As a time slice of 1969 Los Angeles, California, Model Shop is a flawless documentary of Gary Lockwood parking his car, getting out, doing stuff, getting back in his car, and taking off again. He does it literally dozens of times in the course of this day-in-the-life movie. Sunset Boulevard, Hollywood, Selma, Melrose, Pico, La Brea, and back to Sunset. These driving, parking, and driving off again sequences, often set to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach or the rock band Spirit, are certainly enough of a reason to see the film. When the story moves inside, the acting tends to get sophomoric and the dialogue wanders toward cliché.
George Matthews (Gary Lockwood) is a 26-year-old architecture school dropout who lives with his breezy blonde girlfriend, Gloria (Alexandra Hay), in a Los Angeles bungalow beside an oil derrick. Their haphazard abode is in the flight path of the airport, and jet noise frequently rattles the neighborhood. Gloria is an aspiring actress whose career goal is to appear in television commercials for bubble bath. “Not just foam, but real bubbles,” she says. George is out of work and trying to find a hundred dollars to keep his sports car from being repossessed by the finance company. He drives around in his antique MG convertible coupe (with 1952 “suicide doors” that open backward) all over LA. He starts absently following a wispy brunette in a white dress and white Mercury. George bites his fingernails and smokes cigarettes, but is an otherwise very laid-back guy, almost a human blank, an Everyman in shock. He visits a musician friend, who has the band Spirit playing in his living room, and easily borrows the hundred. The world is cool. There are sirens but no cops. People work or they don’t, and it’s all cool. George gives a hippie chick a ride, and she rolls him a joint. Bach and rock are in the air. Some buddies even offer him a job in their “underground” newspaper office. Unwashed and uncaring, our hero bops around in tennis shoes, jeans and black T-shirt, dressed for a day in dropout paradise. This is the good life. Top-down in a hardtop world.
When George spies the brunette in white again, he follows her to the model shop of the title. In a massage-parlor-style arrangement, the shop offers male customers a chance to photograph “models” in various stages of undress for $12 per 15 minutes (film included). The brunette, Lola (Anouk Aimée), is a divorced model who is saving money to return to her native France, and every dollar counts. By spending his money on lingerie shoots, George has doomed his MG to the finance company, but it’s okay now, because he thinks he’s in love. As if this day isn’t busy enough, George learns that he’s supposed to report to his draft board in two days. He is bored and antsy, having not driven his car for ten whole minutes. After several pages of expository dialogue, George and Lola become friends and then lovers. He leaves her his remaining funds and jumps in his car, heading for a future in the Vietnam War. When he gets home to the oil derrick shack, he finds that Gloria has left him, his car is being towed away, and Lola has left for France. What a day! What a day it’s been.
The 30-year-old Gary Lockwood had just appeared in 2001: A Space Odyssey and had missed out on a role in TV’s Star Trek. His dropout George Matthews is perfect, and he carries the whole picture (in his car). Anouk Aimée was the only member of the cast who spoke French like the director, Jacques Demy, which may explain why her role seems to have some direction. The 38-year-old actress had appeared in another good-life film, Fellini’s La Dolce Vita (1960), and had played a Lola before in Lola (1961). The publicity for Model Shop describes the leads as “the woman from A Man and a Woman and the man from 2001.” Demy had just hit the world with his all-singing all-too-cute The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) and The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) and was expected to direct great things. Alas, it was not to be. One gets the feeling that Model Shop was not what Columbia Pictures had in mind. Everyone else, including Alexandra Hay and the band members of Spirit, seem to be walking through a high school play.
The poster for Model Shop reads, “MAYBE TOMORROW. MAYBE NEVER. MAYBE.” It could have said, “Maybe so. Maybe not. Maybe we’ll make a movie.” And the point of it all? Well, there may not be a point. Or maybe that’s the point. The pointlessness being the point. Whatever. It’s about a guy and his car. It’s a lot slower than other a-guy-and-his-car movies, like Vanishing Point or Two-Lane Blacktop, but those films don’t have LA traffic and parking spaces. The closest comparison might be the 1968 Peter Bogdanovich film, Targets, which is actually about a guy-and-his-car-and-his-guns in the Valley, but also features regular shots of parking. In fifty years, history professors, yet unborn, are going to run footage of Model Shop in order to better understand 1969 Los Angeles or Vietnam-era America or 20th Century transportation. But they’ll use the romantic interludes for bathroom breaks.
MODEL SHOP (Columbia Pictures, 1969), Dir Jacques Demy. Gary Lockwood, Anouk Aimée, Alexandra Hay, Tom Fielding, Neil Elliott. Color. 97 min.