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Director: Frederick Wiseman
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independent film | See All (1) »

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16 September 1981 (USA)  »

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On Ethics
24 August 2002 | by (Montreal, Canada) – See all my reviews

In my entry on "Juvenile Court", I discussed the metaphorical use of a documentary subject. Should a subject reflect only itself, or can it be used to reflect a broader context?

The issue of using events in documentary films to focus on broader events could be discussed further using Wiseman's film "Model" as an example. This film has been criticized for lacking the "edge" of Wiseman's earlier films, and indeed, there at first don't appear to be any stand out scenes that leap out at the viewer. One would have thought that with a subject such as the fashion industry, Wiseman would have a lot to say concerning class and culture. Upon closer inspection however, one can see details that reflect subtle comments about the subjects. The detachment from the subject could be a reflection of the coldness of the atmosphere.

There are many examples of this. In his essay "Wiseman's 'Model' and the Documentary Project", Dan Armstrong writes: "In sequence after sequence he shows us models at work, presenting themselves to the camera after being suitably dressed, painted combed, brushed, placed into a context, and moved about. They are, in effect, so many props, inanimate objects, mannequins to display the clothing and project 'personality.' In one revealing sequence, three French models get the pose 'right' only after following directions to 'ignore one another. Pretend you're mannequins in a Bloomingdale window.'"

Armstrong goes on to talk of a scene where male models stand in the corner of a room during a party, in frozen mannequin poses, sometimes framing them between some of the 'beautiful' party-goers. Armstrong also mentions Wiseman's repeated use of mannequins, "employing them as symbols of the commodified self, the individual as object and product of the market." What should we make of Wiseman's detached view?

Perhaps ultimately we should all judge for ourselves. Wiseman makes his films to try to bring a point across, but not force it. As Wiseman in a 2000 interview with "Film Maker" magazine put it: "The notion that [my films] could be objective – I don't know how to deal with that. Every aspect of filmmaking represents a choice, whether it's the choice of subject matter, the way it's shot the way it's edited, the length of the film, or the duration and order of the sequences…. So I've never been able to get involved in this objectivity business. But at the same time, the word I substitute for 'objective' is 'fair.' And again, that's totally subjective. But I mean fair in the sense that I try to be open to the experience I have in making the film…. I try not to impose my preconceived ideas onto the material."

We have here an example of a filmmaker whom although makes films with a certain goal, there is enough in them to suggest that he is aware of other opinions and regards them as well. As for whether his films are exploitative, it could be said that what a person brings to the film, his or her opinion about what they have seen, is entirely their own, and has nothing to do with Wiseman. Ultimately, it could be said that he just makes films, and despite what believes about what he has filmed, what is ethical, or what is unethical, is only what we agree, or disagree with.


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