Frederick Wiseman’s stance of objectivity—or at least his refusal to offer an explicit authorial commentary—makes the documentarian’s films both richly engaging and perpetually problematic. Whether detailing the day-to-day operations of institutions that he finds intensely troubling (Hospital, Welfare) or celebrating the creative process in more rose-tinted terms in films like La Danse: The Paris Opera Ballet, Wiseman’s refusal to directly interpolate himself into the events being filmed allows a seemingly unfiltered access to the material. At the same time, he risks either, in the case of the “negative” films, exploiting the victims of the bureaucratic nightmares he’s exposing, or, in the more positive works, failing to fully bring to light the less savory aspects of his subject matter.
Perpetually thorny, if uniquely revealing about the microcosmic processes by which the United States—and, in more recent films, France—actually function, Wiseman’s institutional études delight as much as they confound, frustrate, and challenge; in his latest run of movies, it’s the sense of delight that seems to be uppermost in the filmmakers’ mind. In Crazy Horse, the director documents the day-to-day existence of and the creative process behind the eponymous Parisian cabaret house, famous for its artfully choreographed, impeccably danced nude burlesques. As the club’s costume designer explains, the show is designed “to make the men in the audience crazy,” and while Wiseman’s performance-heavy film certainly basks in the artful deployment of naked flesh (in one sequence going so far as to isolate the performers’ buttocks), it gives the lie to the simplistic notions inherent in this figure’s definition of the Crazy Horse’s mission, even as it never fully challenges her assumptions.
To be sure, there’s little doubt that Wiseman’s camera (operated by longtime associate John Davey) loves the performances on display—and why not? Whether it’s a single dancer writhing longingly and limberly across a couch to the tune of Antony and the Johnsons’ “Man Is the Baby” or a group number in which a row of women in orange wigs wiggle while a projector spreads blue polka dots across their bodies, the performances are an intoxicating mix of ballet, performance art, and striptease, resulting in an art form whose legitimacy the film is content to take as a given. What’s slightly troubling in all this is that the only verbal commentary allotted any of the principal players goes to several of the group’s artistic directors, who explain in a series of interviews with the local media that the show is a celebration of some sort of Platonic notion of female beauty and a way for women to own their eroticism. Both of these register as somewhat dubious claims, the former because it seems an inherently sexist notion and is belied by the personality expressed by individual performers in the group’s more successful pieces, the latter because there’s nothing particularly empowering about, for example, a number where a handful of otherwise unseen women wave their asses in the air.
But Wiseman didn’t make 39 films—nearly all in the same faux-objectivist style—without learning how to communicate reservations and ambiguities in less explicit ways. Perhaps above any other thematic concerns, Crazy Horse is the story of the interplay of commerce and art, the possibility of the latter always reliant on the support of the former. In one scene, the group’s director expresses a desire to close the club for a temporary period of time in order to have the occasion to perfect the show, only to be told in no uncertain terms that the shareholders will never agree to the loss of profits that such a move would entail. In more subtle ways, too, we see the necessity of raising every possible penny, whether it’s the selling of chintzy merchandise, the placing of champagne on each table, or the preparation of photographs taken of every customer and then sold back as souvenirs. These little glimpses are part of Wiseman’s strategy of offering tiny peaks of off-the-beaten path activity as a way of deepening the portrait of the institution. While the film’s focus remains explicitly tied to the performers and the artistic directors, the longer scenes are punctuated throughout by views of the less glamorous behind-the-scenes activity that helps sustain the club, whether it’s of people sewing costumes or working in the kitchen.
Finally, the director introduces one sequence that neatly deglamorizes the cabaret act and brings to the forefront the more depersonalizing aspects of this particular creative process. Staging a series of auditions, the club’s directors ask the would-be performers to strip down and dance a one-minute free-form act to Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” the entire point of which we’re told is to assess the women’s bodies rather than their dancing skills. Later, the directors have the women line up in a row while they instruct them to stick out their asses and go on to discuss the auditioners’ relative physical merits among themselves. Reading intentionality is never easy—or necessarily useful—in considering the films of Frederick Wiseman, but this sequence feels like an act of exposure every bit as damning as the responsibility-abjuring bureaucracy on display throughout Welfare or the conformity-stifling atmosphere conjured up in Basic Training. And, yet, as the film makes clear, the auditions are a necessary part of the show’s process. If we enjoy what we see in the polished, final performances, then we have to accept the less savory aspects of the procedure every bit as much as the glamorous opening-night display. It’s an uncomfortable realization that Wiseman forces on us, but what makes his films so productive is that they’re never the passive recordings they often seem at first blush to be, but always dynamic interrogations that implicate the viewer in their challenged assumptions—even when that same viewer is being asked to simultaneously bask in the beauty of what the director puts on screen.