What do mental institutions, schools, hospitals, law enforcement, military training, the court system, social security, legislature, public housing, sports, the arts and erotic entertainment have in common? Well, one could reasonably argue that they’re fundamental cultural institutions endemic to nearly every society on Earth. Or you could just say that they’re all subjects that have attracted the attention of prolific documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. Since his notorious (if rarely seen) 1967 documentary Titicut Follies, the law-
The latest of Wiseman’s (40-odd) films is Crazy Horse, a coolly artistic examination of the Crazy Horse Saloon. The sexually provocative cabaret spot has been a Parisian institution since 1951. Crazy Horse is famous for presenting an ever-changing, ultrachic stage show filled with nude or seminude dancers. It differs somewhat from the tassel-twirling striptease of modern American burlesque and more closely resembles the topless revues we’re used to seeing on the stages of Las Vegas. The show’s trademark, though, is the innovative use of lighting that projects sharp patterns of light, shadow and color on performers, creating an op art fantasia all its own.
Crazy Horse continues Wiseman’s time-honored style of quiet, unobtrusive documentation. There’s no narration here. No talking-head interviews. Just eyes-open, fly-on-the-wall scrutiny. Wiseman doesn’t look for history or context in his films. His plan is to show up with a camera, shoot for four or five weeks and see where the chips fall. This can be frustrating for some viewers looking for a little more editorial direction.
What little dramatic structure there is develops slowly, in tiny droplets, over the course of the film. Wiseman isn’t interested in injecting an artificial narrative into his films. As a result, we spend a lot of time on the mundane details. His camera is as fascinated by the way a backstage technician meticulously combs and clips a bright red wig as anything else. It’s certainly an accurate evocation of time and place. But at a languid 134 minutes, some tightening probably wouldn’t have hurt.
While watching the performers, directors and technical staff prepare for a new show—auditions, costumes, choreography, lighting changes—we accrue an idea of what the day-to-day life is like here. As you can imagine, it ain’t sexy. It’s work. Front and center at this workplace is Philippe Decouflé, the show’s longtime, long-suffering director. He’s all passion and pride, arguing for his vision against business owners who are very protective of Crazy Horse’s cultural history but equally committed to making money. Decouflé wants the theater to go dark so he can revamp the entire show. The owners want to stay open with the old show and put together the new show at the same time. Counterpointing the laser-focussed Decouflé is garrulous artistic director Ali Mahdavi, an opinionated newbie who comes across as a committed but overeager fanboy of all things Crazy Horse.
Initially, it’s easy to dismiss Mahdavi’s overintellectualizing of the art form or Decouflé’s oh-so-French seriousness. This is, after all, a show in which a bunch of ladies flash their bums to breathy pop tunes. But the reverence with which Wiseman shoots the show’s many routines gives viewers an inkling of the Crazy Horse’s seductive power. Part eros, part dance, part sculpture garden, part winking good humor, the show makes a deft argument for the universal appeal of sexuality, even in its most overtly theatrical form.
Master of composition though he may be, Wiseman occasionally jams his camera too close to the subject at hand. Ogling various well-shaped body parts is obviously a piece of the appeal here. But stage shows are meant to be viewed from a fixed distance. Wiseman’s close-ups further abstract the images, heightening the psychedelic feeling and messing with Le Crazy’s sophisticated continuity of vision. Maybe that’s what he’s going for. Having actually seen a live Crazy Horse show (one of the non-Parisian offshoots, anyway), I can say that Wiseman’s focal length occasionally spoils the dazzling, optical illusory qualities of the stage version.
Spending more time with the dancers might also have given viewers more insight into what drives the Crazy Horse. Are the ladies really the interchangeable mannequins they’re made out to be on stage? Probably not. But we never really hear their side of the story. Although Wiseman’s camera spends a properly voyeuristic amount of time backstage, it’s the show’s directors and producers who emerge as the most fully rounded characters. Then again, the Sturm und Drang (or whatever the French equivalent is) of making a collaborative work of art is what seems to draw Wiseman’s eye.
At the end of the day, you’re left to draw your own intellectual conclusions, RE: sex, art, commerce. Or not. The majority of viewers will be satisfied just to catch a glimpse of the eye-boggling, retro-sexual shenanigans unfolding on the Crazy Horse stage.