The nature of burlesque performance inspires a certain level of voyeurism from it's audience and Fredrick Wiseman's latest offering gives us a peeping Tom's view of the on-stage and backstage happenings at Le Crazy Horse de Paris theater, as it prepares for a new 60th anniversary revue. Crazy Horse, (2011) played to a sold-out audience on Monday night, which was the Special Event at the New York Film Festival for the evening. Unfortunately the filmmaker was not present for an introduction or post Q&A. Apparently he is in Paris, but nonetheless, his presence was felt through his signature style of filmmaking.
Through Crazy Horse, Wiseman takes in the artistic process by witnessing the creatives and talents behind the erotic Parisian cabaret and he does so thoughtfully. Crazy Horse's dancers, crew and production members rehearse and argue to make the new show, Desire, to be about just that. As Andrée Deissenberg, Managing Director of the Crazy Horse, claims the new show depicts varying levels of desire including restraint and it shows in the performances. The numbers aren't stripper club raunch, but artistically beautiful. Interestingly cinematographer, John Davey chose extreme close-ups of the dancers torsos and other anatomical areas for certain performances. Davey and Wisemen linger on some of these shots without so much as a face or head attached. Some felt almost uncomfortable because of that, but never without beauty. The camera made the most of a show which relies heavily and effectively on gel lights and shadow.
And all that being said about the actual performance numbers, I felt Crazy Horse isn't so much about the end product as it is about the getting there. Some of the most fascinating scenes are between Ms. Deissenberg, Philippe Decouflé, the Production Director and Ali Mahdavi, the Creative Director. Whether it was heated discussion over artistic vision versus the voice of the financiers or conveying that vision to the press in promoting the upcoming revue, these are the moments that make theater and film one of the few truly important collaborative art forms in existence, and in my mind why they are so powerful. Also riveting to watch.
There are wonderful bits of humor scattered throughout. The passionate talks over costuming or whispered opinions on audition dancers as they stand topless in a line on stage for inspection, is as much funny as it is interesting. The perfectionism that is required in a production like this continues to reveal itself in these sorts of sequences. A particularly humorous scene is about the patrons of the Crazy Horse show, which consists of a wonderful montage of the house photographer snapping photos of couples, friends and family in attendance. The scene follows with hilarious images of the pictures being uploaded onto a computer, scrolled through, chosen and printed so audience members can purchase a keepsake of their experience. These aren't a bunch of college frat boys or dirty old men. They are mostly couples of all ages and some look to be on vacation from North Dakota.
The camera is ever present to the crew as well, including Wardrobe, Hair and Make-up departments during pre-show preparations along with the performers in various stages of dress, hopping in and out of their dressing rooms, as dancers do, without any sort of self-consciousness. These scenes are quiet in a sense. It seems unusual anymore to have a film where scenes are without dialogue or accompanying music to "enhance" a series of shots. Wiseman doesn't really add a score that isn't source music either, such as the music that is part of a performance; nor does the director add titles of any sort, which is again unusual. Much of the time, documentaries need easy and straight forward explanations to offer essential but brief context. Crazy Horse takes its time and allows the characters to reveal enough information to keep you in the loop.
As Federick Wiseman says, he tries to look at contemporary life as it is expressed in institutions. It's a commonality in all societies, whether a hospital or a cabaret theater. They all have a process to invent and conform to. Watching that process is fascinating, especially done through the eyes and fine editing by Mr. Frederick Wiseman. If you like this documentarian, you'll like his 39th film, Crazy Horse. Opens nationwide in January 2012.