Saddle Up

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Frederick Wiseman takes on a nude revue in Crazy Horse

By  Cullen Gallagher

A new Frederick Wiseman documentary is usually cause for celebration. Since his 1967 debut, Titticut Follies, he has made a name for himself as one of the most distinctive, innovative and consistently revealing nonfiction filmmakers.

His fly-on-the-wall style is unmistakable. Foregoing traditional narration and interview techniques, Wiseman’s films are characteristically distinguished by his patience and insight, allowing situations to unfold in front of the camera without his interjection. But with Crazy Horse, now playing at Film Forum, the very qualities that have pushed Wiseman’s films to the forefront of his field and revolutionized the art of documentary filmmaking seem to hold him back.

The subject of his film is Paris’ famously chic nude revue, Crazy Horse. With his first shot of a shadow puppeteer contorting his hands into a devil’s face, Wiseman clearly announces one of the major themes of his film: desire and temptation are a performance, an illusion created by light, shadow and the creative contortion of the human body. The rest of the film is devoted to alternating between the backstage and onstage life at Crazy Horse.

Exquisitely composed, Crazy Horse gives viewers a front-row seat to the theater’s show, Désir, one better than any audience member in the club would ever be privy to.

There’s no holding back as Wiseman films the almost entirely nude dancers performing onstage. His camera captures not only the dramatic allure of their performances but the intricate interplay between the colored lights and other decorative veils that contribute to the aura of erotic majesty. Between the swirling of colored lights, the chest- and rump-thrusting choreography and the blasting music, Crazy Horse is a shoe-in for the most colorful and musical documentary of the year.
The majority of the film, however, takes place behind the scenes, with Wiseman unobtrusively observing the rigorous—and decidedly un-erotic—rehearsal process.

Unlike most backstage stories, which emphasize jealousy and competition, Crazy Horse reveals an intricate and finely tuned collaborative mechanism at work—a recurring theme in Wiseman’s films. From the educational system in High School to military procedures in Basic Training, and from the small-town story of Belfast, Maine to the grand and theatrical La Danse (about another French cultural institution, the Paris Opera Ballet), Wiseman is fascinated by the nitty-gritty details of how groups function.

Wiseman’s stars are the organizations themselves. In this sense, he’s a highly democratic storyteller; as such, Crazy Horse is as much about the behind-the-scenes technicians as the more attention-grabbing directors and performers.
Longtime fans of Wiseman’s work will find these themes familiar. In a sense, it is comforting and admirable to see Wiseman sticking to his guns and his aesthetic. In another, however, Crazy Horse seems less complete than his other films. In particular, the backstage/onstage dynamic was better explored in La Danse.

Wiseman’s ear for conversation, which proved so revealing in High School, seems unfocused here in Crazy Horse. We only hear shades of the club’s fabled history, from its creation in 1951 to its new owners and the internal controversy surrounding its latest revue, Désir.

With the exception of a few brief exterior shots of Paris, Crazy Horse takes place entirely inside the theater. Wiseman creates an insular world in which real time doesn’t exist—only showtime. There’s no linear timeline to the narrative, just an ebb and flow between the stage and the dressing room, forever repeating. But at 135 minutes, much of the footage quickly grows repetitive, and the ideas contained within the film cease to develop.

The technical artistry of Crazy Horse certainly distinguish it as one of the more spectacular documentaries we’re likely to see on the big screen this year. But without history or context, the onstage magic loses part of its luster.

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