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'Model,' Fred Wiseman's latest documentary: in the end, brilliant

By Arthur Unger / September 14, 1981



New York

Frederick Wiseman often makes long, boring documentaries, on subject matter you do not really care about. What matters, however, is that Frederick Wiseman cares about them. And his concern shows.

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Many of Mr. Wiseman's documentaries investigate American institutions -- high schools, colonial outposts, mental institutions, monasteries, etc.

This master documentarian takes all the time he wants to reord just about everything within range of his camera. Sometimes you may feel that Wiseman is just a stubborn artist holding a window frame in the wind before your eyes, forcing you to see through it what hem sees through it.

"Model" (PBS, Wednesday, 8-11 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is one of a series of Wiseman documentaries for which documentary buffs must be grateful to WNET, New York, the sponsoring station. This one is not only about the modeling profession, however. It is also about New York City and the people who come to it in search of fortunes with only their faces and figures to offer. It is about the superficiality of parts of our society. It juxtaposes surface beauty with inner beauty, the ugliness of commercialized fashion with the beauty of naturalness.

Mr. Wiseman spends most of his/our time at a top modeling agency called Zoli -- with Zoli himself, his helpers, professional photographers, fashion models, commercial models, "mere" acting possibilities (if you are under 5 foot, 6 you had better forget about modeling and concentrate on acting.)

There are poignant moments of sadness for the losers, moments of glory for the winners. But through it all, I had a constant nagging feeling that the only real winners we see are those on the street, free of the bonds of empty aloofness.

The firm is bland, sardonic, wry, innocent, sophisticated, dull, fascinating -- but in the end, brilliant. Frederick Wiseman manages to insert himself and his camera into the lives of the people he studies and make them forget he is there... listening... recording... filming... but never really judging. The judgment he leaves to those who travel the entire route with him.

"Model" should be of special interest to those involved or about to be involved in modeling as a career. Others will learn much more than they ever wanted to learn about the day-to-day routine of those blandly flawless, almost disembodied, faces. But everybody who watches will come away feeling he has somehow made the rounds himself.

Living through a long (and he has done some shorter ones) Wiseman documentary is like taking a cross-country railroad train. You know it can be done by plane, but think of all the humanity you would miss en route.