agency says that only 2%-5% of prospective models are signed, and even then, their careers are usually short.
By Wiseman’s design, none of the individual models stand out as characters. They are professional blank slates, projecting whatever mood their work calls for that day. His camera frequently finds itself on the streets, observing pedestrians who often look livelier than the models. The models are obviously beautiful, and do a fine job of making ’80s frippery look covetable, but Wiseman presents them as a bored workforce. It’s not until the final scene, in which they dance and hang out backstage before a show, that we see them appearing to have fun. Rather than accepting fashion’s façade as a space for glamorous escapism or criticizing it outright, Wiseman takes a subtler approach, revealing an air of ennui in all those pretty faces. Above all else, modeling is labor. Just something to keep in mind as New York Fashion Week continues.