Raw Footage, Raw Knuckles


Watch Picture Me in a forgiving mood, and Sara Ziff’s documentary about her and her friend’s experiences as working models in the pre-recession fashion industry has a freshness to recommend it. Bring any snark or animosity towards the complaints of the considerably more fortunate, and you’ll probably break something before the end. Ziff never lived the life of indentured servitude that younger, non-English speaking models brought to the U.S. endure, though she playacts at sharing their suffering. Her million-dollar eyes do flash true empathy towards her less successful peers now and then. The viewer’s empathy for her, however, strains during the scenes wherein a 20-year-old Ziff signs the mortgage papers on her Bleecker Street loft and looks out at her two billboards on Astor Place. Overall, the film scans like the raw footage of an episode of a PBS P.O.V.; it has the makings of a great one. With an outside perspective, questions of how the industry became so pernicious could have been explored without sounding like Brahmin complaints. But no professionals stepped in to help, which may say as much about the power of the fashion industry as Picture Me does. Too much money would be forfeited by anyone foolish enough to tell every advertiser in America they are to blame for the rape and ruin of countless coltish beauties.

Sara Ziff, self-absorbed in happier days.
Sara Ziff, self-absorbed in happier days.

Ziff, daughter of an N.Y.U. professor and successful New York lawyer, was scouted into the modeling industry at age 14. Unlike most of her peers, she finished high school before becoming a star on runways and billboards. Still, her story is, to some degree, representative. Before she was old enough to know how to sift through the bullshit, she was pedestalled for her beauty and height. Before she could understand those weren’t enough to build a life upon, Ziff was thoroughly blood-let by the fashion industry. The worst indignity we’re shown her suffering is “pizza face” acne from the long nights, longer travel, and heavy makeup. Within her universe, this probably equates with cancer. It’s also an outward manifestation of Ziff’s growing monomaniacal paranoia about the still younger, thinner crop of next year’s models.

Picture Me developed from the narcissistic home videos Ziff and her boyfriend shot, many of which take the form of video blogs. Ziff often speaks straight to the camera about her day—how excited she is by her first six-figure check, how exhausted she’s become by the shows which were once so thrilling, how she needs to figure out what to do next. For all of the immediacy of these monologues, Ziff isn’t talking to her diary. Ziff’s talking to her boyfriend, (director) Ole Schell, who would apparently rather film Ziff crying than sooth her. They’ve since broken up.

In Picture Me, drug use, eating disorders, and egregious sexual violence are, by and large, other models’ problems. This weakens the film. But it’s unreasonable to expect any 20-something, much less one whose job was to embody other people’s expectations, to be unfailingly honest. And Ziff was the only model brave enough to even attempt to chronicle this universe.

Though the film falls short of its promise of exposing the modeling industry, it contains moments of insight. With regard to the ever-shrinking-model phenomenon, Picture Me educates. Much like gymnastics, the starting age for modeling has now dropped significantly below where many girls (especially in Eastern Europe) go through puberty, so half of what looks like anorexia is really pubescent growth spurts. The other half, of course, is older models starving themselves only to discover that they’ll be replaced by rookies anyway, since “new girls” book out more cheaply.

No prescriptions are offered to save fashion from this debilitating cycle (forming a union is never even hinted at), and everyone involved proves an apologist for the industry. Widespread sexual abuse of minors is alluded to, then nervously shrugged off. No one interviewed would acknowledge having an eating disorder, though the camera captured a number of women with the visible raw, red knuckles that signal bulimia.

Now, if only someone would come along and make a movie out of the damn thing.

Note: Any suggestion of drug use in the earlier version of Sarahjane Blum's Brooklyn Rail review of Picture Me: A Model's Diary was simply the reviewer’s opinion based on the images and themes in the film.  Although drug use among models is discussed in the film, there are no scenes showing Ziff, Schell or anyone else using drugs.  We sincerely regret any misunderstanding which may have arisen.

 – B.R.


Sarahjane Blum

Sarahjane Blum knows Green is the New Red.


OCT 2010

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