Sunday, January 15, 2012

Frederick Wiseman's CRAZY HORSE: world's most famous documentarian explores world's most famous strip joint

The great skill that distinguishes the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman is that this filmmaker is so often able to capture the truth of his subjects via their occupations or endeavors and the skills (or not) with which they practice these. As I recall, this ability dates all the way back to Wiseman's first film in 1967 -- Titticut Follies, in which he and his camera visited the Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Bridgewater, a prison hospital for the criminally insane -- and to the following year's High School and then Hospital (1970), Basic Training ('71), Juvenile Court ('73) and Welfare ('75: most of his titles are utterly self-explanatory) through to his most recent work, La danse - Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris (2009), Boxing Gym (2010) and now CRAZY HORSE, in which Wiseman takes us into the world's most famous strip joint, located, of course, in Paris -- the land of l'amour.

Mr. Wiseman, shown at left, has already tackled two very different icons of French culture: the Paris Opera Ballet (with La danse - Le ballet de l'Opéra de Paris) and La Comédie-Française (in his film La Comédie-Française ou L'amour joué. Now, turning his attention to a perhaps less upper-crust subject, he proves without a doubt, TrustMovies thinks, that the Crazy Horse produces art of its own kind every bit as spectacular and enduring, if not quite so cerebral, as those other two institutions. From the "paradoxysm of eroticism" spoken of as female nude bodies swerve and sway beneath a unique polka-dot lighting design, this movie is something else.

These lighting effects -- ranging from bizarre to bananas -- are as much a part of the art as are the bodies, choreography and (very skimpy) costumes. And Wiseman's camera (using his longtime cinematographer John Davey) catches everything in a manner both on-the-fly and at rapt attention so that you don't want to blink in fear of missing something extraordinary. At one point, I swear that the camera comes in close enough on an undulating crotch to put you in mind of cunnilingus.

But that's the point: Nearly everything at the Crazy Horse -- each tiny movement, teensy costume, fashion-forward wig and formidable body (the accent, as preferred so they say by most Frenchmen, is always on the butt and pelvic area rather than on the breasts) accentuates sex and is nearly guaranteed to turn you on. Bob Fosse must have studied here.

The choreographer and man most important to the show turns out to be Philippe Decouflé (above, left), who is rehearsing his newly-developed show titled DÉSIR (Desire) which made its debut in the fall of 2009 and is still being performed. We and Wiseman watch as the dancers learn their moves, struggle with recalcitrant costumes and lighting effects, and along the way perform parts of the show. We even, toward the end, watch as a new group of dancers auditions for Decouflé and crew. (This is particularly interesting because, by now, having seen so much, we understand what is necessary and so can do a pretty fair job of judging which dancers will make it and which will not.)

We even get conflict -- a "must" for all good dramatic films, which this of course, is not -- as Decouflé struggles with management and the venue's owners over some "down" time for him and his dancers. "To have the best nude dance show, we must close for awhile," he tells them. But the answer is no. The choreographer's perfectionism, coupled to the dancers' draining schedule -- seven days per week, two shows nightly and three on Saturday -- would give our own Radio City Music Hall Rockettes nightmares. (Perhaps it's easier doing a show dedicated to producing hard-ons rather than family entertainment, though the Rockettes have been noted -- unintentionally, of course -- to create both.)

Among the crown jewels of the film is a mirror dance that has orifices appearing where they never could, anatomically speaking. We don't spend too much time, however, with the girls themselves (above: the dancers' dressing rooms are completely off limits to men, so guys, this is a one-time only chance to grab a peek); consequently we can't come to know much about them or their lives (they exist here mostly as perfect bodies and dance machines). But we do hear a little from a couple of Decouflé's underlings, who consider themselves fortunate indeed to be able to work at the Crazy Horse.

As are we, to be able to take in the glories of the feminine form when its gilded with the artful use of light, color, silhouette, and more. This one, a must for the art-house trenchcoat brigade, should find favor with a surprisingly wide spectrum of film-goers and ensure a host of new patrons who'll want to see it all "live" at its home base in Paris.

The film, two-hours-and-fourteen-minutes long, glides by surprisingly fast. From Zipporah Films (Wiseman's own distribution company), Crazy Horse opens this coming Wednesday in New York City at Film Forum for a three-week run, after which it will play some 22 cities throughout the country. For a look at playdates, cities and theaters currently scheduled, click here and then scroll down. Note: Frederick Wiseman will appear in-person at Film Forum on Wednesday, January 18, at the 6:45 show!

All photos are from the film itself, courtesy of Zipporah Films, except that of Mr. Wiseman himself, which is by Montse G. Castillo.

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