|Documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman is the filmmaking equivalent to the person who works the same job for decades, remains unassuming and workmanlike, never moving to the front and center, and essentially showing up every day, punching in/punching out, and then heading on home. Wiseman is not all that well known by most moviegoers and he has never been nominated for an Oscar or experienced a box office hit, but remains prolific and distinctive and influential. His style is the direct definition of observational and Wiseman, now 82 years old, has made 41 films in his extraordinary career, all which largely embody the same set of rules he has employed from the beginning.
Wiseman notoriously selects subjects to document and does next to no preparation beforehand. He spends several weeks with his subject(s) and does nothing more than simply shoot film. Wiseman becomes immersed in his subject for the time he spends with them and then typically has more than 100 hours of footage to review, edit, and mold into a 2 hour film. There are rarely, if ever, any talking head interviews, never any narration, and Wiseman just observes the happenings. He is a filmmaker I am woefully inadequate to speak about because I have seen just a couple of his films, despite all of them being broadcast by PBS through his own film production company, Zipporah Films. With his latest film Crazy Horse, I am compelled to seek out more of his work.
Crazy Horse is nothing more or less than a 130 minute look at a famed Parisian cabaret of the same name, which has the distinction of being the finest nude cabaret in the world. In existence since 1951, the Crazy Horse cabaret has seen the best of times and the worst of times and was sold by the family of its creator, Alain Bernardin, to Belgian owners a few years back, who have steered the fortunes of the club back in the right direction financially and creatively.
Since Frederick Wiseman makes the viewers sort through and create their own context for what they are observing, Crazy Horse may seem jarring, not simply because of the unflinching nudity on display but also because we are watching dance numbers, rehearsals, people arguing in French and English, all within the first 10 minutes. What Crazy Horse, and Wiseman’s films in general, require is patience, as well as an understanding that Wiseman from the presumption that if you have taken the time to watch his film, you must possess a vested interest in said subject, and will spend the time necessary to explore that topic with him.
In this environment, we learn that the Crazy Horse cabaret is in a bit of a crossroads and its director, Philippe, is aggravated with the Crazy Horse Board of Directors and their hesitancy in giving him the budget, scope, and grandeur he demands to make Le Crazy reach heretofore unseen heights. A little digging informed me that Philippe was a former Cirque du Soleil dancer and choreographer and he brings a fairly impressive resume to that of which he speaks. However, Crazy Horse is a business and these debates are interesting in hindsight with better and more defined context.
I would never profess to speak to Wiseman’s process as being good or bad, as clearly with nearly 50 years of filmmaking and more than 40 films to his credit, Frederick Wiseman has forgotten more about film than I could ever hope to learn. At times, Crazy Horse beats the same drum over and over again as dancers dance, the directors direct, and we observe the backstage happenings with dancers preparing for their performances.
Without forcing any issue, we never get to hear from the very subjects of the film, i.e. the dancers. One fascinating sequence involving the women of Le Crazy is the audition process where we learn that to be on stage at the club, you must retain a specific look – from tops to tails, if you will, and while we see what it takes externally to be a performer at Crazy Horse, we never gain a sense of what it takes mentally to succeed there. The dancers ever, if rarely, speak, other than to one another, and while you want to believe that the dancers are all on board with everything, it would add great weight to the film to have their conversations, feelings, and sensibilities shared for us watching.
Crazy Horse has inherently a limited audience and those who spend the time with it will likely find a lot of interest in watching such a provocative show, dubbed “nude chic”, stripped of its eroticism and clinically deconstructed into something that seems like just another job. For those who stumble on to it, and I would imagine this may not be aired on PBS like most, if not all, of Wiseman’s other films, Crazy Horse may seem overly long, boring, and rudderless.
Watching Crazy Horse, I fell in and out of favor with the film and found its 130 minutes a limiting factor in fully embracing Wiseman’s work. However, the approach and the feel of the film is intriguing and I am quite interested in experiencing more of what exists on Frederick Wiseman’s resume because of this film. Not for everyone and absolutely far less titillating than one may be expecting based on the subject matter, Crazy Horse is a unique documentary which may be some of Wiseman’s lesser work, but what appears to be, from all accounts, a worthy contribution to the filmmaker’s simple dedication of turning over the rocks of the human experience from all corners of the planet.