No one in the world makes movies like director Frederick Wiseman. His earliest documentaries, including Titicut Follies (1967), which exposed the shocking conditions at a hospital for the criminally insane, are classics of social justice filmmaking. His more recent films, like Belfast, Maine (1999) and At Berkeley (2013), demonstrate new modes of discursive storytelling. Wiseman won an Academy Award and a MacArthur “genius” grant for his documentaries, which, seen together, compose an ambitious, influential series that analyzes societal institutions. On September 12, 2017, the 87-year-old artist came to FIT for a showing of his film Model (1980) and an interview.
He may be a legend, but Wiseman appeared as an everyman, wearing a rumpled suede shirt, simple brogans, and rather exquisite bedhead. (He was fresh off the plane from Paris, where he lives.) It was the first time he’d seen Model in a while, he said, and “strangely enough, I liked it.” The movie goes behind the scenes of Manhattan’s Zoli Modeling Agency, observing editorial photo and TV commercial shoots, and an Oscar de la Renta fashion show. Wiseman remembered the filming: “It was fun to hang out with models for six weeks; I was 48. I thought [the models’] life was extremely hard. Very few made good money. Most of them sat at home waiting for the telephone to ring. The moment they were taken on by an agency, there were a lot of people who wanted to be their best friend. There’s absolutely nothing glamorous about the life of a model.” He shot in black and white, he said, because “it’s more stylized, so I thought that fit the world of models.”
Model marks a shift in Wiseman’s oeuvre, from the earlier, more polemical films to the more thematically ambitious movies. Wiseman acknowledged the change. “Titicut Follies and High School were more didactic,” he said. “In retrospect, that didacticism was a mistake, because I’m not interested in instructing people.” Since his films never include extrinsic music, narration, or informative intertitles, viewers have to engage and reflect on what they see. “The approach as far as I’m concerned is more novelistic than journalistic,” he said. “The novels I like best are the ones where I have to work to understand why the novelist is having people do the things they do.”
Some academics have interpreted Model as a harsh, Marxist statement, though it’s also humorous, and the FIT audience laughed throughout. Asked about the divergence of reactions to his work, Wiseman said, “I’m not the first person to recognize the wide variety of ambiguities in a lot of the human experience. My films reflect that.” The movie includes a shot of FIT. “I deliberately included it right after the moment where the street vendor drops the apples,” Wiseman said. One wonders why, but Wiseman never answers questions about the meaning of his films. “My answer of course is the film,” he said. “If I thought I could explain the film, I wouldn’t have made it.” The complexity of human experience is his real subject, and the viewers’ response is part of that: “I do think my movies are funny. And a lot of what we as human beings do is funny. It’s also sad or tragic, but it’s also very funny.” —Alex Joseph
Originally published in the spring 2018 issue of Hue.