The model's face in the picture below is perfect and serene. She smiles gently into the camera lens, with a subtle backdrop in a close, intimate setting. It's the type of picture you'd expect in a newspaper ad for a department store, with its unmistakable greyscale texture. But that placid tableau was made possible only by carefully applied makeup, countless photos, strategically placed lighting, and an interesting prop - the model sat behind a partition with a square cut out from the front for the camera to project into. The photo session for this picture is one of many behind-the-scenes surprises in Model, Frederick Wiseman's 1980 documentary about the world's most glamorous profession.
Whether you're interested in fashion, intrigued with how the magic in the fashion and beauty world happens, or just attracted to beautiful women (or handsome men; male models are presented here too), Model is a fascinating look at the New York modeling world in the late 1970s, a time when professional models and not celebrities defined taste and image in fashion and beauty and when models were just beginning to become celebrities themselves. It's filmed in grainy black and white, so that the entire movie looks like a photo from the New York Times come to life, and the landscapes of late-seventies Manhattan appear in all their gritty, vivid glory. In pure cinema vérité fashion, Wiseman features little commentary and very few interviews; the camera follows models, photographers and motion picture crews like a human observer.
Model shows the viewer several revealing scenes of how clients such as department stores and fashion houses get that special elegance and class in their ads, with closeups of the women being transformed by makeup artists and the men getting immaculately groomed, as well as emphasis on props such as mirrors and lights. Photo sessions take place anywhere and everywhere in New York City and its environs - on the streets, in grimy low-rise buildings, in staid townhouses or, in one instance, on a windswept airfield in what appears to be in New Jersey. The photo above shows the latter session, with a male and female pair posing in a particularly interesting prop - a right-hand-drive Toyota Celica with Japanese-style rear-view side mirrors.
Wiseman doesn't pull the curtain back to cast modeling in negative light. Quite the contrary; Model shows the profession in the most positive manner, detailing the grueling preparation for photo sessions, the devotion models have to their profession, and the attention and dedication of the agencies - in the case, the Zoli agency, in whose offices and waiting rooms the agents advise and interview young women who hope to make it into the business. We see a commercial audition in a small studio, countless photo reshoots, patient direction from the photographers, and meticulous studies of proof sheets. Perhaps the most fascinating scene of Model is a segment lasting a little over ten minutes showing the making of a commercial for Evan-Picone hosiery. The commercial was filmed on location in front of an apartment house (below) and in a studio where constant shots of a model's leg adorned in the product were choreographed over a day's work to create the effect of multiple legs fanning out over the television screen. Takes from the two different shoots were edited together to create the final 30-second commercial, which is shown here in its entirety.
Scenes from the outside world intersect playfully with this insular profession, with people walking the streets of Manhattan, fruit vendors peddling their wares, children trick-or-treating on Halloween, and a leftover placard from Pope John Paul II's October 1979 visit to New York, eventually cutting to scenes of curious onlookers watching a photo session or a commercial shoot. Indeed, the gritty, raw Manhattan of 1979 is as much a star of the movie as the men and women modeling the clothes. (Inevitably, Andy Warhol does show up to converse with a couple of models, both men, about the profession.) There's also a poignant commentary from a Zoli agent (likely agency founder Zoltan Rendessy himself, though he's not identified as such), who defends models from the inaccurate stereotype of being stupid and lazy. His observation that many of them speak multiple languages and are quite worldly as a result of their travels ought to give the viewer pause, if the sight of these men and women putting in long hours on the set hasn't already convinced said viewer of their incomparable work ethic.
Not many of the models themselves are identified, though I recognized several of the women; I spotted Alva Chinn, Tara Shannon, Sara Kapp (above), Pia Gronning, Donna Sexton, and, in the still image below, Apollonia Van Ravenstein, at left, standing next to her future sister-in-law Pat Cleveland, a force of nature all her own. To witness these women on the job is to see a golden age of a profession being captured forever.
Model ends with the backstage festivities of an Oscar de la Renta runway show, with an appearance by Mr. de la Renta himself, followed by the show. It's a far cry from today's fashion trade, in which celebrities appear at fashion shows to be seen rather than to look at the latest styles, just as the preponderance of celebrities on fashion magazine covers have almost pushed models out of the very profession they helped pioneer. Indeed, Model is a loving and sincere look at a period in the profession that has long since gone away; as someone who knows nothing about fashion, I came away from this film with a bigger appreciation for these men and women than I already had.
But don't take my word for it. The film can be seen here. Oh yeah, it's 129 minutes long. :-)