Frederick Wiseman Returns to Paris in “Crazy Horse”

by: Sawyer J. Lahr

Note: This post was originally featured on Go Over the Rainbow. You can find the original here.

I can’t pretend to know Frederick Wiseman’s work very well because much of it is only available for educational or private use at a high price point. I can compare his most recent film, Crazy Horse (2012), to the work I have seen by the cadre of filmmakers whose work in the late 1950s and 60s was coined Direct Cinema. Crazy Horse opens at The Music Box Theatre on whose website it explicitly states that no one under 18 is admitted, as if R rated titles for those under 17 were only a suggestion and not an MPAA ratings policy.

With the addition of Crazy Horse, Wiseman completes a trilogy of films about iconic French institutions captured in La Danse – The Paris Opera Ballet and La Comedie – Francaise ou L’Amor Joue. Crazy Horse choreographer, must deliver three new acts in two or three weeks without closing the theater for rehearsals, which is open seven days a week with two shows a night and three on Saturdays. A perfect double feature for Crazy Horse is  the Oscar-nominated, Pina, Wim Wenders 3D spectacular documentary tribute to German choreographer Pina Bausch.

Wiseman Crazy Horse told Indiewire’s Austin Dale that the club has remained highly successful when compared to the Moulin Rouge or Folie Berger. This speaks to choreographer Philipe’s claim that this is the best live nude show in the world. Crazy Horse reminds me of Can Can the musical film from 1960 with Shirley McClaine, Frank Sinatra with Louis Jourdan and the great Maurice Chevalier following their performances two years earlier in Gigi (1958). The women of Crazy Horse wear very little but their costumes are key to the eroticism that raw nudity could never pull off. Crazy Horse choreographer Phillipe takes us to the verge with the same level of artistry achieved by Hermes Pan in Can Can‘s sexy rendition of The Genesis story. Both have glittering flesh-colored costumes, but the dancers inCan Can never had the brilliant soleless stilettos Crazy Horsedancers trot around in.

Wiseman chooses to show each of the show’s segments in their entirety after we’ve seen the shaky rehearsals that build anticipation while exposing the order in chaos or, as his Zipporah films biography states, “the conditions necessary for artistic creation.” At times, Ali, the charming if not overly analytical Artistic Director, incessantly argues with Phillipe, rambles on in interviews with press. This is where the objectivity of Direct Cinema pops shines a light on human nature and gives us the opportunity to laugh at our own expense; reality television banks on these idiosyncrasies.

In the Direct Cinema cannon, Wiseman keeps company with filmmakers, D.A. Pennabaker, Albert Maysles (Gimme Shelter, 1970, Grey Gardens, 1976), Richard Leacock (a cameraman for silent era originating documentarian Robert Flaherty, Nanook of the North), Robert Drew (LIFE magazine) collectively known as the Drew Associates. Their most notable collaboration being the Primary (1960), which documented that year’s presidential primary from inside the campaigns of John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. Between the Drew Associates, they share the credit of developing the 16mm synchronized sound camera and film format and founding the film department at MIT. These pioneers of the non-fiction cinema verite style are thought of today as having produced what is said to be the pre-curser to Reality Television. They produced documentaries known for their “objective” treatment of subjects without engaging in interviews with talking heads, yet not necessarily less verbose.

Putting aside social critic Marshall McLuhan’s theory that “the medium is the message,” Wiseman’s eye for his subjects’ idiosynracies in Crazy Horse is the source humor and conflict. It’s an artistic choice what to film; the camera doesn’t shoot people. People shoot people. Direct Cinema can be characterized by waiting for the opportune moment for conflict to arise or, as in the case of Crazy Horse, for the show to begin.

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