From Crazy House to Crazy Horse

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Courtesy Antoine Poupel/Zipporah Films.

For the past 30 years, seminal documentarian Frederick Wiseman has focused his films on the hidden worlds of institutions both ordinary and extraordinary, both glamorous and depressingly debased: mental institutions; Neiman Marcus, a department store in Dallas, Texas; the American Ballet Theater; and Atlanta’s Yerkes Primate Research Center.

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In his devastating breakthrough film Titicut Follies (1967)—his cinema verite masterpiece—Wiseman offered a harrowing, repellent look at the degrees of run-of-the-mill sadism, debasement, and powerlessness experienced by the patients at the state-run Massachusetts Correctional Institution Bridgewater. At that distinctly soulless prison for the criminally insane, the doctors were most often the tormentors and potentates. Wiseman’s examination of power laid the groundwork for every muckraking documentarian to follow, from Michael Moore to Errol Morris and Joe Berlinger/Bruce Sinofsky.

Wiseman gives us the grown-up version of those fascinating Sesame Street films on factories and how things work, allowing his audience to voyeuristically camp out alongside his camera which roams seemingly unencumbered with the will and voracity of a technological python into the storage rooms, employee break rooms, and hidden spaces that lurk behind every facade. Wiseman’s focus is the private workings of public institutions we may think we know. His approach is pleasure and pain mixed up into one complex whole: democratic and deeply curiosity-sating.

Wiseman’s latest curtain-lifting for a peek at hidden worlds, Crazy Horse, follows the dancers, choreographers, lingerie designers, management, technicians, and customers who circulate around a glittering nude dance club for the international glitterati: Paris’s naked lady institution, Le Crazy Horse, established in 1951. With visuals that suggest a cross between Weimer-era Germany, an ’80s-era Nagel poster of white flesh and Ferrari lips, and the set design of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, the aesthetics of the Crazy Horse flirt with eroticism and absurdity. Women don flame-orange wigs, rubber tap pants, and space suits and occasionally even create puppy-dog shadow puppets behind a theatrical scrim, all for the delight of their audience of tourists, May-December couples, canned-ham pairs of businessmen, and good-timing sophisticates slumming at the girly show.

Courtesy Antoine Poupel/Zipporah Films.

The film places delightful focus on the behind-the-scenes innards of the burlesque institution, but also the outties: the dance numbers themselves, with their fetishistic delight in figure-eight bottoms, champagne-stem legs, ridiculous Europop music, and bodies treated like film screens for an array of psychedelic light shows.

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The bizarre dance numbers with their daisy chains of identically clad women often evoke Fritz Lang’s people rendered as machines in his dystopian factory flick, Metropolis, or the female bodies arranged with mechanical precision and uniformity in ’30s choreographer Busby Berkeley’s films. Even the Surrealists with their preference for abstracted female bodies—they have nothing on Wiseman’s peek into Le Crazy, a place where women are fascinating automatons of continual metronomic movement, a perpetual ticktock of posteriors in motion. The ass seems the focal point of the majority of the Crazy Horse numbers which craft it into a perpetually surveyed, hypnotic object that begins to disassociate from the bodies themselves and becomes like the swirling vortex in a Hitchcock film. Deny the ass at your own peril, the Crazy Horse demands.

As with nearly all of Wiseman’s films, Crazy Horse is a narcotic, fly-on-the-wall immersion in the rhythms and predilections of a peculiar industry. In rehearsals and in behind-the-scenes dressing rooms, we see a charming camaraderie between the dancers. In one segment they watch a highbrow variant on America’s Funniest Home Videos: bloopers of Russian ballerinas taking nose dives onto slippery stages. Like snuff films for dancers, they are visions of what they fear most: public humiliation.

Courtesy Antoine Poupel/Zipporah Films.

Crazy Horse is also, for devotees of how other realities function, chock full of strange and surprising revelations. We learn, for instance, that the dancers, despite spending their evening hours arranging their nude bodies for their audience’s delectation, are exceedingly modest. Most, their Leon Trotsky crazy-haired choreographer notes, prefer acts where they are not asked to touch each other or simulate lovemaking with their fellow dancers. From the sixtysomething Little Bo Peep lingerie mistress in platinum locks and sailor dress to the girls themselves, Le Crazy Horse is treated like an aging, well-regarded dowager.

Institutions are often nefarious and strange in Wiseman’s worldview, but in Crazy Horse there is a shocking reverence and respect. For devotees of this place, they are no less than practitioners of erotic high art breathing the heady fumes of creativity and show biz. For that reason, the dancers themselves are cherished, complimented, and coddled in a way that’s hard not to admire. One walks away with a sense of European reverence for making life’s experiences, including a night at the girly show, into a thing of beauty, devotion, and adoration.

The film Crazy Horse is currently on view in Atlanta at Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.

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