Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Feb 12, 2012 3:05 pm 
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A Paris cultural institution filtered through the Wiseman lens

Frederick Wiseman is of course a venerable and admired American documentary filmmaker who has been at work ever since he turned from teaching and research to making movies in 1967. He has tackled many subjects and shown a preference for public institutions or collective experiences, a high school, a mental institution, police department, basic training in the Army. He denies that his work is purely "observational" or neutral. He selects and organizes his material. More about that later. One point: there is no narration, and their are no explanatory inter-titles. What you learn is what the people on camera tell you, nothing more. Now that he is in his early eighties, Wiseman has recently turned his attention to the Paris Opera Ballet, a boxing gym, and, in the current release, the Paris topless cabaret known as Crazy Horse. "The Crazy Horse," says its publicity, "offers the most beautiful nude spectacle in the world."

As with the Paris Opera Ballet, Wiseman focuses on the team at work, the planning and practicing aspects, and is less interested in the "spectacle" as the audience, plied in this case with expensive champagne in large dramatic glass coolers, would see it. These are bits and pieces mostly and indeed highly selective ones. We immediately see how the show looks. The stage is small. The girls are shapely. They are often seen in silhouette or in profile or with an overlay of polka dots projected to place the viewer at one remove from their nudity. It's pretty, it's aesthetically pleasing, and it's always accompanied by a song, recorded music, not live, generally made in a studio for the 90-minute show, usually in English, sometimes with the performers lip synching. The eroticism is ever-present, but achieves its effect by teasing.

Les filles, the girls, as they're called, French-speaking but multi-national ("the Russians are the best," one staff member says), are uniformly young and nubile, with short hair and small -- they must be small -- but well-formed breasts. Sopha Loren or Marilyn Monroe would not have qualified. They don't have to be very pretty or perfectly proportioned. They need to fit together and know how to present themselves as beautiful. Painstakingly constructed beauty, the artistic director says at one point, is more useful and lasting than natural beauty. The "shows" put much emphasis on their derrieres and at tryouts for new girls the applicants are asked to stick this part of their anatomy out. The costume person tells one girl the beautiful shiny silver skirt she loves is going to have to be changed because it doesn't make her butt look smooth and round enough under the bright lights. Whether the costumes are simple and minimal or elaborate, like a military one with helmets and lots of belts and straps, the butts and busts are always bare. It would be silly to pretend that the intent is not to arouse the viewer, and women in the audience are aroused as much as the men, one female staff member comments. But the movements of the girls are not so much sexual or suggestive as sensual and beautiful.

This might seem a huge shift from the ballet. The girls, though well trained and scrupulously tested, are more like strip bar pole dancers than classically trained ones. They sway and twist sensuously and kick and turn in unison and do splits, but they don't move much around the stage, which is small. However, Crazy Horse has something very French about it, (though similar but bigger shows have been put on for years in Las Vegas as well as the Moulin Rouge in Paris). The Crazy Horse is a Paris institution, and has existed since 1951. Everything about Crazy Horse is restrained and chic. The staff and the girls take themselves very seriously and they work very hard.

This is true of Philippe Decouflé, the choreographer and the first person we spend time with, who declares that he loves his work and who has done it for some time. He seems a little frustrated by constraints of time and style. A more recent arrival is the hairless and young and very gay Ali Mahdavi, the artistic director. Aly's exact function seems harder to define, but he makes clear Crazy Horse is his obsession and his mission, and he thinks it such a key institution, such a touchstone to French culture, the French government should require all visitors to France to attend a Crazy Horse show. (Apparently a fair number of well heeled first-timers indeed do that, including a Crazy Horse evening with their visits to the Louvre and Eiffel Tower; but this is not information the film provides details about.) Mahdavi has been a fashion designer, illustrator, and photographer. He ranks Crazy Horse with Yves Saint Laurent among his cultural idols. Decouflé focuses on the movements. Someone else focuses on the music, someone else on the costumes, others on the lighting and stage management, and Mahdavi looks at how it all works together and adds finishing touches. He is also the most delirious spokesman for Crazy Horse, both in French and English.

Decouflé insists at a meeting that he needs more time to complete the new show, a series of performances entitled Désirs, or Desire. As in Wiseman's Paris Ballet, we observe a staff meeting, where disagreements are expressed, though this time the topics are less substantial and the results less conclusive. Clearly there's a gentle jousting for control among the various specialists and pecking order and seniority are key factors. We see the girls preparing and wandering around from dressing room to practice to stage, but we don't get to see them in many very private moments, though we do see them watch videos of new routines and comment knowledgeably on errors in the choreography and the lighting.

There is something clinical about Crazy Horse, as there was about the Paris Opera film. Wiseman and his crew filter and edit well. But they don't seem to have achieved deep rapport. The films are as cold and elegant as the cabaret's eroticism. Missing is a sense of what others may think. The Wiseman crew was let in for ten weeks of filming, and they behaved as correctly as the girls (who, by the way, do not like performances that require them to touch each other). Wiseman gives us the surface of things. What about the audience? Aren't they exploited, as the girls are? We'll have to look elsewhere for that information.

Crazy Horse debuted at Toronto September 11, 2011. It debuted in New York January 18, followed by a national roll-out. Screened for this review at Cinema Village in NYC Feb. 11, 2012.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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