When documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman makes a movie, his subject is always the immediacy of the Now: There is no past and no future, only the images flickering in front of him. Wiseman is unusual among documentarians in that he plunges into his subjects’ vast waters without the lifeline of context or the crutches of modern documentary formula – talking-head interviews, still photographs, archive footage, narration, title cards and other devices that properly orient viewers into his world.
The style is known as cinema verite, and it’s worked for him for decades, but his latest film, “Crazy Horse,” which opens exclusively at Living Room Theaters at FAU on Friday, reveals the limitations of this approach as much as the strengths.
The Crazy Horse in question is a nude cabaret in Paris, one of the most famous and artistically celebrated striptease shows in the world. The dances often have the technical spectacle of high theatre, complete with character backstories and visionary choreography. During a production meeting, artistic director Philippe Decouflé touts the cabaret as “the best nude dancing show in the world,” one that needs to “impress the intellectuals.”
Wiseman was granted complete access to the Crazy Horse both on and offstage, filming sensual dances and backstage deliberations, the excitement of sophisticated gyrations and the banality of costume tailoring. This titillating example of docu-erotica only works because of this duality, acting as both porny performance film and enlightening documentary about the artistic process. The irony is that there’s nothing more enlightening than the performances themselves, a drastic shift from the modern American concept of the cabaret in every way. In this country, the term has become synonymous with the grimy strip club; see the word “cabaret” and expect to witness mediocre pole-dancing from unseemly middle-aged women with breast implants and a history of abuse.
By contrast, all of the dancers in the Crazy Horse are young, indistinguishable girls-next-door with impressive dance backgrounds and cup sizes that would prohibit them from employment at a Hooter’s. It’s an honor to be selected as a Crazy Horse girl.
Interviewed on-camera by another news source, one of the club’s producers cites classic movie directors Michael Powell (“The Red Shoes”) and Josef von Sternberg (“Shanghai Express”) as influences, and the results reflect a talent and flair that transcends the nudity. In one number, two dancers spin acrobatically in a hanging wheel, awash in kaleidoscopic color as they perform moves that would make circus entertainers envious. The acts are occasionally filmed like works of visual art, such as a sea of buttocks creating an undulating landscape of hills and valleys.
This is all well and good, and it all makes “Crazy Horse” worth seeing. But for Wiseman, the lack of context can be frustrating this time around. The club has a fascinating history dating back to its 1951 inception and the vision of its tormented founder, Alain Bernardin, who committed suicide in 1994. In addition to nude girls, the Crazy Horse also offers an outlet for magicians, jugglers and mimes. And, unfortunately, the striptease show has recently started to book celebrity acts like Pamela Anderson and Carmen Electra for limited engagements, which has undoubtedly hurt its artistic credibility and once-rigorous performance standards. None of this is in Wiseman’s movie, and it could have gone a long way to creating a more complete picture.